Blog: 25 July 2019Creating quality Garden Towns – avoiding the pitfalls

Robin Shepherd

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Robin Shepherd

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Southampton office

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Robin Shepherd, partner at Barton Willmore, was invited to speak at the Garden Towns – Past, present and future event in Oxford (18.07.2019). The event, attended by local authority planners, included presentations from representatives of Ebbsfleet Development Corporation and a look at Garden Towns including Didcot, Bicester and Manydown in Basingstoke.

Robin gave his thoughts on what makes a successful garden city, and the pitfalls that should be avoided when planning and creating them. Here is a summary:

We have campaigned long and hard over many years for new settlements and garden communities as a key element of regional and national planning strategies. It is very encouraging now to see the Government and councils more frequently including such settlements in their thinking.

A Garden Town is defined by the Town and Country Planning Association as a 'holistically planned new settlement which enhances the natural environment, tackles climate change and provides high quality housing and locally accessible jobs in beautiful, healthy and sociable communities'. We are now in the fortunate position of having some years’ experience in seeing Garden Towns take shape in the UK and overseas – and of learning lessons along the way.

There’s no magic recipe

Although there are several key ingredients to successful garden town planning, there is no one magic recipe. We must beware of thinking this is the case - planning documents and policies don’t create great places – in fact, being too prescriptive can often be counter-productive as each settlement has its own unique needs, requirements, demographics and priorities. We must be very careful of assuming that just become a set of tactics worked somewhere else in the past, it’s the right thing to do here and now. Being wedded to a single approach is incredibly risky.

Listen– but not just to those who shout loudest

The American urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs is famously quoted: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

However, even when the recipe is sound, it can be spoiled with the involvement of too many cooks. In preparing a vision and designing place, beware of listening just to the loudest voices – the “single topic” people whose views can skew the rest. Watch out for those who tell you they don’t like something but can’t tell you why. A strong vision can also be watered down by too much agreement – and before you know it, Jane Jacobs’ “something for everybody” becomes nothing for everyone.

Work together and stay on track

Those involved in delivering the project may start together but pull in different directions. The developer will understandably want as much freedom as possible – creating tension with a local authority that may fear losing control. The community will have been asked for views, so those consulted want their contributions to be valued and their suggestions to be realised. Then there are practical considerations – where is the funding coming from? Who is delivering infrastructure, and how? All of these elements have the potential to create tension, compromise and dilution of the original vision. Being genuinely collaborative is the only answer: agree the ground rules and build trust with those organisations around the table. Be open, have the difficult conversation and understand what everyone needs.  More – be willing to give on things that actually aren’t as important to the greater good.  And work towards solutions that work for everyone and deliver the vision.

Think about the future

With each new project we must challenge our thinking and push it on, always with an eye on the future. New settlements can take 20, 30, 40 years to deliver. Think about what life was like in 1979 – how different was it then to the way we live today? Then think ahead to 2059 – how will we live, work and play? A community and development is  is never really finished – it evolves, grows and adapts, so it must be created with future change in mind, even if we don’t yet know exactly what that change may be. We must plant the seeds of a community, and then nurture it to grow. We need to focus not just on the buildings, spaces and uses, but the creation of a community – that takes time and effort.

So – what are the lessons we have learned from our experience in garden towns in the UK and overseas?

  1. It’s OK to borrow ideas – we’ve done it for centuries!
  2. Create a place that can adapt and change. Plan for uncertainty. Avoid developments that are too fixed..
  3. Be bold – have a strong and unique vision and be willing to experiment with new approaches.
  4. Be realistic on timescales – Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your Garden Town.
  5. Pick your fights. Be willing to give way on some things but hold on to others where it really matters.
  6. Work with great people with a mix of skills, energy and views.
  7. Create a community – one which takes ownership and stewardship of the place you have created.
  8. Be genuinely collaborative. Listen to and work with, all parties. But agree ground rules for the collaboration – and stick with them.
  9. Have a “champion” who can be an ambassador for the new town from the outset.
  10. Focus your efforts to where you can genuinely add value. Let others take care of the rest.

The Garden Towns – Past, present and future event was organised by BOB-MK Urban Design Network (Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes) and was sponsored by Savills and Taylor Wimpey. The network has been operating for ten years and is a collaborative group of predominately local authority officers with an interest in urban design issues. The network promotes the benefits of sharing good practice, ideas and issues, meeting with and learning from peers.

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Garden Towns, Urban Design, Communities