Back to the future: Re-imagining Garden Cities for the 21st Century

Kate Henderson is Chief Executive of the TCPA and a guest contributor to the PAS blog

Perhaps as the world’s oldest charity concerned with planning, housing and the environment (we were founded by Sir Ebenezer Howard in 1899 to promote the idea of the garden city), it should come as no surprise that the TCPA is keen to re-make the case for new communities as part of the solution to the chronic housing crisis. We believe that the radical nature of the Garden City Movement ideals remain of critical relevance to the 21st century, providing a foundation for high quality inclusive places, creating new jobs and truly sustainable lifestyles.

The TCPA is not alone in recognising the benefits of bringing forward comprehensively planned new communities with the inclusion of ‘locally planned large scale development’ in the Government’s Housing Strategy and the Housing Minister, the Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, stating in an article on the Guardian’s Housing Network that “…the scale of housing need that we now face means that we need imaginative proposals to come forward which get us back to Howard’s original ideas.”

Today, we still face the primary challenges confronted by Howard and his followers: meeting our housing shortage, generating jobs and creating beautiful and inclusive places. However, we have also the new challenges of globalised markets and the urgent need to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Although it is over 40 years since the last New Town was designated, the TCPA believes that new comprehensively planned sustainable communities have a powerful contribution to make to Britain’s future. They deliver housing, but also create jobs. They provide the opportunity and the economies of scale to truly fulfill the ambitions of sustainable development  by delivering multiple benefits including social housing, zero carbon design, sustainable transport and local food sourcing. New communities also offer a powerful prospect to put in place new governance structures that put people at the heart of developing new places and owning community assets.

Today’s economic conditions make large-scale investment opportunities look bleak, but where council leaders, in consultation with local people, have identified the need for more housing, new communities could be a positive part of the solution. So it is an important time to rediscover our planning heritage, re-imagining the garden city principles for today and the benefits of delivering attractive, sustainable new communities. Here are four reasons why:

  1. New, innovative financial models are emerging, including Government incentives and new financial mechanisms ranging from tax increment finance to local ownership of utility companies.
  2. There is renewed interest from the public and private sectors in comprehensively planned development, rather than a piecemeal approach that could damage environmental assets.
  3. There is a desire to spread the benefits and risks of development in public-private partnerships.
  4. The Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) could make the case for new and expanded villages, towns and cities by linking housing to economic growth and jobs.

The lessons from garden cities are not new, but they need to be restated and brought together in the new and radically changed political context: there has been a fundamental shift from the central and regional level to the local and neighbourhood level.

It is all too easy to forget the fantastic places we have delivered when we have seen so much that has failed. However, in order to move on from the stigma associated with new developments, we must recapture the pioneering spirit of the garden cities and the important connection between building high-quality homes, creating new jobs and respecting the natural environment.

We believe that now is the prefect time to re-imagine garden cities for the 21st century and to encourage innovative ideas. The Government set out in the Housing Strategy that they will run a competition to “…promote the development of a wave of larger-scale projects, including on brownfield sites, where there is clear local support and private sector appetite. We are keen to see innovative approaches and a wide range of models and partnerships come forward, responding to local challenges.”

We hope that the Government’s prospectus stimulates councillors and officers, developers, landowners and local communities to come up with creative and collaborative ideas, bringing forward new types of partnerships and model approaches that could help them deliver truly sustainable new communities fit for the 21st century.


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