Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Let's Call Them 'Garden Cities'


Now, I have a theory. I don't have them very often these days, wish I did. It's about modern housing development. We're currently hearing a lot about 'Garden Cities' (a term coined, one suspects, to make us feel better about massive development). Today some proposals may rise up challengingly before us, and it would be remarkable if they followed the same ideas and visual principles of places like Letchworth (above) and Welwyn Garden City (read about them all here) but I'm filled with foreboding. Particularly when you see the scrubby pyloned landscape around candidate Ebbsfleet in Kent, the infrastructure for a new city put in years ago with the high speed rail link. Two people discussed the idea of 'Garden Cities' on the Today programme this morning, a National Trust boss and a bloke who runs Next, and it was all about where the new 'Garden Cities' should be located. Somebody vaguely mentioned high standards and quality, but as in all these discussions nobody talks about the quality of house design itself.

Hence my theory: We'd all feel a whole lot better about housing development if the houses and the spaces in between were designed with some proper thought and care. Yes, it needs architects who can draw, but you never know.

Everybody runs about waving their arms in the air when the bulldozers start revving-up to clear the countryside for new homes, whether they're needed or not (developers and house builders will always tell you 10 million homes are needed by Christmas). And that's because of the paucity of quality in design. We all have concerns about acres of greenery being built over, but why can't the end result be something other than mediocre pastiches of past styles with eighteen inches between them and a few token shrubs? Even adding a decent height to chimney stacks and putting  proper terracotta pots on them would help enormously. And I don't mean building toytowns like the one tacked on to Dorchester.

Great examples are out there to provide inspiration. The first garden suburb, Bedford Park in Chiswick, was planned around keeping as many existing trees as possible and employing people like architect Norman Shaw. And then there's the remarkable New Ash Green in Kent. Yes, that one would've looked a bit raw when it was first built, but the quality of house design, the planning of roads and cul-de-sacs and the keeping of essential trees and greenery means it has now matured into something almost unique in England. I do hope something similar starts to happen now, and not just in the new 'Garden Cities'.

14 comments:

Mike Biles said...

Didn't the Garden City movement also result in Crawley and Milton Keynes? I share your concerns and believe that it's usually more efficient to do something well than to do it badly.

Hels said...

When you hear the term Garden Cities these days, does it refer back to a utopian city in which people lived harmoniously together with nature? Sir Ebenezer Howard was very specific in the meaning then, way back in the 1898-1910 era.

Or is it a generic term now that owes nothing to green town planning and everything to quick and profitable development?

Stephen Barker said...

It does not matter how could the architect is if the person paying the bills is not prepared to pay for the quality of design and materials. Much as I admire the early Garden Cities I am not sure that they provided homes for the poorest in society. Even on the first LCC estate the rent was to high for unskilled workers.

The problem of how to provide decent accommodation at a price people can afford either to buy or rent is long standing. In the past this has either been done by private philanthropy or by subsidised housing provided by councils.
One fears that the term Garden cities is being used to create a more positive image for large scale development. Whether it will stand the test of time is another matter. I am sure that there were some imaginative designs in the early days of Milton Keynes but this gave way to standard housing developments. This what I think will happen to the proposed schemes if the pressure to provide houses is greater than the desire to build to a high standard. I live in hope that I am wrong.

I think a garden city would be better than endless suburban sprawl.

Peter Ashley said...

Thankyou all for your very interesting comments. In my book I think Garden Cities are a very specific set of developments in the late 19th early 20th century. Certainly not MK or Crawley, which of course may have started out with inspirational intentions.
I agree that they weren't for the poor necessarily, but remember that places like Letchworth originally centred around corset making at Spirella and Welwyn Garden City around Shredded Wheat. What superb working environments! And brilliant examples that a high standard of design has little to do with having loads of money to build them.

Chris Partridge said...

Milton Keynes and Crawley weren't Garden Cities - they were New Towns, a very different animal.
As models for the future, however, neither concept is very feasible. Both are incredibly wasteful of land. Sadly, we can't allow the countryside to be covered in houses with gardens any more - we need a couple of Manhattans rather than a hundred Letchworths.

Stephen Barker said...

Chris your prescription may be correct, unfortunately the English seem wedded to the idea of their own little plot. The bad memories of tower blocks from the 1960's and 70's has hardly helped to create greater acceptance of dense urban living.

With an increasing population striking a balance between what people desire and what is practical is going to become ever harder.

I hope we avoid what is happening in China where developments of identical tower blocks are being built and now they are levelling mountains and filling in valleys to create more land for development. We are so fortunate in this country in having such a rich heritage in our built environment. Long may it continue.

Stephen Barker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jonathan Dudley said...

I need only mention my hometown of Peacehaven (nee, New-Anzac-On-Sea), Charles Neville's failed dream of a Garden City by the Sea, to highlight the pitfalls of such a venture. Hopefully time, legislation and experience will prevent such a repetition - of course had it been interpreted as per Gordon Volk's wonderfully evocative (and wholly inaccurate) illustrations, everything could have been so different!

Peter Ashley said...

Interesting that Jon. Is the Volk you mention anything to do with the electric railway in the sea Volk?

Chris said...

Hi Peter, I'm just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris

Jon Dudley said...

Magnus Volks' son I believe. As talented artistically as his father was mechanically/scientifically. He produced wonderful artist's representations of how Neville's dream was supposed to (but never did) look - tramways from Brighton, a link to the continent via Newhaven and Peacehaven as the centre of the known world! The whole enterprise was sold not only on value for money housing (providing it was a Neville-designed home) but on the health-giving benefits of the town's wonderful South facing aspect close to the ocean - 'Take your son and heir to where there is sun and air' being among the more memorable catch phrases!
One outlet for Volks' illustrations was Neville's magazine 'The Peacehaven Post' which ironically proved to be the template for the more upscale 'Sussex Life' and the ensuing rush nationwide of county magazines. Peacehaven Post was not without merit and employed good writers, historians, naturalists and gardeners as well as being the oxygen of publicity of the Neville dream. Volks' drawings shine through however as the quality of his draughtsmanship was superb.

Peter Ashley said...

Thankyou and welcome Chris! I shall indeed visit your site when I come back from the pub.

And Jon, brilliant as always, thank you. Excellent stuff on the Volks. I really must get down to Sussex again, I love it so much. I'm thinking about knocking out a painting of Beddingham, one of my favourite places sitting just below Mount Caburn.

Jon Dudley said...

There's going to be a celebration of Peggy Angus soon...just along the road from Caburn. The ghost of Ravilious will be looking over your shoulder as you sketch. I believe that's what they call a non- sequitur!

Anonymous said...

I don't think you'll be impressed by Tesco's plans for the old Shredded Wheat Factory in Welwyn Garden City. The high-rise blocks look terrible!

http://oldshreddedwheatfactory.co.uk/