This website uses cookies so that we can provide you with the best possible experience. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with this. You can find out more about how we use cookies here. If you would like to know more about cookies, or how you can delete them, click here.

Small is beautiful

23 January 2015

The phrase was coined by E.F. Schumacher as the title for his book, subtitled ‘Economics as if people mattered’, published in 1973 – so his thinking was contemporaneous with the development of the New Towns. Many would argue that, despite their collective grand vision, the New Towns were an exemplar of what Schumacher urged – developments built with the needs of the new residents at their core; they had clear social and environmental objectives alongside the mechanisms for funding them.

The New Towns' Summit

Interestingly, the second New Towns’ Summit held in the RTPI Centenary Year showed how the phrase continues to be relevant today. The Towns are struggling to renew and revitalise town centres that, because they were created across a very concentrated number of years, are now requiring the same scale of reinvestment; a requirement with which the general economy has not co-operated. But scaling down their approach has helped them to succeed.

A number of the Towns have seen major investment plans fall by the wayside as finance companies/vehicles found ambitions and economic realities at odds. But a widespread consensus was that the Towns had made a lucky escape from these all-embracing ‘grand plans’, because the alternative of incremental change within a planning framework is serving the interests of the towns, their heritage and their future sustainability much better. This approach lends itself better to the scale at which the New Town centres operate and to partnership, often with the local authority demonstrating what can be achieved so as to encourage and work alongside others.

New town residents have, probably without realising, grown up with all the community features that have now become hallmarks for sustainable and healthy communities. The New Towns were the first to have pedestrianised centres with traffic-free shopping fronts (Stevenage 1958); later towns would pioneer the covered mall approach (possibly most successfully in Milton Keynes). The Towns actively facilitated non-car travel, with easy pedestrian/bike access to the centre (in the case of Washington with the use of elevated walkways) and with excellent bus access (in the case of Runcorn via a continuous circle of eight route centred on the shopping area). The New Town centres were able to cluster uses together to ensure that each complemented the other; leisure, civic, health buildings and offices all sit alongside and interact with the shopping frontages. This has largely survived despite the later trends toward dispersal of uses, so that many towns are looking to build further their night-time economy, getting best value from the public spaces and services clustered together.

The Summit, hosted at the heart of the first UK New Town of IMG-20141121-00063Stevenage, saw first hand how the heritage of the Stevenage centre with its interlinked courtyard spaces and shop-front canopies is being conserved and enhanced (see photo). In particular Stevenage is developing a ‘circuit’ of frontages, so as better to accommodate pedestrian demand whilst opening up new browsing and leisure spaces. In the manner successfully pursued in the Garden City of Letchworth, it is leading by example and reinvesting in new central area buildings to sustain and enhance the successful interaction of central area uses.

Also of note is the approach being adopted in Hemel Hempstead, where reinvestment is being made within a framework masterplan with 7 character areas, allowing ‘bite-sized’ regeneration projects all delivering toward the overall goals. One new location will be the new Town Square, providing a focal point along an otherwise very linear central area, and bringing back interest to the old markets area.. The linearity of the central walk is being further softened and broken with a spine of trees and ‘play on the way’ stopping points for children. People will be invited to go for a SPREE (shop, play, relax, eat, enjoy).

Other centres are also showing and demonstrating resilience by ensuring that their offer builds on their strengths whilst not aiming to compete with other neighbouring centres that may have complementary strengths. Telford has pressed ahead with its Southwater proposal, ‘creating a new, vibrant heart’. This will assure improved leisure facilities, new (including affordable) housing, a state-of-the-art public library within high quality public realm, and addition retail/office and food provision. And in Basildon the Masterplan (2012) builds on plans to “reinvent the New Town principles”, will add provision for a new College site at the centre, a better located market, and establish a Waterside community residential area on the site of the former Swimming Pool.

The New Towns pioneer...

And still the New Towns pioneer. Milton Keynes is the first to be developing a Business Neighbourhood Plan in its central area. The Plan has been prepared by an Alliance: 4 Town Council reps, 4 Milton Keynes Council reps, 8 business (commercial & voluntary) reps. The Milton Keynes centre has become a magnet for new commercial investment but not all proposals have been in line with the original design approach adopted for the centre of the New Town. The Neighbourhood Plan idea was born out of the wishes of some to be more pro-active and forward-thinking rather than (negatively) reactive to ideas to further develop the centre of a rapidly expanding town.

So small, in details, is both beautiful and at the heart of sustainability.

Andrew Matheson MRTPI has recently retired from the RTPI staff where he was a Policy + Networks Manager