The competition entries to devise a 21st century Garden City which is visionary, economically viable and popular (Wolfson Economics Prize 2014) have been attracting great interest through their exhibition at the Building Centre in London (and the exhibition, supported by the RTPI, will shortly been seen further afield).
The winning answer proposal from Urbed, Uxcester, is not a city as we have tended to view these, in the manner of, say, Milton Keynes, but rather it is a polycentric collation of existing places. The winning entry shows how places brought closer together by careful planning can make the most of all the existing, and future, assets; in the jargon, it offers great added value. However, this proposal has come under immediate attack by Lord Rogers who has accused the proposals of "pandering" to the needs of house builders (Guardian 8.9.14). He says he is saddened by the re-emergence of ideas to build several million new homes on green field sites and, for the south-east at least, he proposes instead a replanning of Croydon to achieve the same ends. Since the winning concept is not based on any actual location – though there is a worked example based on Oxford - I doubt that the prize-winner would object to the approach or the location, provided that real growth could result. The winner himself in the same article points out that "I am proposing extending [these] towns and cities using a well-thought out plan rather than allowing them to sprawl in an uncoordinated way. Bloomsbury in London was built in this way. So was Edinburgh's new town." It is pleasing that good planning and design are presented as core elements of the winning proposal and that they are related equally to the re-use and repurposing of both brownfield and greenfield land.
Good planning is foremost
It is notable that the winner and indeed all the shortlisted entries present their planned approach at (at least) three levels. The Shelter runner-up entry with proposals for the Hoo Peninsular in Kent first establishes the site as a strategic location in relation to London, then establishes the settlement in relation to its immediate neighbours and then establishes the details of the credentials of the new place as a ‘garden city’. Similarly the entry from Wei Yang & Partners is established around locational principles based on an arc to the west and north of London before going on to look at the local planning approach that would be adopted to assure popularity. Chris Blundell – like Shelter - builds his approach around the infrastructure benefits of an established rail link. And whilst the Barton Willmore approach rejects the notion of “an omnipotent plan”, this is rejected in favour of a planning “framework” needed to provide “just enough” guidance and certainty for the market; the viability objective influences all the winning proposals.
The Government has not taken a cue from the entries and committed to establishing a strategic, locational approach to the planning of new settlements. Nor have the issues of reinvesting bestowed land value increases been picked up despite this featuring across all the shortlisted entries in varying ways in order to achieve their viability obligation. This was perhaps inevitable in the pre-election period – and yet the promise of front-loaded infrastructure improvements would surely go a long way to delivering the politicians dream of popularity, another of the obligatory prize-winning factors. Perhaps yet to be picked up is the prize-winner’s notion that the title ‘garden city’ might become one bestowed through a competitive process.
The Prize has been a showcase for what excellence in planning could achieve. Every one of the entries has been a collaborative, mediated effort around a planned approach. Will the outcome of the Government’s own Prospectus for Garden Cities – expressions of interest now closed - show the same imagination and be backed well enough to achieve deliverability?
Andrew Matheson is the RTPI Policy & Network Manager who has been leading on the Centenary project around mature planned communities.