Thursday 4 September 2014

A New Garden City Alliance?

The visible and invisible architecture of garden cities :
Built on an alliance of values and practice

Garden Cities are again in the news in the UK with the recent Wolfson Economics Prize and its submissions on building new garden cities as well as the DCLG prospectus inviting expressions of interest in building community led garden cities. As ever planners and architects and politicians are all looking at the spatial aspects of a garden city, where one can be built and what it will look like. There remains though a need to look at the third and potential most important aspect, the invisible architecture that will form that community. This is the social values and principles upon which it will be built as well as its invisible architecture of finance, ownership and control

Plans have also been announced to build a ‘garden city’ at Ebbsfleet. But what do they mean by garden city? What definition of a garden city is it planning to follow? It is an important question. Even back in the days of the first garden city movement the only places to get the suffix ‘garden city’ or ‘garden suburb’ were those mainly that Ebenezer Howard and Raymond Unwin were connected with – Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities and notably Hampstead and Brentham Garden Suburbs. Other places, like many of the post war new towns, simply suggested that they were being built along ‘garden city lines’. 

The legacy of that first garden city movement itself has its own trinity. The birthplace and spiritual home of Garden Cities is Letchworth Garden City, the home of the movement is within the Town and Country Planning Association (which is the successor organisation to the original Garden Cities Association). Ebenezer Howard wasn’t a traditional planner or architect but a community architect interested in the social reform that garden cities could deliver. It is fair to say that that legacy of the third part of that trinity is also held today by the social and pioneering organisations in the co-operative movement, rural groups, environmental groups, housing associations, residents and tenants associations, the “transition town” movement, faith groups of all denominations, cultural groups, families and individuals of all ages. Howard’s original ideas chris-crossed the political divide just Garden Cities do today.

It follows that having a community-led garden cities starts by having a community-led definition of what a garden cities is. It needs to be one that belongs not to one organisation and is not one that is thought up in Whitehall but is one that is reflective of community values. It needs to be born of a partnership and a great alliance between social, design and architectural values and principles. The ambition must be to deliver a sustainable community, a community proving inter-generational equity that is socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. We will know we are successful because it will create a sense of place, purpose and a stake in their community, in one word ‘citizenship’.

Building and working from the legacy of the first garden city movement we need to build a tripartite alliance of planners, architects and community to deliver a definition of a 21st century garden city. Together they must deliver both a master plan for the visible architecture with the social and invisible architecture. Together they will provide the basis for establishing a sustainable society.

Just as the Wolfson Prize has engaged economists to come up with a multitude of ideas of about how to raise finance for a garden city the TCPA is making excellent progress drawing together the best planners and architects and providing strong thought leadership. On the invisible architecture a great deal of work has be done by co-operative movement with both a large and small ‘C’. Elsewhere groups like Respublica have made a very positive contribution. The BSHF reports on planning new settlements and their ability to also build a strong coalition of interests through their Windsor based consultations have made a huge contribution.
In November 2012 a conference in Letchworth saw a gathering of the social movement and planners and architects including the TCPA. The result was the subsequent Commons-Sense report which outlined a plethora of innovative ideas and documented existing practise such as community land ownership programme and district and co-operative heating and power solutions.

The TCPA have also published 7 principles for garden cities which all centre of the principle capturing land value for the good of community which are complementary to the 12 principles defined by Cabannes and Ross[author]  in their book ‘21st Century Garden Cities of To-morrow’. How this land value capture can be done remains the subject of debate. The debate itself is an old one with the original suggestion of a land value tax being made by Henry George which was championed by Churchill in his early days. The issue centres around that as land values rise who captures that unearned increment should it be the land lord or the people living there? Garden Cities propose that it is the community that lives there. A mechanism of collective land ownership and administration exists through the use of a Community Land Trust to manage estates. But where is the land to come from? The interesting thing about creative variants of land value taxation or the Co-operative Land Bank model (CLB) are that they could make the capture of the land self-financing.
Today’s agenda with new garden cities offer us chance to get it right afresh. But to do so we need to combine the best of the visible and invisible architecture together. It means getting the trinity of planning, architecture and social values to work together. In doing so community-led garden cities can have a community led definition, that can inspire planners, architects and be the contract and covenant between them, the community surrounding new settlement and for future citizens.

To achieve this there should be no doubt what makes a garden city. We need to have a shared and agreed definition of garden cities that comprises of the visible and invisible architecture that community groups and leaders, economists, planners and architects can all work from. We believe that at the heart of this will be the principles for land value capture for the community and commitments to be socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.

This is the goal of the September conference in Letchworth where we hope to issue and agree the ‘Letchworth Declaration’ of the goals and put in motion the mechanism to put this into action.
Our proposal is to create a New Garden Cities Alliance or Association as a Community Interest Company (limited by guarantee) owned by this trinity of users and groups. The goal of the company will be to agree a definition of garden cities (perhaps with gold, silver and bronze standards). We will draw inspiration from the Fair Trade movement, Transition Town movement and the Building for Life standard. We would expect all these accreditations to paint part of the picture of a Garden City. The Alliance will license different organisations to undertake audits and provide accreditations to allow towns and neighbourhoods to get the garden city mark. In the long term even an ISO standard could be developed for garden cities. The vision is here and details will be worked out collaboratively. We don’t see the Alliance or Association as employing staff or being bureaucratic.

The principles of garden city design, architecture and social can be drawn from the TCPA, other planning groups, the RIBA and community and activist groups to ensure that final definition will provide a foundation to build upon that will be Socially, Economically and Ecologically sustainable.

It would provide reassurance and a social contract for communities and guidance for architects and developers. In doing this we can jointly build the platform upon which successful and community-led and garden cities can be built and inspiring second garden movement that we can all be proud of.

Philip Ross, Letchworth Garden City.
10th July 2014