Thursday, 11 September 2014

How can you have community-led design when there is no community...more on the problem with garden cities

Philip Ross is a former mayor of Letchworth Garden City and founder of the New Garden City Movement, he is keen on garden cities. And, for New Start magazine, he has blogged about these new garden cities:

Community-led garden cities need to start with a community-led definition of what a garden city is. This definition should belong not to one organisation or thought up in Whitehall but should reflect community values. It needs to be born of a partnership and an alliance between the social values and the design and architectural values. The ambition must be to deliver a sustainable community, a community proving inter-generational equity that is socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. If successful it will create a sense of place, purpose and a stake in community, in one word ‘citizenship’.

The funny thing here is that Letchworth, where Ross was mayor, wasn't created by any community but by the ambition of one man - Ebenezer Howard. Indeed, there is a good reason for this - before Howard built Letchworth it was fields of corn, potatoes and sugar beet in rural Hertfordshire.It may well be the case that today Letchworth has a fantastic community doing wonderful things filled with sustainability, inter-generational equity and stakeholder engagement. I don't know, I've never been to Letchworth (although I'd be very surprised is more than one-in-ten of the residents are involved in Ross's little sustainable enterprise).

I've raised concerns about the idea of new garden cities and especially the vision of them as sort of neat, tidy, middle-aged versions of Freetown Christiana all filled with commonweal, cooperation and collectivism. Frankly this is a recipe for a controlled environment littered with signs telling us not to do things, where the management of gardens and the content of garages is fussed over by the garden city's appointed guardians.

It merits saying again and again - garden cities aren't the solution to the UK's housing problems, cannot be delivered on the model Howard used back in the days before we had a planning system and seem to me more akin to Stepford or Midwich than any place I'd like to live. As ever, Jane Jacobs summed it up in her comments on Ebenezer Howard:

“His aim was the creation of self sufficient small towns,really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge."


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