Garden communities – the sustainable dream or car-dependent nightmare?

Rather than being centred on sustainable transport, it looks like garden communities are to become car-based commuter estates just like any other – exactly what the government wanted to avoid.”

This is the conclusion of a recent report from Transport for New Homes, which examined plans for 20 garden communities around England.

The government’s vision for new garden communities, as set out in their 2018 Garden communities prospectus, is for “vibrant, mixed-use, communities where people can live, work, and play for generations to come – communities which view themselves as the conservation areas of the future. Each will be holistically planned, self sustaining, and characterful.”

But rather than the self-contained communities where there is minimal need to travel, the Transport for New Homes report warns England’s new garden communities are at risk of becoming car-dependent commuter estates – exactly what they are supposed to supersede.

Vision vs reality

Sustainable living, with walking, cycling and public transport playing a key role, is central to the vision of garden communities. Indeed, the documentation for each of the communities highlighted “very encouraging” intentions according to the report. Despite these visions, however, almost every garden community examined focused on major road improvements to accommodate the expected huge rise in car use:

  • around half of garden communities studied were associated with new or bigger motorway junctions
  • 90% of garden community plans appeared to be associated with road capacity increases
  • a popular model for garden towns was new estates on a new ring road. This was chosen rather than extending the town along joined up streets for easy walking or cycling into the town centre
  • a number of garden community locations appear to be actually selected to finance a new bypass or other new ‘strategic’ link

The researchers estimated that the 20 communities examined would create up to 200,000 households dependent on car use.

Far from the government’s vision of self-contained communities, “the vast majority of garden communities appeared to be put forward on the basis of fast travel out.”

Clearly, these results are at odds with the intended vision. According to the report, there were two main problems with the plans: building in the wrong location and around the wrong kind of transport.

Opportunity missed?

With the recent recalibration of how people live and work, the need for great places to live is even stronger than ever. The current pandemic has placed a new emphasis on walking and cycling, with the benefits of living more locally coming to the fore. It has certainly accelerated more sustainable and equitable trends – to which garden communities, in the intended sense, are ideally suited.

But while new cycle lanes have been popping up in urban centres along with wider pavements in a quick response to the situation, the planned garden villages were found to be largely unsuitable for walking and cycling as a result of their remote location, layout and lack of safe routes in and out; despite active travel being an aim for almost every case.

Every vision also recognised public transport but were found to fail in delivery. Only one garden community was in walking distance of a station.

A lack of committed funding for place-making, sustainable transport and active travel, it is suggested, “may well mean any transformational potential is lost”.  Could this be a real missed opportunity to move away from the old way of place-making and embrace a new sustainable norm?

Consequences

The report warns that there are several consequences to continuing with the current proposals:

  • layout for cars not pedestrians
  • lack of green environment
  • expensive for those on low incomes
  • local shops and businesses don’t open
  • higher carbon emissions
  • inactive lifestyles; more stress
  • isolation
  • you have to be able to drive
  • parking city, not garden city, with parking taking the place of garden and public space
  • money wasted

Clearly these are undesirable outcomes. It is therefore suggested that continuing along the current path risks putting the garden community visions in jeopardy. But, the report argues, there is another way.

Way forward

It is argued that there is a need for integration of sustainable transport and land use planning so they are no longer treated separately, inhibiting the coordination of new homes along public transport corridors. A change in transport funding is also called for.

The report makes several recommendations to achieve the garden community vision:

  • Complete overhaul of planning so that sustainable transport and new homes come together.
  • Build in the right places for sustainable transport.
  • Make the funding of sustainable transport a priority.
  • Transfer funds for roads to funds for sustainable transport – be modern!
  • Change the way we assess the benefits of transport infrastructure.
  • Streets and pavements; cycle networks – design new places with layouts for pedestrians and cyclists, and public transport routes, stops and stations.
  • Quality low rise flats, mix of houses. More green, less tarmac, less space lost to parking.

Perhaps the government’s proposals for reform of the planning system will help the true garden community vision come to life. Indeed, some of the proposals have been welcomed, particularly in relation to simplifying the system to enable more homes to be built. Others, however, have been criticised with concerns raised over measures to speed up new housebuilding not resulting in well-designed, sustainable places. With the consultation due to close next week, it remains to be seen whether the reforms will ultimately do enough for the garden village ideal to be realised.


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