A new Garden City standard?

philip-rossGarden cities are in the news again with the recent Wolfson Economics Prize, and DCLG’s prospectus inviting expressions of interest in community-led garden cities.

As ever planners, architects and politicians are all looking at the spatial aspects of a garden city, for example where one can be built and what it will look like. There remains though a need to look at the third and potentially most important aspect, the social values and principles upon which it will be built, and 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 that mainly Ebenezer Howard and Raymond Unwin were connected with – Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities and 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’.

Community-led garden cities need to start with a community-led definition of what a garden city is. This definition should belong not to one organisation or thought up in Whitehall but should reflect community values. It needs to be born of a partnership and an alliance between the social values and the design and architectural values. The ambition must be to deliver a sustainable community, a community of inter-generational equity that is socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. If successful it will create a sense of place, purpose and a stake in 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 masterplan for the visible architecture, but also for 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 Town and Country Planning Association (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 the co-operative movement and groups like Respublica and the BSHF.

The TCPA has also published 7 principles for garden cities which all centre on the principle of capturing land value for the good of community, which are complementary to the 12 principles defined by Cabannes and myself in our book ‘21st Century Garden Cities of Tomorrow’.

How this land value capture can be done remains the subject of debate. The debate itself is an old one and centres around the question of, as land values rise, who captures that unearned increment? Should it be the landlord 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 Community 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 a 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 the 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 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 was one of the goals of the Common Good Placemaking conference in Letchworth last week where participants discussed the idea of a ‘Letchworth Declaration’ to be the mechanism to put this into action. It was a gathering that would have put a smile on the face of Ebenezer Howard and the other garden city pioneers.

The Letchworth Declaration is a proposal to create a New Garden Cities Alliance owned by this trinity of users and groups. The goal of the alliance will be to agree a definition of garden cities (perhaps with gold, silver and bronze standards). It will draw inspiration from the Fair Trade and Transition Town movements and the Building for Life standard.

The alliance will license different organisations to undertake audits and provide accreditation 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.

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 an inspiring second garden movement that we can all be proud of.

Join in, read and sign the declaration by visiting:



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