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Thoughts on Development in Totnes

Totnes is a much more characterful and environmentally-aware place than most, and on that basis I’ve had a think about how it’s future planning might be approached.

My previous post, Garden Cities – Regenerative Lessons for Now, outlined how continuing to use up open space in cities, towns and villages for development, and adding layers of ‘more of the same’ development to their edges, was a blind alley solution to the needs of the planet and people. This post takes a look at Totnes as an example of this, and seeks to answer the question of whether there’s a better way to plan for the future of this iconic small town.

Maps of Totnes around a hundred years ago show a much smaller town, of course, but also one containing orchards, market gardens and fields. This was not at all unusual – most towns had market gardens in them to feed the population. Totnes had three - Heaths, Gills and Phillips / Victoria Nursery. The largest, at least initially, was Heath’s, started in 1920 by George Heath and closing in 1981 (Transition Culture).

These have all gone, of course, replaced by housing, other development and car parks. When an up to date satellite image is superimposed over the turn of the century map it can be seen not only how much Totnes has grown but also how much it has been ‘filled in’ as well. Whilst once much more self-reliant for food, commercial-scale growing is now all but gone.

For many years the new build recipe for Totnes has been using up available land within the town and building on the sites on its edge where landscape impact is lesser. Ultimately, though, where does this lead? The number of sites to be developed or redeveloped is finite, and landscape impact of sites further and further up the valley sides will be greater. New development is nearly always housing, at relatively high density. Totnes, then, will reach some form of capacity at some point. As the sites within the town run out and the impact of monocultural housing on those on the edge becomes unacceptable, we will be left with a town both crammed and hemmed in.

How will this leave the town able to respond to extremely pressing demands such as those of the latest IPCC report (Global Warming of 1.5 oC, October 2018), where actions for individuals include:

  • eat less meat, and more local food

  • walk and cycle more, and travel less by public transport and car

  • live in well insulated homes

  • generate as much renewable energy as possible

  • seek out low carbon products and reduce, reuse and recycle more.

Totnes is the home of Transition, already striving towards these sorts of actions, but new development is a valuable way to influence change if a much broader and more imaginative planning perspective is taken.

How about seeing all of the remaining open space within the town as a precious resource for those already living in the town, to be protected and used for parks, allotments, market gardens, orchards and wildlife? What if development on the edges of the town was seen as the critical way to lift up the regenerative capacity of the town and its hinterland as a whole, not be just where to build houses. It could be where houses were combined with places to work, new opportunities to grow food for the town as a whole, boost biodiversity, capture carbon, generate renewable energy, plant forests, and for the community as a whole to walk, run, swim, forage and relax in.

Seen this way new development becomes a massive regenerative opportunity rather than a problem, with the town and surrounding land planned for to extract the maximum regenerative benefit for people and planet. The planning system becomes the facilitatory vehicle for this rather than a tense meeting point of community, landowners, and developers. Totnes would still grow, but in a way which would be multi-faceted and widely beneficial, not one-dimensional and often resented. Such a different planning approach would make Totnes a better place to live for those already living in the existing development and new development.

If a Regenerative Settlement approach and project is not possible in Totnes then it probably isn’t possible anywhere. I hope it is, and am thinking, with Transition Homes, about how to take this forward. If you are interested, or have something to offer, please add your details to the Regenerative Settlement mailing list.