Garden city

Modern garden cities and one planet developments

The Art of Building a Garden City: Designing new communities for the 21st Century is an ambitious new book that attempts to both tell the history of the garden city movement in Britain and to provide guidance on planning and creating such a city now.  This is part II of an article that analyses key issues of this book, published by the Royal Institute of British Architecture and written by Kate Henderson, Katy Lock and Hugh Ellis, for the Town and Country Planning Asssociation.

The principles adopted for modern garden cities, as explained in this book, are similar and build on what has gone before, but the food and water supply and treatment elements appear to be lacking the emphasis they are due.

They do stipulate that communities should be “energy negative”, that is generating more renewable energy than they use, for export as a source of revenue. Homes, such as those in Bicester garden city, which will eventually support 13,000 dwellings, should be zero carbon. They use a combination of onsite generation, district heating using combined heat and power, and sustainable transport, all of which generates jobs.

However the principles do not stipulate that all buildings (for example for businesses) follow this standard.

Contrast this with the Welsh one planet development planning conditions which specify that all developments must:

  • achieve an ecological footprint of 2.44 global hectares per person (1.88 without government services added on)
  • obtain from land-based activities (such as food and energy) 65 per cent of residents’ minimum needs
  • be zero carbon over their lifetime
  • be zero waste
  • provide sustainable, ecological water and water treatment services
  • improve biodiversity
  • minimise transport impacts
  • integrate with the community

These are far more stringent, and, while difficult to obtain, more in proportion to the level of impact necessary for human habitation to be sustainable in accordance with what the science tells us.

While so far these one planet developments have been in the open countryside, the planning guidance makes clear that they could happen in or on the edge of existing towns and cities, and one such is currently being planned in Carmarthenshire.

One planet developments typically use agro-ecological cultivation and agro-forestry to provide much of the land-based businesses, supplying local communities with their produce and services. This automatically improves biodiversity, soil condition and sequesters carbon in the soil.

Net carbon sequestration could be a vital function of garden cities, if this were adopted as a principle.

The Wolfson Prize

In 2014 a plan to give garden city status to up to 40 English towns won the £250,000 ($410,000) Wolfson Economics Prize. Winner David Rudlin imagined a fictional town called Uxcester, and applied that concept to Oxford (2011 population: 150,000).

His aim was to help solve Britain’s a chronic housing crisis. Government figures suggest 221,000 new homes are needed every year in England and Wales. The Wolfson Economics Prize conducted a poll of 6166 people on attitudes to garden cities in May 2014. It found that there was widespread support for garden cities amongst the public as a way of solving the housing crisis.

Rudlin proposed his own eight-point set of guidelines:

  • avoiding flood plains
  • concealing housing within the landscape
  • opening up previously inaccessible green space
  • directly compensating those whose property would need to be purchased
  • providing new community facilities including energy schemes
  • affordable housing and a totally new tram line
  • regeneration of the host town’s existing high street through the increase in catchment
  • a community-based management body

He argued that all towns should be permitted to bid for garden city status and should not have expansion imposed upon them, and called on the next government to introduce a Garden Cities Act under which towns and cities could bid for garden city status. So far this has not happened.

Expansion, he said, would take the form of town extensions connected to the city centre by a tram or bus rapid transit (similar to that operating in Cambridge), with each extension consisting of green, walkable neighbourhoods with primary schools, business uses, and local shops, drawing on modern Scandinavian, Dutch and German models.

Financial model

His financial model shows how a modern tram scheme could be delivered to serve the new garden city, of the sort that most other European cities of the size of Uxcester would feel entitled to.

The financial model shows that for every plot developed, the same area again could be allocated for parks and gardens which are publicly accessible to the whole community rather than kept in private hands. 20% of new homes would be affordable housing. The overwhelming majority of Green Belt land (if the town has a Green Belt) would be protected and enhanced.

New garden towns

Several garden towns are now in development.

In 2016 Oxfordshire Council proposed a garden village extension to Eynsham, which has received initial government backing. It adopted some of Rudkin’s ideas, plus the idea that it could generate much of its energy from solar power and that half of its homes be affordable.

The council proposed: “There is significant scope for community ownership/ involvement in managing new community infrastructure such as allotments, green infrastructure, community energy, community facilities etc. The establishment of a community management company can provide a key vehicle to achieve this.”

In the south east of England, Braintree, District Council, Colchester Borough Council, Tendring District Council and Essex County Councils have all agreed to work together to create three new Garden Communities of 30-40,000 new homes alongside significant new infrastructure, jobs and associated facilities. These will be based on the ethos of  Garden Cities promoted by the Town and Country Planning Association.

An overarching wholly Council owned body, North Essex Garden Communities Limited, which will coordinate the development of the sites and the strategic approach to growth, funding and infrastructure delivery. NEGC will establish further companies (Local Delivery Vehicles )for each proposed Garden Community, working with landowners and local communities to bring forward schemes that truly deliver on garden city principles. Caapacity funding has come from central government.

The councils have also agreed to provide funding of up to £460m ($756m) to “pay for delivery of infrastructure in a more timely and co-ordinated way than could be achieved via traditional development models”.

Specific sites and boundaries have not yet been determined but will be refined through the Local Plan decision-making process. However already, transport plans are being drawn up with an aim that 24 per cent of trips will be through active means (walking, cycling), with 38 per cent by bus rapid transit and the same proportion by private vehicle.

Bournville Village Trust at Lightmoor is another modern urban village being developed in Telford, were the induustrial revolution began. The Village is a joint venture between housing association Bournville Village Trust and the Homes and Communities Agency. It will eventually comprise around 1000 homes, a primary school, community centre, health centre, nursery and shops; as well as parks and numerous green open spaces.

BVT provides services to 8000 homes of mixed tenure and 25,000 people. The Trust also manages agricultural estates totalling around Bournville Rest House 2500 acres, so is able to provide food for the village.

It uses a system of covenants to preserve its stewardship, which include a maintenance charge charge. Charmingly, the management committee plants a tree in the community orchard every time a child is born in the village – an idea first thought of by George Cadbury.

Delivery body

The Garden Cities book emphasises that, based on experience, the delivery body for garden towns could be anything from a large development corporation to a Community Land Trust owned by the community. Whatever they are they should:

  • have consistent leadership, ownership, and monitoring provision, and be in place (or set up a not-for-profit stewardship body to be in place) in perpetuity
  • have commitment to the garden city principles
  • secure the funding to deliver the business plan
  • work in a transparent and inclusive manner, communicating and involving actively everyone affected
  • be able to broker agreements and cajole delivery by its partners, including through the use of statutory powers where appropriate ( for example planning and compulsory purchase)

In the absence of public finance for a garden city, it is still possible to use Howard’s model today. A study by Wei Yang and Partners and Peter Freema for the Wolfson Economics Prize showed that over 15 years the sale of some land acquired at near agricultural land prices for private housing in the garden village could permit the provision of land for 30 per cent affordable housing plus parks, leisure, transport networks, utilities and school and other community facilities, at no cost.


Overall, The Art of Building a Garden City is a very good contribution to the growing body of literature about how to provide properly sustainable human habitation.

It does seem to me, though, that it makes the same mistake as central and local government in leaving the provision of food to the private sector and thereby to chance. Garden cities should be about gardens, and gardens are traditionally about food provision as well as beauty and leisure.

Given that the food industry results in so much waste food, and intensive food production, sold in supermarkets, has a massive environmental footprint (for example destroying rainforest to grow grain and soya animal feed), as well documented in the FAO report The Future of Food and Agriculture, this cannot be enough.

Anyone wishing to tackle this aspect of the impact of human settlements through the planning regime would do well to adapt the One Planet Development principles and to read last month’s set of recommendations published in What Makes Urban Food Policy Happen from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Anyone wishing to actually grow food in or near towns and cities should look for advice on running a small scale horticulture business in this month’s A Matter Of Scale, by Rebecca Laughton of the Landworkers’ Alliance, and for indoor farming advice in the publications of the Vertical Farming Institute. Together these represent two very different approaches to feeding urban areas.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life, a Blueprint for Low Impact Living.

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