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Garden cities for the 21st Century?

8th April 2013

by Kate Houghton

Kate Houghton explains why Smart Growth, rather than a revival in garden cities, could have an important role to play in tackling current environmental as well as social challenges ...

Smart Growth offers opportunities to reduce greenhouse emissions and nurture thriving cities

It is widely accepted that England is in the midst of a housing crisis. The economic instability of the last 4 years has revealed that the massive house price inflation celebrated in the early and mid-2000s was an unsustainable boom which, after the credit dried up, has left many excluded from the housing market. 

In 1997 the ratio of median earnings to median house price in England was 3.54; by 2012 this had almost doubled to 6.74.  

Post credit crunch banks are nervous about lending, and are only doing so on the basis of large deposits which are far out of reach for a huge number of potential buyers; the Government has been forced to step in with proposals for a controversial guarantee scheme as announced in last month's Budget that will back up smaller deposits.

In the meantime, the many potential buyers excluded from the market mean that the private rented sector is growing. Although this isn't necessarily a bad thing, the sector in England is notoriously insecure, and we don't need research to show that at the bottom end of the market standards can be extremely poor to say the very least.

With far reaching cuts across Government, the supply of new affordable homes has also stalled. Central Government grants are no longer available for homes for social rent; only ‘affordable rents' set at 80% of the market rate. Even the availability of this funding is in serious doubt beyond the current programme's expiry in March 2015.  

And the number of new-build affordable homes that can be hoped for as part of planning agreements on private development sites is under threat. That's because renegotiations encouraged by Government water-down, or remove entirely, requirements to provide a proportion of below market-rate housing as part of new housing planning permissions. 

Do these issues matter for the environmental movement?


Housing is the single greatest demand on land, is one of the highest contributors to carbon emissions, and is resource hungry in its construction. Good housing can contribute significantly to the quality and integrity of the natural environment.  Bad housing, on the other hand, can not only be disastrous now, but has the potential to make it much more difficult to deal with future environmental challenges.

Of serious risk at falling into this latter category are remedies to the housing crisis which to date have piqued the Government's interest - a matter of serious concern to CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England). 

Chief among these remedies is a new generation of Garden Cities and Suburbs. In March 2012 the Prime Minister David Cameron espoused the opportunities offered by these, stating that the Government wanted to explore "how to apply the principles of garden cities to areas with high potential growth, in places people want to live".  

His ambition is supported by explicit support for "garden city principles" in new national planning guidance. Some elements of the garden cities model are no doubt attractive, not least the emphasis on high quality design and community ownership. The garden cities lobby has, however, failed to answer questions about how its model will meet 21st century challenges. 

The original garden cities and suburbs, conceived in the early 20th century, were built on the principle of all the "advantages of the town" but with the "beauty and delights of the country". This was an understandable reaction against the dirty, industrial cities of the day, from which advertising campaigns for the new garden cities lured many of those who could afford to leave.

This reaction manifested itself in low density places, with houses surrounded by generous plots of land.  However, as car ownership expanded in step with the completion of garden cities and suburbs, they became characterised by car dependency, like many other low density towns and suburbs built and expanded throughout the 20th century. 

The contemporary debate about garden cities seems at least in part to mirror the circumstances in which the idea was originally borne - the Urban Renaissance agenda of the last Government saw huge strides taken in the revival of our post-industrial towns and cities.  

But unimaginatively applied policies designed to increase brown-field reuse and development density, combined with a booming buy-to-let market in inner city apartments, produced in the 2000s an unfortunate side effect - a massive increase in the proportion of new homes that were flats.  

This has led to what many believe to be an undersupply in ‘family housing', while many of those newly built flats remain unsold because demand collapsed from 2008 onwards. These failures in application of policy have, in some quarters, caused a strong reaction against the idea of compact, urban living, as all too often the assumption is that it equates to high rise flats. 

The revival of garden city ideas is therefore perhaps unsurprising, proposing as they did a wholesome and healthy alternative to life in the dirty, industrial cities.  Except of course today's post-industrial cities are very different creatures to their equivalents of 100 years ago. And with investment in urban design and architecture, compact communities do not have to mean small, high rise flats.

And the challenges that new housing provision must take account of now are naturally very different. As the Earth's population grows the impact of our finite land space accommodating more and more people is keenly understood. In this context housing must play its role in minimising and mitigating climate change.  

Meeting these challenges will mean significantly reducing people's need to travel, and where necessary to maximising opportunities to travel sustainably. This is why CPRE is arguing that rather than a new generation of garden cities, we need the Government to invest in Smart Growth. 

Smart Growth is an approach to development that tackles issues like housing, land use, sense of place, transport and community in the round. It builds on the best elements of town planning practice from the UK and countries such as Germany, and has already been used to powerfully address North America's urban sprawl and car dependency.  

It is about empowering local authorities to adopt and deliver on principles for development that support growth, but ensure that land is used efficiently and sustainably.

There isn't a single master plan or design for Smart Growth. It is about using land wisely, and creating new, compact and thriving communities. And of course the benefits of compact communities do not stop at environmental ones.  

Research has shown that living closer together results in more opportunities for social interaction (in the context of people increasingly living alone), easier access to essential services, and even economic benefits for businesses which benefit from a critical mass of potential employees and customers. 

So given the pressing need for homes and jobs, why are we not already investing in Smart Growth? Undoubtedly there are challenges to be overcome, just two of which include addressing popular misconceptions about compact communities and family living, and pressure from parts of the development industry to allow access to cheaper green-field sites.  

Investment in design will be crucial to convince people that Smart Growth is not just about high-rise flats. CPRE London's Family Housing shows that that good design combined with higher densities can achieve a mix of housing types, and all important private and public green spaces, which meet the needs of different sections of the community. 

Leadership from central and local Government will also be needed to push developers to use more sustainable sites for new housing.  This means prioritising brown-field reuse, and only using green-field sites when absolutely necessary, and when there are good connections to existing communities and infrastructure.

Whether by design through new garden cities or off-plan speculative development, making it easier for developers to increase their profits by using cheaper green-field sites might be tempting in testing economic circumstances. In the long run, though, this will just result in further unnecessary sprawl. 

The housing challenge is upon us, with many excluded from the market and many stuck in poor quality and inappropriate homes. Smart Growth offers opportunities for the environment if we can bring it to fruition - opportunities to reduce greenhouse emissions; to add to rather than detract from the beauty of natural landscapes; to mitigate the likely impacts of climate change; and to nurture thriving cities.

The environmental movement must take its place in the debate to make sure that these opportunities are seized. Otherwise they could be lost in the drive for a solution that appears to offer an easy answer, but in fact does not address the challenges of the day - affordable, desirable places for people to live and work. 

Kate Houghton is 25, rents in London, and works to influence housing policy so that we get a long term answer to the crisis of homes that are not affordable and not sustainable. 

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