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Wednesday23 August 2017

Finally, some smart thinking about Garden Cities

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BD columnist Hank Dittmar lauds Urbed’s prize-winning plans and urges politcians to do likewise

The announcement of the winner of the £250,000 Wolfson Prize on Garden Cities last week mostly was framed as another attack on the green belt.

Ballyhooed as the second largest economics prize after the Nobel, its 2014 focus on Garden Cities made it the rival of the Pritzker and Driehaus in architecture. Unlike all of these awards, though, the Garden City Wolfson Prize was a contest, not a recognition of career accomplishment and it attracted a wide range of aspirants.

A review of the five finalists — Barton Willmore, Shelter, David Rudin with Nicholas Falk from Urbed, Chris Blundell, and Wei Yang and Partners — reveals the  depth of thought and work that went into the entries. The entrants have exposed many of the challenges that underpin trying to to deliver more and better housing.

Interestingly, none of the finalists argue for less planning. Rather, they argue for better planning and for doing a better job of developing agreements with local communities about new growth. There was a divide between top down and bottom upapproaches, with Barton Willmore calling for a Royal Commission to pick the new town sites and national legislation updating the New Towns Act. Shelter picked a single site in the Medway, while Chris Blundell identified a site near Maidstone and Wei Yang argued for an arc of garden cities between Cambridge and Oxford.

In the end, though, one can see why the Urbed entry won the competition. Drawing on their long practical and research experience, the authors unerringly point out the key problems with both the house builder business model and with NIMByism and propose bold though difficult solutions to both problems. They point out that reliance on brownfield land will only deliver about 60 percent of Britain’s housing need and argue that their proposal can make up the difference.

Because house builders make their profit from uplift in land value, and because the market is dominated by a few large firms, Rudin and Falk argue there is no incentive for them to compete for quality or produce more homes. Rather, every incentive is for them to increase their margins. They argue that Garden Cities must acquire the land at or near agricultural value, building at the plot level and leaving putative uplift for the production of infrastructure such as schools, parks and reserves, and transport, energy and utilities. Their viability work confirms the feasibility of the approach. Many of the other approaches rely upon the mythical patient investor, willing to take a lower return for greater profits over time.

Second, they note that UK urban extension policy has focused on adding at the edges of towns and cities in a way that connects and that this invariably arouses next door neighbours. Instead they propose satellite extensions connected with tram lines, each of sufficient size to be considered a town and possessing town infrastructure but connected to an existing city. In form, they are more like Australia’s garden city of Canberra, which after 100 years is belatedly getting its tram network. By placing these satellites in what the authors call undistinguished green belt away from neighbours, they hope to be able to develop a Compact with residents of the existing city on benefits and protections for them.

Countryside: Safe from harm?

Source: iStock

Urbed’s winning entry said greenfield would have to make up the housing slack that brownfield couldn’t deliver

 

I think the Urbed team is right that new Garden Cities must emerge as extensions to existing cities, for they need to rely upon mainline transport infrastructure and cultural, business and educational entities to succeed, else they will be merely outsized suburbs.

I am somewhat less convinced that the political will can be found to take green belt land from agricultural use, either at the local or national level. It will depend upon skilled engagement strategies, the building up of trust and some kind of guarantee that the same old housing estates won’t in the end be built. Urbed proposes to rely less on volume builders and more on self build, private rented stock and the like, and to take the time to do it well. But this will be resisted as well.

In the end, the Wolfson Prize provided a real service in bringing such a level of analysis and thought to the question of meeting housing demand, and it should provoke ongoing dialogue, education, and follow through, both nationally and locally.

      

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Brownfield can and should deliver more homes. This competition and the drum banging in the Bd (one article a week at least, come on do better) feels like the first step towards a 'get around' for big housing developers to carve up the greenbelt.

    Also what about the potentional impact of the required transport infrastructure etc. will have on the environment.

    thumbs down from me

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  • A few days ago the CBI called for 240,000 houses to be built A YEAR. So where does that leave 15,000 house Garden Cities - out of the frame I think.
    Rather we need to be much bolder with a true city of 1 or 2 million. It would be easy - Urbed has pointed fingers at who gets in the way. An there is plenty of land which is neither Green Belt, beautiful landscape or Brown Field. A new city would have the critical mass to leap away from being suburb too.

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  • The article's photo is beautiful (landscape, not Hank). Is it really meant to show "undistinguished green belt"?

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  • http://www.designboom.com/art/michael-wolf-photographs-the-architecture-of-density-01-16-2014/

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