Early in 2017 the Government unveil plans for 14 new garden villages and three new garden towns as part of a nationwide drive to provide new homes. By coincidence, it was also exactly 50 years since the birth Milton Keynes, the new town designed to redefine urban living. Jon Herbert reports.
The late Victorians planned garden cities on a grand scale. Intended as self-contained communities surrounded by greenbelt containing a mix of homes, industry and agriculture, many morphed quickly into dormitory suburbs.
They were also the antithesis of the modern concept of high-density urban communities and accused of eroding the countryside, although their successors, modern garden cities like Letchworth and Welwyn, have been influential templates ever since.
Yet, the idea of pleasant urban living with a rural flavour lives on deep in the British psyche with the term ‘garden’ conjuring up idyllic images of lakes and parks.
That is slightly misleading in a contemporary context where garden refers more to filling in the gaps and reworking the edges of older blighted communities and convincing others that they really do want new neighbours.
Even so, recent announcements are important in giving a softer green edge to how we live in future and opening up commercial possibilities for the type of housing and community infrastructure builders and suppliers will be expected to provide.
Green and pleasant
One of the advantages of green living places is said to be better wellbeing, plus physical and mental health. Cleaner air and more car-free spaces are better for our lungs. But the psychological roots are thought to go deeper.
Humans as a species may have been hunter-gatherers for about 100,000 years but only really began to live in large close communities for the last two centuries. By 2050, two-thirds of us are likely to be domiciled in cities. Our lifestyles are outstripping our mental evolution.
An Exeter University study analysing 18 years of data from more than 10,000 individuals found that people living with more green space are happier with significantly lower mental distress and significantly higher life satisfaction ratings. These are described as being on par with a third of that gained from being married, or a tenth of being employed rather than unemployed.
Other studies have indicated that patients recover more quickly from surgery when they can see trees; a Forestry Commission report also found that access to attractive open spaces leads to 50% higher walking levels.
People who get out and about more also interact more; social cohesion increases.
The counter evidence is that poor lighting and maintenance can increase social problems, which is why proper funding is important to the garden concept.
The Government has announced backing for what it described as the first-ever garden villages which it says have the potential to provide more than 48,000 homes – equivalent to roughly one twentieth of the one million it hopes to see built to help address the UK housing shortage.
By definition, garden villages will comprise 1,500 to 10,000 new properties; green towns will have more than 10,000. The Government describes them as locally-led developments.
Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, commented, “Locally-led garden towns and villages have enormous potential to deliver homes that communities need”, adding that they bring jobs, facilities and boost local economies. No great detail of the funding has been released.
The 14 new villages will be spread across England, from Cornwall, Devon and Somerset through Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Essex, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Cheshire, Merseyside and Lancashire.
Additionally, there will be three new garden towns in Aylesbury, Taunton and Harlow & Gilston to supplement others already announced. The 17 sites together could account for some 200,000 homes.
Dame Kate Barker, formerly of the Bank of England, was asked by the Government in 2003 to carry out an independent Review of UK Housing Supply which reported in 2004. It concluded that real term house prices had risen by some 2.4% annually over 30 years. To cut this to 1.8%, 70,000 new houses were needed each year. To meet the 1.1% EU average, 120,000 new homes needed building.
Clearly, circumstances have changed significantly. However, Dame Kate is still a qualified observer. She greeted the garden village announcement as a “step in the right direction”, but also noted that the figures only made up for a year’s worth of the housing backlog that should been built since the financial crisis.
She also commented that the £6 million of funding the Government proposes spending across garden village is not a large sum and would require more infrastructure money.
Black Country metamorphosis
In 2014, the Coalition Government announced plans for garden cities at Ebbsfleet, Kent and Bicester Oxfordshire. In 2016, the Black Country Garden City was added to the list.
One of the proposed bigger conurbations in the pipeline with more eco-friendly homes, Black Country Garden City will be the largest brownfield regeneration site in the country. Its 45,000 new homes will straddle parts of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton west of Birmingham.
Rather than being a new town or an Edwardian-style garden city, it will set out to regenerate some 30 existing towns along the garden city principles of avoiding the homogenous dull sprawl of large housing estates in the past.
The developments must include improved transport links, more green spaces and provision for SMEs as part of more dynamic development.
There will not actually be a single city but more of a “concept to help get investment in the Black Country”.
Former Communities Secretary, and now Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, Greg Clarke, said at the time, “The Black Country Garden City symbolises the region’s ambition. It will deliver modern, new housing that will be a magnet for business investment, notably in advanced manufacturing and construction, which will boost the local economy and supply the houses local families want.”
The Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership is on record as saying that it hopes the development will boost the region by as much as £18 billion over the coming decade.
Old new towns
Harlow, Basildon, Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead were among a flock of new towns designed and built to meet post-war circumstances. One of the most progressive and controversial at the time of large scale developments was Milton Keynes, which has just celebrated its 50th birthday.
Much has changed over half a century. However, its expansion is not over yet; in August 2016 plans were announced for a second major 10,000 home development on the town’s outskirts, potentially including a new hospital.
The Buckinghamshire new town with a design brief to become a city formally came into life on 23 January 1967. With a designated area of 9 km2, it subsumed three existing towns and 15 villages; the population of the urban area in 2011 was 229,941. The wider borough area in which it sits had 248,800 souls compared to 53,000 in 1961.
Carefully located equidistant from the large cities of the South and Midlands, the town was designed with the aim of becoming a self-sustaining major regional centre. Its development corporation, keen to avoid mistakes made in other new towns, returned to the garden city ideals plotted out at the turn of the century.
Unique Milton Keynes
Unlike towns that have grown organically, Milton Keynes was set out on a system of grid roads running between grid square districts. Extensive planting of millions of shrubs and trees, plus lake and parkland formation, created the landscape that predominates today. Some delicate manipulating saw main streets near the city centre aligned to the Midsummer’s Day rising sun.
By intent, Milton Keynes was not given a traditional town centre but a central business and shopping district augmented by decentralised local centres in most of the grid squares. This sets it apart from other new towns.
Part of the logic was that modern telecommunication made the need for a concentric city centre cluster of physically close buildings obsolete; instead, convenient travel would be important. Roundabout rather than traffic lights were used at intersections because of their efficiency with the large volumes of road traffic envisaged.
The urban design was also intended to encompass a wide range of industrial and residential building styles and uses; Milton Keynes has been said to have stood the test of time better than most other new developments and been more flexible and adaptable.
Although the 1 km (0.62 mi) grid structure predominates, it has been allowed to flow around the lay of the land, making construction more economical and scenic. There are now some 100 distinct neighbourhoods. Grid dimensions were chosen so that residents would always be in easy walking distance of a bus stop.
Where the Milton Keynes model is beginning to fall down is in expansion plans that envisage an end to the underpass system that connected each district, something that made the town unique. On the positive side, pollution levels are said to be lower than in comparable communities.
Quite separate from the roads is a 125-mile-long (200 km) network of walking and cycling routes that run through the grid squares and often alongside the grid roads. Their ambling nature means that they are used extensively for leisure.
Originally, the idea was that no building should be taller than a tree. The need for landmark buildings saw this rule broken by a series of high-rise buildings in the central business district. Government pressure to increase population densities has also stressed the urban model and spawned opposition groups.
As the UK’s fastest growing city that is not actually a city, Milton Keynes has been described as a mature town that is still in its social adolescence. Some of the lessons it has learned might well apply to its younger and smaller siblings.