Garden Cities – Regenerative Lessons for Now

Garden Cities were a response to high density, poor quality development in the late Victorian era, with Ebenezer Howard laying out blueprints for more civilised and spacious patterns of development. ‘The people – where will they go?’ was his famous question and the answer (Diagram 1.) was a resolution of the opposing magnets of town and country – places where, amongst other things there would be:

  • Beauty of nature

  • Social opportunity

  • Low rents

  • High wages

  • Pure air and water

  • Good drainage

  • Freedom

  • Cooperation.

His ideas have caught the eye for decades now, and Garden City Principles remain a feature of the 2018 version of the NPPF. What most interests me is that Howard saw that garden cities needed to:

  • Blend the best characteristics of town and country

  • Be built on greenfield sites

  • Meet their own needs for things such as water, food and energy

  • Be new sorts of places and communities rather than just being continuations of the existing.

In contrast the prevailing approach to new development in Local Plans and on the ground is to keep adding to the largest settlements, on their edges and on open sites within them, in the belief that this is the most ‘sustainable’ thing to do. But there are huge missed opportunities in this approach. In cities, towns and villages open space is progressively lost which could be used for all sorts of things of benefit – recreation and leisure, wildlife and food, whilst paradoxically more and more people live in the same area which could benefit from these. On the greenfield sites around settlements we build mainly housing at higher densities and so these developments also contain very limited space for other things too.

Add a regenerative perspective to this and what we are unintentionally doing is decreasing the ability of existing settlements to be regenerative at precisely the time we need to increase this.

An alternative planning approach would save all remaining areas of open space in cities, towns and villages from development and work out what uses they would best be put to to support the regenerative functionality of the settlement as a whole. This would also, most likely, increase the quality of life and wellbeing of residents too. When adding to settlements we could consider what new development needed to do boost the regenerative functionality of the settlement as a whole, rather than just now many houses were needed, and whether those houses needed anything else to go with them. Howards Diagram 2. is full of such ideas.

Diagram 2.

And we should also be thinking about new settlements, not just as places where there is greatest opportunity to implement Regenerative Settlement, but also as ways in which to build and strengthen settlement networks and the use of land between them, which Howard’s Diagram 7. sketches out.

This might all feel a bit far fetched in contrast to planning business as usual, but the challenges we currently face are much greater than those Howard did. He was concerned to find better ways of accommodating people. So are we but we also urgently need to find ways to regenerate the planetary environment on which we all depend at the same time. More of the same planning will simply not do this.