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Can Garden Cities solve the UK housing crisis?


When our home town of Welwyn Garden City turned 100 earlier this year, we were set to be part of a raft of centenary celebrations before the lockdown impacted plans. It set us thinking about what exactly was meant by the term ‘garden city’ and whether the proposed modern versions bear any resemblance to the original Garden Cities, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. To give this question some context, a new wave of ‘garden cities’, known as garden communities, has been mooted by the Government as the method through which over 400,000 new homes - equivalent to the size of Birmingham - will be delivered across the length and breadth of our country to satisfy demand.

Ebenezer Howard, the father of the Victorian Garden City movement, proposed to create garden cities in reaction to the poverty, lack of sanitation and overcrowding found in 19th Century cities. He dreamed about a ‘Utopian vision...designed to combine the benefits of the city and the countryside and to avoid the disadvantages of both”. Welwyn Garden City was the second version of this new garden city movement, “marrying the virtues of the city, including good wages, opportunity and amusement, with the advantages of rural life, such as low rents, natural beauty and fresh air”. Welwyn Garden City did become and still is a popular place to live and work, and it’s clear to see why the ideal propounded by Howard would be popular today.

However, we cannot copy Howard’s vision in its entirety. One of the key misconceptions about garden cities is an assumption that their uniqueness is purely down to their design and layout. As Katy Lock of the Town and Planning Association, tells us, “while there is no doubt that the concept of marrying town and country...was a fundamental factor in their success, what really sets the garden city apart is a specific set of delivery principles related to its financial model, land ownership and approach to community participation and governance.”( The Art of Building a Garden City Katy Lock 2015) In other words, one of the primary characteristics of a Garden City is that the land on which it is built is owned by a trust on behalf of the community, which subsequently manages the land and permitted development. This idea doesn’t always sit naturally within a modern context. Another misconception is that ‘garden city’ equals low-density housing whereas in reality, a mix of residential types can be found.

The concept of the garden city, then, could be considered outdated if we include the measures of ownership and density, or idealistic if we consider the often-thought image of a town developed in a parkland setting, with generous green spaces, landscaped gardens and cookie-cutter architecture. However, if we start thinking of Garden Cities - or garden communities in the modern vernacular - as a brand, rather than a formal concept with fixed parameters, then it could be a very good choice for our future.

Picture a new settlement that has been designed holistically to balance social, economic and environmental considerations: carefully planned to enhance the natural environment, with high quality and affordable housing, and community at the heart of the design. Think walkable neighbourhoods with cycle and footpaths, a strong town centre that becomes the heart of the area, employment opportunities, a discernible identity and high quality design of all the buildings.

By associating our new garden communities with these ‘brand ideals’, we can attract potential investors as well as drawing in citizens that want to belong to a community and live within its ideals. Taken this way, garden communities would become a mechanism for securing a quality of life rather than merely providing new housing. They would be an umbrella brand under which we can “create an exemplar sustainable development.” Sustainability, in this context, means creating places where people will want to live and work. It's about ensuring these places cultivate a strong and healthy society that meets the diverse needs of people and promotes personal wellbeing, social cohesion and inclusion, as well as providing employment.”( Martin Williams Saunders September 2019)

Of course, each new settlement needs to have it’s own identity, drawn from local history and associations: we are not suggesting carbon copy towns. But this is a chance to design new towns that encourage local and social gatherings, and which allow that sense of community that has become so important for us all over the past few weeks of lockdown. This is the chance to give people the opportunity to live and walk or cycle to work, school and to local shops, where the community knows one another and is willing to support their neighbours because they share a common ideal. When you forget about the historic image of garden city Arts and Crafts-style housing and replace it with buildings designed with attention to detail, constructed by craftspeople, and allow an appreciation of your surroundings and fellow man, it becomes clear that the 21st Century version of a 19th Century ideal is a viable, sustainable way to solve a housing crisis.

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