The Garden City Model

On the face of it, the ideals of Ebenezer Howard which gave birth to the development of Letchworth (c. 1903) and Welwyn Garden City (1920) look like appealing templates for today’s urban regeneration challenges. The Garden City as a typology has the capacity to combine social, environmental and economic goals into a pleasing balance. The examples that were built have endured and matured successfully.

In the hundred years since those experiments in urban planning were carried out, much has changed. There are many more of us living in the UK and our lives are becoming increasingly urbanised. At the same time we have learned much more about what it takes to create successful parts of the city or to repair the urban fabric where it has been damaged by a legacy of industry. The results of post war redevelopment were, to say the least, mixed, in part undermined by a combination of flawed ideology and poor construction techniques. In recent times major urban projects at Canary Wharf, Stratford and Kings Cross, all of which continue to be built out demonstrate how we have learned from the past and how we have been obliged to change our views about the environments we build for ourselves.

Having been involved in all of these large projects, advising tenants, purchasers, funders and the like, it’s possible to see a new urban paradigm of placemaking. At its heart lies a long term masterplan sufficiently flexible to respond to changes in the market but based on a strong narrative to attract the early adopters and help build momentum. Open space is key, as is a richness of uses. The large numbers of residential towers that have sprouted in our cities show how profoundly the sentiment about high rise living has changed since the earlier and mostly failed experiments with this form. The digital generation doesn’t have preconceptions about tower living and the planners have recognised the richness and diversity that comes from truly mixed use development.

As for Garden Cities, the world has moved on; we don’t live in the common family structures which formed the basis for the design of these developments, we can’t afford to build at such generously low densities in an urban setting, and as anyone who remembers Parker Morris will know, the spaces we live in are now much more compact. Far better to see Ebenezer Howard’s pioneering work as part of a continuing evolution of city making ideas, each in its own era addressing the different challenges we face as a society. The market is here today and gone tomorrow, it’s the longer perspective of history that will judge how successful our own generation’s placemaking has been.

Read Peter’s previous articles on garden cities:

City AM

Planning in London (page 13)

 

Developer, investor, Regeneration,