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Simeon Shtebunaev: Developing a common vision for the garden city

Reporting on the TCPA’s ambitious vision for achieving flourishing futures.

Simeon Shtebunaev is the RTPI's Young Planner of the Year

The Town and Country Planning Association has its roots enmeshed with the Garden City movement. Founded by Ebenezer Howard, The Garden City Association held one of their first meetings in Bournville, in the exemplary village built by the Cadburys. A century later it is only fitting that the TCPA has picked up the baton and set on an ambitious project called Tomorrow 125 - to re-envision the Garden City principles for an age of climate collapse and societal turmoil. The motto: “A practical path to a hopeful future” dispels any concerns about utopian visions. In this context, in mid-July the Bournville 125 festival was held - a day-long meeting of professionals from across the built environment sector to develop a common vision for the Garden City. The TCPA is working on a development model that creates places of hope, joy and belonging. We were presented with three foundational principles as a start:

  1. The restoration of nature and the long-term sustainability of the planet
  2. Meaningful and vibrant democracy
  3. An economic evolution, leading to a mutualised foundational economy

The TCPA is leading a series of events, using our collective creativity to work out in detail whether these ideas are practically valuable through events such as the ‘Bournville 125’ summit. It aims to build a coalition of support and demonstrate the practical value of the approach in different development contexts. It is also exploring the tools to embed a renewed Garden City development model in policy and practice.

The day started early with a fantastic walk around Bournville, where you could see some of those principles at work. The governance model of the village allows for local democracy, many of the shops we saw were independent, and the whole setting of the village is embedded within the natural landscape. My attendance as the Young Planner of the Year there was also closely connected to my day-to-day work at Social Life.


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Tour of Bournville

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TCPA Bournville 125 presentation

The original vision for the Garden City was driven by the context of ill-health plaguing the country at the time. Whereas it usually is the new towns and cities that are the focus of debate, the ideas of the Garden City firmly made their way into the suburbs we built in the early 1900s. A century later, the mismanagement of those places is causing the same ill-health issues to recur.

We have been working with Tim Oshodi in Downham - one of the suburbs of Lewisham in which the LCC attempted to incorporate the Garden City principles. Some of its first inhabitants described it as paradise in nature. But as with many suburbs left to their own devices, the estate has had its challenges of racial inequalities and economic inclusion. Human flourishing was the language that the TCPA used to frame the Tomorrow125 debate - for me this is all about social sustainability, connection, inclusion and health, issues we are exploring in the context of Downham. The Ebbsfleet Healthy Garden City is one project exploring the issues of health and Garden Cities in the modern context.

The Bournville 125 summit featured an impressive list of speakers. Fiona Howie from TCPA introduced the day and set out a bold vision to “put human flourishing at the heart of our model and a new relationship with nature”. Caroline Cardbury, Chair of the Bournville trust welcomed us to the location of the original Garden Association meeting and exemplified how Bournville is not a static conservation area, but a dynamic and resilient village where building uses are in flux. This idea of creating “space to grow” when creating new places and communities is often overlooked but essential for the long-term flourishing of a place.

We heard from the doers, the people actually testing how we can re-imagine our places! Marissa McMahon from Take Back the City presented their project in Belfast for the creation of a new city extension. Gunther Jancke from the London Community Land Trust gave a compelling and personal account of how land ownership is key to any robust vision for the future. Gill Hughes and Kate Macdonald from Time Bank Hull presented a fantastic list of activities that can easily be replicated by other similar sized cities who might be further away from main economic centres.

Closer to home, the impressive Immy Kaur spoke about the work Civic Square is doing - becoming the first demonstrator project in Birmingham on Community-led retrofit and Neighbourhood Doughnut Economics, initiatives the passion and ingenuity of which I have observed first hand in the past years. Finally, we heard from Pam Warhurts the founder of Incredible Edible who reminded us that “you can trust people to get on with it” - to remember that communities can deliver many of the services and projects if given the resources.

The afternoon was situated around an exciting workshop on two Garden City proposals - one for Peterlee and one for a prospective town in the middle of the Oxford - Cambridge arch. Using two existing case studies, we were encouraged to work out what the principles of the renewed Garden City movement could be. The debates on the tables were very interesting - some of my key takeaways were the need to start with the existing community; consider nature in a holistic manner - it is not only about human flourishing but ecosystem flourishing; and to be more innovative with the economic models we employ - not every new community can attract a big showcase development, but community wealth building needs to start from the ground up.

Next steps for the project include the production of two prospectuses exploring how the ideas discussed at Bournville might work in the context of a new Garden City and the renewal of an existing town. The TCPA will also continue to explore the wider proposition in collaboration with project partners and anyone who is interested, from community activists to decision-makers in Westminster. This includes hosting workshops with planning students to understand the role of planning in making change happen.  

There was a white elephant in the room. The ethnic diversity of the senior body within the built environment industries is still not representative of the population as a whole. This poses key questions about our collective ability to reimagine our future if we are not able to acknowledge our past and present.  The Garden City ideas have indeed found great popularity across the world and in the Global South, yet as Immy Kaur said on the day, were built in the context of extractive economies of imperial Victorian Britain. We can’t repeat the same exercise of labour and resource redistribution. It simply won’t work from ethical and climate standpoints. Our unconscious bias doesn’t just constitute the visual characteristics of the people in the room.

On the day I heard amazing inspirational quotes from the Ebenezer Howards and the Donella Meadows but not much from the Audre Lordes and the Bell Hooks, or the Vanessa Nakates, fighting climate change in the present. With a few notable exceptions, most quotes came from dead white men and women. Who we cite and who we choose to elevate as thinkers dictates our frame of imagination. There is plenty of space for all voices to be included in the mix. The TCPA is keenly aware of this issue and largely it is a reflection of the structural issues within our societies. I urge the radicals, the doers, the historically marginalised and excluded voices to get in touch with the TCPA and share your thoughts - they want to hear them and want to engage. The door is open, we need to take advantage of it, otherwise the debates about our future will happen without us!

Find out more about the next steps:

Student workshops: In the autumn, the TCPA will be hosting workshops about the project in several planning schools. Please look out for these and other events hosted by the TCPA on their website and social media. 

Social Media:  Follow @theTCPA and #Tomorrow125 on Twitter to keep up to date with our work. Engage with us by tagging projects, initiatives or organisations that might be relevant or interested in the project. 

Email: Any queries about the Tomorrow 125 project or the work of the TCPA should be sent to [email protected]


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