Tuesday 22 July 2014

Garden City Principles need to be in the DNA of a new settlement

Philip Ross, addressed a seminar run by Shelter as a part of their submission for the Wolfson Prize. He talked about Garden Cities values and principles forming a part of the DNA of a new settlement, that they aren't something that can be added in afterwards

My name is Philip Ross and I was Mayor of Letchworth Garden City from 2007-2009. Since I have written a book entitled ‘21st Century Garden Cities of To-morrow’, with Prof Yves Cabannes from UCL. Yves is a former UN inspector and Harvard professor and housing specialist. He is done a lot of work in South America promoting schemes for participatory budgeting and empowering communities. Together we have travelled to China, Hong Kong and Europe to promote Garden Cities and the social values and principles that should underpin them.

Our story and the story of the Garden City movement and indeed almost every book on urban design begins with Letchworth. So lets begin there and let me tell a little about my town and in particular the dream that was Letchworth’ and why peoples from South America, North America, China, Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe are so interested in it.
Firstly let me qualify myself, I’m not a planner, I’m not an architect or even a housing a specialist. I work in London for an IT consultancy, I live in LGC where I am married and have raised three children. So please bear with me as I can only speak to with the passion of activist rather with the acronyms of a professional.
I moved to LGC in 2000, back then it was just ‘Letchworth’, believe it or not the town had dropped the suffix of ‘garden city’ only to bring it back in 2003 for its centenary. I thought a ‘garden city’ sounded a bit posh and that we wouldn’t be able to afford it and we never even looked at Welwyn GC a few miles down the road. But I discovered that when Letchworth had been founded that it premise wasn’t the construction of chocolate box house, there were no planned degrees on the height of hedges or picky local by-laws, the plan wasn’t to have flowers on the round abouts either. The other strange I discovered that you could call yourself  a ‘citizen of Letchworth’ and It stood, it was there as an echo from a former time that just wouldn’t go away.

Though it may have looked similar to it wasn’t replication of Port Sunlight or Bournville. These had been company towns founded on the principles of charity and paternalism.

Letchworth had founded itself on a far more radical principle. The founder of the Garden City movement Ebenezer Howard, aimed to build a new settlement, not out of bricks and mortar but out of social principle. To him, and to me, a garden city isn’t about a green space or brown space.
He did want to bring the best of town and country together, for instance the facilities of the town combined with the clean air and green space of the countryside.

·         He believed, as I do, in social justice.

·         He recognised then, as is true now, that the source of most wealth is land.
·         He recognised land would rise in value as the result of public money being spent near to it
·         He lamented that those who captured this value, this ‘unearned increment’ were the land lord who were mostly absent or companies.

He resolved that the solution was for people to be their own land lords. To truly hold the land in common. Mutual societies that built much of our nation showed this not to be an outlandish principle. Around the same John Speden Lewis turned his company into a partnership following similar principles. That was the underlining goal of the Garden City. Not about meeting a housing shortfall, but to build a new community.
The plan was to raise some philanthropic capital, build the town and as land values rose and he know they would they’d sell of some pay off the creditors and then hold the bulk of the land in trust for populations and then use the rates and rents from that land to build the town out and provide for the health and well being of the population. This would be done ‘perpetuity for the good of the people.

Letchworth in 2014
As of 2014, it has gone through various changes over the years and various trials and tribulations but the company still survives. If he was here today he’d found it as a CLT as suggested by Shelter.
The result is that today, in Letchworth Garden City, a small town in Hertfordshire, with a population of just 35,000 the Trust owns assets of £127m with the ability to spend an additional £7.5m each year in the local economy. This is on top of council spending. Now this isn’t money that has suddenly been specially created, it is there in every town, the difference with Letchworth is that it is held locally, it is not leaking away. The mistake with the new towns was that they weren’t endowed with their own assets they were flogged in a fire sale to private landlords. Such that 60 years later they are coming back and asking government for regeneration money.

This is the same model in place In Milton Keynes for its parks and green spaces, the same model has built communities in the USA at Burlington. It has held the assets through these 110 years.

What is a Garden City?
As you can imagine I get asked all the time by people ‘what is a garden city?’. Across the world where people are building new towns and cities they lament to us that they can build houses, offices, shops and factories but what is the missing ingredient that can turn these into a sustainable and vibrant community?

Is it Garden Cities? If so what is a garden city?

The model is though more than just money about just money and ownership, it is creating the key building block for a successful community a sense of place, a sense of belonging and pride. When I heard the ‘citizen of Letchworth’ I understood where it had come from. People had at the start been given a stake in their community, believed that it belonged to them, they weren’t subjects but citizens.

There right at the creation of the new place, right in its DNA is where you create the garden city and sow the seed of community and citizenship, it doesn’t matter if you are building arts and crafts homes or cities of steel and glass. You can’t tack these principles on at the end.

That is the dream that was and is Letchworth – to build a garden city that is economically, ecologically and social sustainable. Not a mirror image of Letchworth but one that builds on it strengths and learns from its shortcoming. One that builds a city for all, that is built for all to share, enjoy and prosper, and I believe that the Shelter proposal will do that so I commend it to you.