How a new garden city could offer affordable family homes at scale

Patrick Clarke
LORD Wolfson’s decision to devote his £250,000 Economics Prize in 2014 to how to deliver a new garden city has raised eyebrows. The prize has rapidly become a rallying point for the most challenging questions of the day, with Roger Bootle winning last year for his treatise on how a country should exit the euro. But the 2014 award is no less significant. We are grappling with a chronic housing shortage, and a rising pressure on infrastructure. Garden cities may just be the answer.

Wolfson’s thinking was highlighted in a recent report by Policy Exchange. It called for the construction of at least 1.5m new homes by 2020, including the creation of at least one new garden city. Such a city could act as a beacon for development – enabling the construction of huge numbers of new homes by streamlining planning. The original garden cities, like Letchworth, are hugely popular. The new town Milton Keynes has been one of the fastest-growing cities in Britain over the last few decades.

But creating a city that is visionary, economically viable, and popular is easier said than done. What could the twenty-first century garden city look like, and what could make it a success?

First, it will build on the UK’s existing garden city heritage. Garden Cities of Tomorrow, the seminal work of the founder of the garden city movement Sir Ebenezer Howard, was first published over a century ago. But in providing the inspiration for Letchworth, and later Welwyn Garden City, its insights should not be ignored today.

These cities have proven popular because they foster a liveable community based on a comprehensive vision, incorporating opportunities for employers, public transport, schools and shops. And unlike the high-rise blocks of the 1960s, garden cities offer a range of accommodation at scale – from the affordable to the aspirational – deliberately set in a green landscape that matures and improves. This is not just about aesthetics, but the health and lifestyle benefits that encourage people to live there.

Prize entrants will no doubt be tempted to build new – possibly radical – technology into their schemes. But housing is a long-term commodity, and neighbourhoods must be able to adapt to requirements that we cannot possibly foresee. Relatively simple advances, however, can be made to tackle issues like climate change. Just by incorporating more trees and garden space, we can provide shading and summer cooling, and also allow for natural drainage and flood mitigation.

Crucially, a twenty-first century garden city must acknowledge the changing demographics of smaller households and people living longer, but also strong demand for high quality, affordable family homes with gardens. This aspiration is often neglected, due to the misconception that it is too expensive and requires too much land. This is untrue. With efficient planning, which the garden city model provides, we can create new communities that draw on the characteristics of Letchworth and Welwyn.

The Wolfson Prize is a chance for the UK to reconnect with this heritage, at the same time as addressing today’s economic and social imperatives.

Dr Patrick Clarke is director of urban design at URS.