Thursday, 5 January 2017

Garden villages and groundhog days

Garden villages or settlements are the latest wheeze by government aiming to solve the ‘housing crisis’. There have been six approved already; fourteen more announced this week, and more in the pipeline. But will they work? If by ‘work’ we mean building genuinely new settlements, complete with infrastructure, amenities, culture, well-paid employment and economic growth.

Critics of the new garden settlements will no doubt be condemned as nimbyish, immigrant-hating kippers. The combined forces of the Mail and Nigel Farage have, of course, been complaining that the UK is the ‘most crowded country in Europe', a claim apparently not correct in the detail. Scotland, Wales, the North and the South West all have low population densities. And if you remove London from the picture, even England only ranks about ninth in Europe.  A more nuanced take is needed. 

And of course, the countryside has traditionally been against development, no doubt wanting to hold on to their huge and yawning spaces, even if the lack of housing is producing a dearth of youth, families and working people. And it is kind of amusing, looking at the issue from my still-Londonish eyes, why people in the not-London complain about overcrowding. London can cram nine million people in 611 square miles, and still function. It's all subjective.

Garden settlements are a good idea in theory. Unplanned, urban sprawl, complete with miles of soulless suburbs and gridlocked traffic, is just one example of a litany of policy failure. And many of the planned settlements look good and thoughtful, with mixed housing options, retail and amenities, public space and all the trappings of a successful human settlement.

And if we remain cynical that, in the final analysis, and after legal wrangles and compromises, we end up with another Bovis style estate with bucolic rural names, residents driving to the nearest established settlement to get their cultural ‘fix’, perhaps we need to get busy holding public officials to account and make sure the vision is delivered.

Taking out the entanglements with the UK’s alt right, though, and there are good reasons to be wary. We don’t have a startling record in the UK of building successful new settlements.

Garden cities: the UK experience

Yes, folks, we've been here before. And garden cities like Letchworth and Welwyn were, as Jon Neale pointed out, were created from anxieties about urbanisation, industrialisation and its ‘amoral cultures’. It was all about privacy, family, green spaces and definitely no drinking. Heroin was apparently fine though…just joking, through the experience of garden cities seemed to bear out George Orwell’s comments about English culture:

“One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.”

It seems pointless to struggle against this, as left and right Puritans have done (remember Le Corbusier?). Why not plan around it?

Go to either of these garden settlements and the streets are soulless and empty, its inhabitants removed from productive economic work (unless they commute) and connection with others. They built town centres, for sure, but they are decaying economically and lacking in interest. By contrast, London is a festival of cultural experience, the streets teeming with people and the possibilities of work and enterprise. Cities, as Jane Jacobs pointed out, provide the density needed for life, culture and a thriving economy.

So what does this tell us about the creation of garden settlements?

We need community

Government often treats housing as a technical problem. You build houses, and people live in them. Simple. But there is more to it (of course). Government has a worrying tendency to impose its vision of society on others, and how they want to live. It's fine, of course, if particular ministers and individuals dislike urban locations and prefer rural settings, with people who look just like them.

But not everyone wants to live like that. Most people don’t want to live like that. They want to engage. Work, education, pubs (gritty ones filled with history), restaurants, cafes, music, cinema, art, sex and relationships, parks, markets, playgrounds, children, friends, acquaintances – these are pretty much on most people’s smorgasbord of life.

Time builds character and civil society into a place. History is humanistic. Organic development, particularly those in urban settings, offer freedom to create and recreate, to experiment, to fail, to resist, to encounter difference. These elements, the substance of people's lives and achievements, are written into the history of our streets. Placemaking is most successful when it plays on what is already there. It makes the creation of new settlements, not in itself a bad idea, fraught with complications.

Placemaking is a psychosocial problem, and it’s about community. You can’t just drop people in a new town and expect a resilient community to be created. It needs work, a form of ‘post-conflict contingency planning and reconstruction’ plan.

It’s the economy, stupid

Government planning around garden settlements also misses out the core issue that these places map poorly onto the economy. A core example is the one planned for West Carclaze in Cornwall. There is, of course, a shortage of housing in Cornwall, one that could be solved by forcing second homeowners to rent their houses when not in use, or by other kinds of innovative infill. But Cornwall, to its historic misfortune, does not have an economy. No-one is planning an economy there. No-one is looking at Cornwall and prioritising how to build enterprise that suits its sense of place and skills set. Put simply, if people have good jobs and resources, they can build their own homes – and they would build them where they want to be.

The problem is that government policy persists in believing that housing generates (or is a substitute for) economic development. But the opposite is true. Housing in so many ways is just an expression of the health of the economy. North Essex is planning 9000 new homes in garden settlements. It's huge. Is it similarly planning around the development of the local economy? In piecemeal. But wages are low there and unregistered unemployment high, so who will buy all those new houses?

The economy needs to come before housing, and if people need housing because they can't afford it, we should build affordable housing; dare I say, council housing.

Groundhog day

We are seemingly doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, until the UK is filled with generic homes that nod to its romanticised past, filled with slightly depressed and lonely people getting into their cars to visit their out-of-town shopping centres, wondering where their sense of purpose went.

Thus far, community involvement only forms part of the glossy brochures created by private developers. People might even be invited to the odd ‘consultation' or two. But places, created by the people, with all the things that humans need to work and live, seems off the agenda for this government at least.

We still don’t get it.

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