Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Ain't Nowt So Pretty As A Garden City (or building for NIMBYs)

Over a century after the first, Letchworth, was begun, garden cities are in the news again as news leaks that the government seek to construct two more, preferably in the south east of England. 

However after the mixed success of Letchworth, Stevenage, Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead. and Welwyn Garden City, all employing Hertfordshire as their test bed, but which quickly lost the original ideals of affordability and self-containment (too close to London so perfect for commuting, resulting in rocketing prices). Simultaneously there was an effort made to cultivate 'garden suburbs' such as Hampstead in London and these were arguably much more successful in cultivating a beautiful, vibrant and practical (if still expensive) environment for habitation. At the end of the 19th century/turn of the 20th century other worthy ideas such as 'model villages' - prime examples being Bourneville (Cadbury) and Port Sunlight (Sunlight soap) were constructed independently by (usually Quaker) manufacturers to provide decent attractive housing in a healthy environment of lifetime communities for their workers inclusive of facilities such as sports clubs and theatres. Early social housing initiatives such as London's Peabody Estate were also a great success and many are still in use today. When ugly urban development got out of hand on the South Downs, the National Trust was apparently founded in protest to protect the area!

The planning movement then lost enlightenment and focus, roughly in conjunction with the invention of and growing love affair with concrete and other cheap new modern building materials following wartime shortages, with the creation of 'new towns' such as Milton Keynes and Telford, the emphasis on an elephantine indoor shopping centre and multi-storey car parks at their soulless heart, rather than green spaces, if you can find the towns through the proliferation of ringroad spaghetti and endless roundabouts (proud English invention first seen in 'garden city' Stevenage) surrounding each. Then disastrous 'cities in the sky' and sprawling brutalist concrete 'overspill' estates came along creating more social ills than they solved. 
Here are some examples of horrific housing that post-date the 'garden city' era.

Since then Britain has seen its towns and cities mercilessly cut up by ringroads, sacrificed to the alter of the motor car and haulage lorry, and careless ribbon development (aka urban sprawl) allowed to run riot in the name of profit, despite all the lip service paid to 'greenness', 'infrastructure' and 'community', all of which are severely compromised by such short-termism. Now the green belts, intended to act as the 'lungs' of each city are under threat, as are the once-strict planning laws intended to protect them, in addition to preventing building on the flood plains and upholding the rights of historic buildings. 

A 'housing crisis' apparently trumps all other considerations be they legal, logistical, cultural, human - even down to the quality of the materials used (the majority of modern buildings may have to conform to various energy-saving standards but somewhat negate this by not being constructed to last beyond 50 years, making them little better than pre-fabs, destined not to outlive their manufacturing carbon footprint) and certainly not worth their exorbitant construction costs as the buyers are not compensated or discounted for the quality of materials employed/longevity compromised. Observe any new building, particularly those possessed of a flat roof, and I guarantee you will see scaffolding and contractors on said roof within two years of erection.

So what is to be done about the housing crisis? Well has anyone seen The Truman Show? One of the unsung stars of the film is Seaside, Florida, a  master-developed 1970s experiment in New Urbanism, whose stated development tenets are:

  1. The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
  2. Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly 0.25 miles (1,300 ft; 0.40 km).
  3. There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
  4. At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
  5. A small ancillary building or garage apartment is permitted within the backyard of each house. It may be used as a rental unit or place to work (for example, an office or craft workshop).
  6. An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
  7. There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away.
  8. Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
  9. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
  10. Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
  11. Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
  12. Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, and religious or cultural activities.
  13. The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change. Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.

Can we learn anything from these aims and their material realisation below..?

Well I'd live there (were it not for the years-long waiting list of hopeful residents waiting to get in!) As I've said before on this blog, everyone's a NIMBY when it's THEIR back yard, me included. That is human nature and not a fault in itself (or a legitimate excuse for the government or local authorities to steamroller opposition to insensitive or inappropriate housing schemes) as long as it doesn't lead to hypocrisy. If building has to happen however, it can at least be sensitive to its surrounds, beautiful, future-proofed and fit for human habitation without the need for anti-depressant dependency, and involve the communities which it is going to affect in its planning. There is no ruling saying new housing, especially 'affordable' or social housing, has to be ugly, poky and devoid of character. Anyone looking at most new housing plans would assume that this country was in thrall to such legislation.


urko said...

There is no effective voice for anyone except housing developers and politicians in these matters.

Because of a "housing crisis" (which I utterly refute) the local authority is railroading a plan to build 3600 houses over pretty much all the green space surrounding my small town.

This location has been chosen because we don't have much clout to oppose it and central government, in the pockets of the housebuilders, has told our local council to get these houses built.

It's also much much cheaper fro developers to destroy the productive farmland and green amenity public parkland they are going to use than it would be to build on the brownfield sites that are available.

One local wag was joking that he was waiting for the Council to tell him what wanted via the consultation - these processes are such an expensive sham they might as well stop pretending to take any account of what ordinary residents think.

Wisewebwoman said...

And it's all driven by corporate greed, Laura. Well, everything is.

Urban hell-holes where there isn't a tree to be seen engender depression, addiction and a sense of hopelessness.

Serfdom. 2013 style.


Steve said...

People need space, amenities and, dare I say it, beauty to feel in any way at peace with the society that they are automatically part of. You wouldn't think it would be so difficult to realize.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I fear you are right Urko. Public consultations are predetermined and a sham, and easier to visit on small communities than larger ones. If only there were a means of proving your local council is receiving backhanders, eh?

WWW - I can see why you decamped to Newfoundland & Labrador.

Steve, yes, it's like a perpetual having to reinvent the wheel that the mistakes of the past are doomed to be repeated over and over again.

Debra said...

This is happening in my backyard. It eats away at my soul, every day. No kidding, and no exaggeration there either.
So, I find ways of getting out into the mountains around my place, and staying inside as much as possible in between times.
I have also learned to close my eyes rather than look at ugliness, and even to make elaborate, time consuming detours in order to avoid it, too.
Several years ago, when on an extremely rare visit to London, a city which I have never liked, I managed to hop from one area of the city to another by crossing several small public parks...
These are survival strategies, admittedly, but hey... these days much of my life is taken up in survival...
Reading DH Lawrence and Dostoievsky helps too, among other activities...
It will come as little consolation to you that, as DH Lawrence said many years ago, things are really much worse in France...where concrete was invented, incidentally.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Debra, many thanks for your comments. I share your pain re ugliness, but try to mentally block it out as much as possible. Or look to the next nice building beyond the horrid. Yes, there are indeed hideous parts of France too, though I think by and large they have actually respected their heritage better than the Brits in their small towns. It is the cities which have suffered. In Britain very few conurbations have been uncorrupted, irrespective of size.