Utopias that work: How to create tomorrow’s garden city

Oxford Social City small
An aerial vision of how Oxford might grow according to Urbed’s Garden City vision

Winner of the Wolfson Economics Prize for their vision of a 21st century garden city, Urbed’s Nicholas Falk talks through his winning entry and urges new garden cities to capture the ‘common wealth’ for local good

A conference in Letchworth Garden City, like the event on Common Good Placemaking held in early September,  inevitably creates a positive feeling that through common or shared efforts anything is possible. Yet the reality of Letchworth, and subsequent failed attempts, is that good intentions are not enough to create a utopia in a market driven world.

Ebenezer Howard’s great inventions were not leafy lanes; indeed the very name garden city was derived from his experience in Chicago, and not used for the first edition of his thought-changing book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Urban Reform. Howard focused on tapping the ‘unearned increment’, the value created when development takes place, and using it to support high quality infrastructure.

It is the ‘social city’ of new settlements, connected together and with a central city, that should inspire our imagination. Yet that concept, strangely, is not covered in the otherwise excellent exhibition at the Letchworth Museum that has taken over Barry Parker’s old drawing office.

So, with so much stress on tackling the ‘housing crisis’ what lessons can we draw from Garden Cities, and in particular the Wolfson 2014 Economics Prize, which was won by us at Urbed, with Shelter as a runner-up.

New challenges for the 21st century
Tomorrow’s cities not only have to be affordable in a world where few earn enough to make a deposit on a house, but also to cut carbon emissions, and create a sense of community. Letchworth was built at a time when the man was the breadwinner, working locally, and when energy was delivered by the coalman. Various religions brought people together; alcohol was banned, and people made their own entertainment. The motor car was hardly practical for most people’s needs.

It is the ‘social city’ of new settlements, connected together

and with a central city, that should inspire our imagination.

Today in the greater south east, stretching out from London to Oxford or Cambridge and down to Brighton, there is vast pool of talent, and many potential educational and employment opportunities, especially in historic market and country towns and in the heart of London. It is this ‘common wealth’ that draws people from all over the world, and in the process makes getting on the housing ladder ever harder.

At the same time, while the blackened air in cities no longer drives people away, and places like Kings Cross have become the most desirable spots to locate, the underlying inequalities that Danny Dorling stresses will inevitably spark off further riots and atrocities if left unattended. As well as improving the utilisation of our housing stock, we have to find ways of doubling housing output and locating them where there is easy access to jobs and services, and this means taking much of the risk out of development.

Nicholas Falk

Dr Nicholas Falk is founder director of Urbed, and co-author of Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood: building the 21st century home


  • philip ross

    I disagree with Simon’s take, however I think we need to be on our guard to ensure that garden cities don’t go down that path. Which is why I feel strongly that garden cities need a strong definition – a social definition – to ensure that they don’t become utopian gated communities. Instead they need to be open and part of the wider community. These principles need to be in place at the start and I liked Urbed’s idea of a social contract. But that social contract needs to extend beyond the settlement itself.

    This is the lesson that they learnt in Vermont in the USA where they have established CLT.

  • mike reardon

    I have been trying to get interest away from the south east and greenfield per se. The garden city movement seems to accept the neo-liberal market driven economy that has created an economically distorted low wage economy driven by financial services based in and around London. The effect of current thinking would be to signal that this draining and sucking in of talent to the greater south east is set to continue. Except with a more humane residential response.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *