Friday 18 July 2014

Garden Cities - A ideal to embrace

Garden Cities are making for a fascinating debate as suggested by Peter Dijkhuis from the building developer CBRE in an article for City AM\The Forum. However I would disagree with his analysis of garden cities. Firstly I recognise that developers are focused on how many houses they can build and that their concern is that this approach won’t allow them to build enough. Our starting point is how can we build communities, and more importantly how can we make them socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. What we don’t want is 200,000 Brezhnev homes to be thrown up all over the country every year for the next ten years without a thought and just a focus on numbers.

I am the former Mayor of Letchworth Garden City. I would say we do want more Letchworth’s and more Welwyn’s and Milton Keynes. We want cities and towns that work that create a sense of community. We are not proposing carbon copies of these towns but to build upon their success which is as much about their invisible architecture - the social building blocks not just on bricks and mortar.

The driving force behind the founder of the Garden City movement, Ebenezer Howard, wasn’t a desire to new homes out of charity and paternalism for grateful subjects. The developers did that in the 1960’s when they levelled communities and gave them in exchange tower blocks and Formica kitchens and expected them to be grateful. Garden Cities are about participation, empowerment and citizenship. They are about creating a harmonious community at ease with itself and at its core happiness of the people that live there. Ebenezer Howard believed that to achieve this there needs to be a focus on the invisible architecture as much as it does on the physical. A key part of this is land value capture, such that rising land values can be captured for the people who live in the settlement, whether tenants or owners. As infrastructure is built into any community land values rise but the usual winners are the often absent land lords.
Consider the extension to the Jubilee line in the 1990's. The tax payer invested £3.5 billion, but following its completion property values within 1,000 yards of each of the eleven new stations jumped in value 3.7 times to £13 billion. Who benefited from this windfall?, not the tenants in Southwark for sure, the rise in land values and following spikes in rents went to the land lords most of them absentee corporate owners. This wealth was sucked out of the community right into the pockets of the wealthiest. The proposition for a garden city is to capture that wealth for the good of the people who live there.

As such in Letchworth a trust owns much of the commercial, industrial and agricultural land to the value of £127m which generates an annual revenue of £7.5m a year which it spends in the town. Not bad for a population of 35,000. Milton Keynes has a similar model which it uses to finance the running of its parks and open spaces. In the USA the community land trust movement is delivering similar benefits in places such as Burlington. This isn’t a utopian or outdated model from a previous century but one that works here and now and is delivering success.

I have received in Letchworth many visitors from China and the developing world where new settlements are being built, the questions they have on their lips is how can we turn houses, factories and offices into a community? They don’t want Brezhnev style homes and towns any more than we do and so they look at the garden city for the answer as the special ingredient. We tell them that it is creating a sense of place, purpose and belonging for people and giving them a stake in their community. We have written a book – ‘ 21st Century Garden Cities of To-morrow’ – which details 12 social principles upon which to build an socially, ecologically and economically sustainable city. We believe that this social contract is the most important part as it can act as charter or manifesto for a new settlement and be the guarantor underwriting the value and belief in the place. In the UK there is still the belief in some quarters that a garden city must be an ‘idealised’ place and is based on an old idea. We believe that the values and particularly the underlining social principles of a garden city that are about sharing, enjoyment and prosperity aren’t old, but are fresh, alive and well and need to lead any future debate.

Part of the problem is that I accept that is lack of a formal definition of a garden city but assert that it is for communities and social groups rather than developers or Whitehall to formulate and that is what we must do.
While some may reject Garden Cities as a ‘utopian ideal’, in contrast I embrace it, as I believe that it is the British skill in turning such hopes and dreams into reality that made this country great and we won’t shy away from it now.

Philip Ross was Mayor of Letchworth Garden City 2007-9 and founder of the New Garden City Movement and co-author of ‘21st Century Garden Cities of To-morrow. A manifesto’.