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Garden Towns are thriving, and still learning

28 May 2014

Forethought with the design and layout has proved its worth.

As part of the RTPI’s Centenary, the Institute is celebrating the success of ‘mature planned communities’ – whether these are new towns, garden cities/suburbs, or sustainable urban extensions. Held in Letchworth Garden City, the RTPI’s ‘New Towns’ Summit’ (see image) was a core part of this initiative and designed to bring together around the table the collected experience of planners involved with establishing, sustaining and/or further expanding the new post-war settlements that were designated as New Towns. Three places – Redditch, Runcorn and Washington – are celebrating their 50th anniversaries of designation alongside the RTPI Centenary. New Towns were not solely established in England – though many do skirt London – and were also established in Scotland and Wales. There are few if any other examples of such holistic planning across the UK and our experience influenced and informed similar initiatives around the world. Each new settlement has unique aspects but common to them all was the expectation that they would not only be pioneer communities ‘of their time’ but also ‘future proof’ themselves in the face of evident trends such as growing car ownership and increasing leisure time.

New Towns Summit

'Garden Cities' to 'Garden Towns'

One perhaps unsurprising finding from the Summit is that there was a consensus amongst the attendees that the time has come to throw aside the nomenclature ‘new’ and instead the settlements hitherto known as New Towns can rightly embrace their credentials as established showcases for the new wave of planned ‘Garden Cites’. Amongst their number, only Milton Keynes has the explicit ambition to become an actual City. But perhaps inspired by their surroundings for the Summit event in Letchworth Garden City, all attendees acknowledged and celebrated their exemplar status as planned and maturing towns that are pleasing places in which to live, work & play. So, they should properly henceforth become known as ‘Garden Towns’.

It was readily acknowledged that none of the communities was without its planning faults and some difficult adjustments had been made to overcome initial over-ambition, or even before-its-time inspiration. A film from the very early days of Runcorn showed their multi-level bus access to the town centre, which proved to be a complexity too far as time went by. But another presentation from Milton Keynes illustrated their new exemplar status as a test-bed for the automated transport of the future. The inspiration, ambition and holistic thinking that imbued the planners of the post-war communities has not gone away- though some might say they had been resting on their laurels as the towns matured into rounded communities. Confidence is certainly returning.

Should anyone doubt the ‘garden’ credentials of the towns,

every photo in every Summit presentation illustrated the huge achievement of the landscape planners for each town.  From Harlow’s green wedges to Redditch’s linear park, from Hemel Hempstead’s Water Park to the ribboned open spaces of Telford, each has achieved a green infrastructure and biodiversity that Ebenezer Howard would surely applaud as the melding of town & country. And tellingly, as an indicator for the success of any future Garden Cities, communities have become hugely protective of their greenspace legacy, indicating preferences for any and every other option for further growth or regeneration other than interference with the matured, green landscapes. Further, there are some indications of resistance to making places more urban, more dense as a response to growth pressures. Whilst each of the garden towns has sustained a positive and welcoming attitude to additional residents and businesses, and well-planned infrastructure readily allows for this, a question left hanging was whether absolute limits should be defined and adhered to. It was noted that in Howard’s original ideas, towns were clustered but defined and deliberately not agglomerated. For some, a tightly drawn local authority boundary is providing such ‘definition’ but is also effectively restricting their choice on ways forward.

Because the garden towns have always been planned holistically, and in the tradition of Rowntree in York & Cadbury in Bournville, excellence in education and health facilities and their delivery have been at the heart of all plans. Primary school provision was invariably within walking distance of home and secondary schools would serve a cluster of neighbourhoods, allowing today for theses to be within reasonable and safe cycling distance for pupils. Telford was not alone in exhibiting pride in the renewal of school buildings. Runcorn & Redditch have been sure to involve their future generations in their 50th anniversary celebrations and their thinking about what planning for the next 50 years might involve.

As town plans have been revisited for each new wave of plan-making/refreshing, it has been notable that the core frameworks have proved remarkably resilient. Whilst the details of car, pedestrian, cycling, recreation provision have shifted in line with changing affluence and life-styles, and neighbourhood layouts have shifted at times of renewal, the grid-pattern at Milton Keynes, the distributor arrangements in Telford and the dual carriageway infrastructure of Redditch  have proved accommodating without dislocation. Forethought and the additional expenditure involved with such design and layout have proved their worth. At a more prosaic scale, addressing drainage needs comprehensively and as an integrated part of the infrastructure and open space strategies has allowed places to avoid flooding issues despite the scale of new construction.

However...

However, because these places were comprehensively constructed in a relatively short period, renewal requirements tend to come in large chunks – challengingly so when the economy falters. Remodelling of central shopping areas has proved particularly difficult in many places. Municipal pride may have eschewed involvement by the private sector, storing up problems which then required substantial injections of finance to resolve. Public/private partnerships are now the norm though market conditions will dictate the pace at which progress can be made and multiple sources of finance require co-ordination. Irvine has had the challenge of defining for itself a clear role in the hierarchy of neighbouring towns in North Ayrshire. Hemel Hempstead has invested heavily in the public realm as its contribution to the partnership which is increasing footfall in the shopping area. In Bracknell – that ‘Small Town with a Big Future’ from the TV series The Wrong Mans – recognised that the quality of the central area affected residents’ pride in their town and a significant residential element is being included in their re-masterplanned central area. Here are towns that still know how to learn well and innovate.

Wolfson Economics Prize

At the beginning of June the shortlisted ideas will be announced for the Wolfson Economics Prize seeking 21st century ideas for new Garden Cities, and in a separate but parallel initiative, the Government has announced a prospectus for a new wave of Garden Cities. As those shortlisted for the Wolfson Prize and those communities wishing to explore creating a new Garden City further develop their ideas they will do well to reflect on the experience that has underpinned the evident abilities of the Garden Towns to thrive and sustain the town qualities that are valued by their residents. The RTPI will be further collating feedback from their experiences to form an on-line resource from which future communities and their town planners can draw.

Andrew Matheson is the RTPI Policy & Network Manager who has been leading on the Centenary project around mature planned communities. The New Towns’ Summit was held on Tuesday 13th May and those around the table were Alexa Williams (Redditch BC), Bev Hindle  (Bracknell Forest BC), David Hackforth  (Milton Keynes Council), Dianne Cooper  (Harlow Council), James Doe(Dacorum BC which includes Hemel Hempstead), Jim Daley (Peterborough BC), John Pi  (Stevenage BC), Lisa Hughes(Welwyn  Hatfield BC),  Mike Vout(Telford & Wrekin Council), Sandra Taylor(North Ayrshire Council which includes Irvine).

The Summit was also privileged to have input on the day from Kelvin MacDonald (Senior Visiting Fellow at the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge University) who chaired the event, David Ames from the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, David Lock CBE, Fi Godfrey-Fausset from the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, and Miles Gibson, Prize Director for the Wolfson Economics Prize.

A special thank you goes to the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation for kindly hosting the Summit at their International Garden Cities Exhibition in Barry Parker's Drawing Offices (see photo).