Thursday, 25 September 2014

The garden city - a stultifying, depressing but comfortable, car-free suburban zombie-land

I've known David Rudlin and Nicolas Falk from Urbed off and on for about a dozen years mostly because they've both been involved in some of the thinking - good and bad - about the future of Bradford as a place. And like many in the urbanist and urban design world, David and Nick are, I fear, a little trapped in a planning model rather than a people model. The solutions Urbed produce are - at the macro level - about deciding things for people collectively or, worse, about trying to second guess the aggregate impact of millions of consumption decisions.

Urbed were the winners of the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014, which focused on "how best to deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular." And, in Urbed's slightly disruptive tradition, the winning entry rejected the old 'new town' model of the garden city in favour of large urban extensions. It's well worth reading how Urbed responded to this brief because it reveals a very high quality of thinking about the challenges of a brief to deliver places rather than a new generation of uninspiring, predictable housing estates.

Given the brief Urbed's response was exciting, challenging and stimulates us to think about the model for future development in England. However - and this is what I will examine in the rest of this article - the approach is profoundly illiberal, assumes that more fixing of the housing market is needed because our planning systems have skewed that market and fails to consider how travel, communications and work will change over coming decades.

Writing in New Start, Nick Falk sets out some of the essentials that lie behind the Urbed entry.

Tomorrow’s cities not only have to be affordable in a world where few earn enough to make a deposit on a house, but also to cut carbon emissions, and create a sense of community. Letchworth was built at a time when the man was the breadwinner, working locally, and when energy was delivered by the coalman. Various religions brought people together; alcohol was banned, and people made their own entertainment. The motor car was hardly practical for most people’s needs.

The problem, as Nick recognises, is that the system we have of designating land for development (while protecting most other land) results in unaffordable housing. In Surrey there is famously more land given over to golf than to housing. It's true that our system of housing finance has also contributed but the primary cause remains the deliberate limiting of land available for the development of housing. Indeed, Falk notes this - although he may not have meant it this way - when he says:

...we have to find ways of doubling housing output and locating them where there is easy access to jobs and services, and this means taking much of the risk out of development.

Put more simply (and from the perspective of the housing consumer rather than the urbanist or planner) we need to build most of the housing in places where people actually want to live. This is something of a challenge and isn't met by the Urbed approach of urban extensions but rather by something that Nick Falk rejects - small scale developments in local communities that act to sustain those communities as places. The problem is - as Falk comments - the 'experts' reject this approach:

Through focus groups, we found that not only was there a general feeling among professionals that concentrating growth in a few planned settlements would produce better results than spreading it around, but we also identified ways in which a ‘social contract’ might be negotiated. 

This preference is determined not by the economic realities of housing demand but by a concern with 'climate change' and 'low carbon'. Thus we reject the idea of extending a village with, say, 400 homes to be one with 600 homes (thereby securing the future of the village pub, the post office and the shop) because such development is predicated on the motor car as the primary means of transport.

The result of this is that development simply doesn't meet either need or demand without public subsidy. Indeed, Nick recognises this with his proposal to freeze land values. Ostensibly this freeze is to prevent 'speculation' but, in reality, it represents an enormous public subsidy to those developing the garden city. Indeed, it is clear that - if the Howardian model is to work - such intervention is inevitable. In effect the state identifies a given area for development and takes the additional value rather than allowing this value to accrue to the land owner. The idea that this can happen without compensation is nonsensical.

Nick Falk also cites places like Freiberg in Germany as examples of how this 'social' development approach has worked. Now, it may be that this is the case for some but if the only option for the young worker in the South East of England is such a place, I fear that they'll still look in envy at those in million pound homes in gorgeous Surrey villages asking why. Indeed, this is the vision Nick Falk would impose on those young workers:

In Vauban, if Rieselfeld residents are to be believed, green living is compulsory. 'It jumps in your face a little,' Claudia Duppe warned me, 'and there is a lot of social control. If you walk into the quarter with an Aldi carrier bag, it's, "Sorry, I'm not talking to you; you shop at a discount supermarket and you don't buy organic." It feels claustrophobic, because everyone expects you to behave in the same way - and of course you are not allowed to have a car.'

This would be the triumph of the urban planner, a place where a supposed 'social contract' determines every last thing about the way people live forcing on them a constricting, unnecessarily dense urbanism where there words of Jane Jacobs critique of the garden city become stark and depressing:

...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.

This, rather than the shining city on the hill, is the reality of the garden city. Nick Falk would have us create pretty 21st versions of Stepford, Connecticut (or at least its fictional version). Places where conformity with the 'social' rules are enforced by what began as a charming 'common weal' and quickly becomes the suppressing of difference - a modern prohibition.

I do not want to live in this socially contracted world of Falk's 'pocket utopia' for that supposed perfect place is anything but perfect. Instead it is the creation of planners who see people as things to be placed in carefully designed 'communities' and 'neighbourhoods' rather than as free agents able to, through their interacting with others, create real communities and real neighbourhoods - places that work. Some people want to live hugger-mugger in dense city places, some want space to breathe and a view and others want a variety of choices in between. For a few, Falk's 'green wonderland' would be just the ticket but if this is presented as the future of the urban place it will be one free from creativity and edge, bereft of individual initiative, a stultifying, depressing but comfortable car-free suburban zombie-land.


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