A new generation of UK garden cities

17 November 2017

The UK Government recently announced that 14 garden villages totalling more than 48,000 homes are to be built around the country. But is the revival of an idea first conceived in 1898 a realistic response to dwindling housing stock? Greg Noone talks to David Rudlin, the manager of planning agency URBED, and Dr Frances Holliss, director of the WorkHome Project, about how applying lessons from Europe and Asia may help solve a very British housing crisis.

For most of their lives, the cows lived in a field on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. The Concrete Cows, sculpted by the artist Liz Leyh in 1978, have since become a quirky symbol for the town. Slouching through the grass with mildly curious expressions on their faces, they evoke a faded vision of Milton Keynes as a garden city; a refuge for city folk that lets the countryside disperse through its avenues and roundabouts like green paint in water.

Founded in 1967 by the UK Government to accommodate the overspill in housing from several London boroughs, Milton Keynes was designed as an updated version of the garden city concept first proposed by Ebenezer Howard at the turn of the century. Since then, however, the town has sustained heavy criticism from the left wing as a “soulless, empty Brasilia”, according to the historian Owen Hatherley, and from the right as “simply a place you visit out of necessity when the food runs out”, as philosopher Sir Roger Scruton put it. In that time, Milton Keynes became a place to live like anywhere else, a dreary fact writ large on Leyh’s cows as they were habitually vandalised and, on one occasion, kidnapped for ransom.

Yet, amid a national housing crisis, the concept of the garden city is being revived. In its third incarnation, bids for the status of ‘garden village’ or town are being invited from municipal authorities up and down the UK. The new policy draws heavily on a concept first proposed by planning consultant URBED in 2015 as part of its bid to win that year’s Wolfson Economic Prize. In its essay for the competition, the agency advocated the incremental development of urban extensions out of existing cities. By doing so, the UK would be able to foster a sustainable solution to its housing crisis that avoided the mistakes made in developing the last generation of new towns.

Policy politics

It’s about time, according to URBED’s managing director, David Rudlin. The long-standing focus on earmarking brownfield sites for new housing developments has effectively ignored the fact that smaller cities such as Oxford don’t have any.

“They have insufficient urban capacity to meet the needs for their growth,” he explains. “Therefore, they have to grow in another way; a way that is well planned, medium density and with sustainable extensions into the green belt.”

Why this hasn’t happened already is down to the UK’s unique attitudes towards where and how it builds on greenfield sites. Local authorities and residents are notoriously reluctant to allow new housing developments on the green belt – the ring of fields and set-aside land surrounding most of the country’s towns and cities. Private developers aren’t likely to rush in to save the day, either. Allowing permission to build on agricultural land sees its valuation skyrocket and, as such, the benefit of developing it remains in the hands of the landowner.

It’s a model that, according to Rudlin, is primitive compared with legislation in Germany and the Netherlands that fixes land bought by local authorities at its current price. Local authorities can then sell it on to interested parties in zoned parcels over a number of years, using the proceeds to fund infrastructure projects that underpin further growth.

This system has eased the development of urban extensions like Almere Poort in the Netherlands, and was one that URBED saw as the logical solution to growing a new generation of UK garden cities. The agency’s template – ‘Uxcester’, a fictional city based on Oxford – envisions six such extensions tethered to the city centre by tram links, like the chevrons of one vast, brick-built snowflake.

Government policy doesn’t draw directly from URBED’s proposal. The first section, relating to the construction of garden villages, is derived from a Policy Exchange paper by Lord Matthew Taylor, a former government housing adviser. Taylor’s proposals provide for new, freestanding settlements, but Rudlin is encouraged that most of the bids thus far are effectively urban extensions. The second section of the policy, relating to garden towns, is much more in keeping with URBED’s vision for the future. The agency is working with a number of local authorities to shape their bids. He predicts that more will be motivated to do so in time.

“Local authorities are now quite clear that, in the future, they’re going to be far more reliant on the local tax base than they are on government subsidies,” says Rudlin. URBED’s managing director is confident that his agency’s proposal is winning hearts and minds in the halls of government. “It’s all very much behind the scenes. You won’t find many policy announcements, part of which is because the government doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that it is encouraging greenfield housing, but it’s all happening.”

Old solution to a new problem

“There seems to be a single line, which is that we need to build more houses,” says Dr Frances Holliss. “And while I don’t think that’s wrong, it’s a limited and unimaginative view, and, in the context of the current market, it’s enormously problematic.”

An emeritus reader in architecture at London Metropolitan University, Holliss has spent most of her academic career researching and writing about the historical fusion of the workplace and the home.

“Before the Industrial Revolution, nearly everybody worked from home or lived at their workplace,” Holliss explains – a legacy still glimpsed in terms such as ‘alehouse’ and ‘bathhouse’. By the 20th century, however, “the term ‘house’ became somewhere you’d cook, eat, bathe, watch telly [and] bring up your children”.

But this model was temporary. Automation has eliminated many of the kinds of jobs that require workers to be housed in a factory or office, and seems set to rid the economy of many more. That makes the logic of preserving a spatial separation in the planning system between home and workplace increasingly absurd, Holliss argues, and precludes the need for something like a garden city. Why put new houses out in the countryside when we can build over the offices we leave vacant for half the day?

“It was a brilliant solution at the time,” Holliss says of garden cities and towns. “Of course, we’ve got a different set of problems now. And I think it’s really nostalgic to go back to that as a solution to the problems we have now.”

East-Asian influence

Instead, the lecturer proposes that planners return to a model of housing development with a distinctly pre-industrial flavour. Through the WorkHome Project, an outgrowth of her PhD funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, Holliss and her collaborator, Professor Colin Davies, produced renders for several exemplary workhomes designed around the needs of home-based workers in urban, suburban and rural contexts that she interviewed during her doctoral research.

“We took 13 of them as clients and asked, ‘what happens if we take a modest urban plot that is 6×12m?’,” says Hollis.

Each design is sparse but elegant and consciously draws on historical precedents from all over the world. The Japanese connection, for Holliss, is a particularly important one, given the enduring spatial legacy of the country’s short and sharp industrial revolution.

“A lot of the feudal structures weren’t dismantled,” she explains, which impacted the way in which the Japanese authorities defined the specific use of houses. “In Japan, in the same category as house, it says ‘house with small other function like shop, office, studio’. So you are allowed to build those wherever you want to build houses. That would be such an incredibly simple change to make here.”

This attitude isn’t just confined to East Asia.

“The experience in the Netherlands is that if you actually involve people – the residents – in the early stages of the design, then the consequent buildings very often come out with workspaces integrated, attached or nearby,” she says. “I could visualise radically different urban forms and buildings that would accommodate people who have primary care responsibilities; quiet, clean jobs; or noisy, dirty jobs.”

A spark of social change

Holliss acknowledges that any shift towards home-based work in the UK couldn’t take place overnight. A whole slew of regulations, starting with the way in which businesses and homes are rigidly taxed, would need to be overhauled. The wider architectural community is also, Hollis says, still designing the home-as-refuge.

“I think the whole issue of designing appropriate spaces for people to live and work in is something that we’re extremely out of practice with, and that’s something that will need to be reintroduced,” she says.

Even so, she believes it would be a challenge that would spur on architects and urban planners to align themselves with the broad currents emerging in the global economy, as well as building efficient, communitycentric spaces. It’s also a model that, Holliss argues, could break the hold certain cities – primarily London – have on employment in the UK. Previously derelict neighbourhoods in Liverpool and Sunderland might well be transformed.

“You could change the character of the northern city,” says Holliss. Even if automation and artificial intelligence take the rude edge out of hard work, not all jobs or people will prove amenable to Holliss’s model. Even as automated vehicles buzz along the country’s highways, the old way of doing things could live on, with people spending a few years living in the city before drifting out into green fields to raise a family and watch the grandchildren grow up.

Liz Leyh’s Concrete Cows remain a symbol of Milton Keynes.
Garden cities may be a solution for rising population density.
URBED’s template for its fictional city of Uxcester.
Frances Holliss’s basic workhome model.

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