Garden cities are back in vogue, and that’s good for debate about where to build homes

Who wouldn’t want to live in a garden city? Spearhead, CC BY-SA

A plan to resolve the UK’s housing crisis by adding garden city extensions to 40 towns and cities has won a prestigious economic prize.

Urban designer David Rudlin was last night awarded the £250,000 Wolfson Prize for his proposal to build connected satellite settlements around existing large towns.

The UK has long had an issue with housing, and the policies that have sought to solve this problem have shaped the urban form of the country. Industrialisation, suburbanisation, inner city estates with tower blocks, and new towns or major extensions have all responded to the need to meet urgent housing demand.

Today, a renaissance of the Edwardian garden city idea seeks to challenge the piecemeal in-fill of urban centres and former industrial sites, or the slow creep of suburbia via urban extensions. The original idea was to build new, self-supporting settlements beyond green belts around existing towns and cities. This way people could escape the slums of the cities, or the “slum on wheels” of long-distance rail commuting.

However, while garden cities had a huge influence on large scale suburbanisation in the 20s and 30s the concept was relaunched as a major solution to the post-war housing crisis. It was a programme seen as equivalent in scale to the creation of the NHS. Around 30 new towns in total (from Stevenage, Harlow and Basildon, culminating in Milton Keynes) were built.

What the Wolfson Prize has done is prompt planning and urbanism professionals to look again at the methods and intentions of the garden city idea and apply it to the needs of today’s world to meet today’s housing crisis. As someone who has studied the history of this idea in depth, I believe this is a major moment.

David Rudlin’s winning entry is notable in that it describes the principle of new settlements being built as satellites to any existing large town or small city. This revives the original concept of a cluster of garden city settlements linked together by transport. Each can be distinctive, but each can support the other in terms of sharing amenities, from leisure centres to employment hubs. Another advantage is that by providing the model for building from existing towns and cities, local authorities and local communities may be more empowered. Development will therefore take place where it has local support.

While Britain’s post-war new towns have much in common with other places subject to major urban redevelopment or expansion in the mid to late 20th century (think Swindon, Basingstoke or Watford), or those re-engineered with ring roads, multi-storeys and shopping malls, the original garden city vision offered a more bucolic vision of genteel Edwardian serenity.

Each was a reflection of its era: the interwar ideal of an Englishman’s suburban castle, versus 1960s technological optimism. Perhaps it is a desire to return to the former that will emerge as such plans come forward, or perhaps it is the latter that will appeal more to the future Generation X and Yers who will become home owners when these places get built.

There is an underlying idea that such places should enable greener ways of living (decent sized gardens, cycle paths, public transport) and indeed these same ideas were present in the post-war new towns. However, it is significant that these towns not only sought to build new housing for workers from the bombed out inner cities, but also to provide space for new industries, especially in the white heat sectors of aerospace, electronics, plastics and, to take advantage of the brand new motorway network, logistics.

The fresh start came with a fundamental attempt to redesign how the city, or rather town, would work, and drive an industrial strategy for the country. It was to be clean, healthy, filled with nature, with jobs for residents and innovative, modern facilities.

While the question of where to build sees a distinct logic of linked new settlements, reflected in the Rudlin proposal, the real issue is the underlying economic drivers for a place. While the Rudlin proposal supports localism, economic development and connectivity will still be the main factors behind new projects.

As Rudlin’s report puts it, quality depends on economics as much as design. This was a clear factor behind the relative success of the new towns, with Milton Keynes benefiting from its location midway between London and Birmingham, Warrington at the heart of the motorway network between Manchester and Liverpool, and Crawley next to Gatwick.

If HS2 goes ahead, a new stop en route may justify an urban development. Various key sites like old airforce bases or Didcot power station in Oxfordshire may receive local support under a holistic strategy led by local authorities. Tagging “Garden City” on the name of these areas of employment growth will prompt the view that these places should be built to high quality design standards. The deadline for local authorities to put in bids for support under the Government’s garden city programme has just passed. We will soon discover where such places may take off and make the crucial jump from ideal and vision onto the slow path to delivery.

In the meantime, let’s congratulate all those involved in this work for helping push forward a new era in the country’s urban development. The garden city is a good idea, now receiving cross-party support, which helps bring new impetus to the debate about where we should build the much needed homes for the future.