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A non-profit thinks it's the future of urban development. Here's why they're dead wrong.

Around 1900, British urbanists thought they had figured out the perfect city. A world away from the overcrowding and grime of London or Manchester, new so-called "garden cities" could be strung like loose chains of pearls around major urban centers. Designers imagined these spaces as leafy towns, filled with low-rise houses and backyards. Population was not to rise above 50,000. And though these models would have road and rail connections to downtowns, they would remain clearly divided from them by a cordon sanitaire of greenery. 

This model is over a century old. Could it be the answer to modern Britain's housing problems?

A new prize announced in the UK last week says it could. The influential Wolfson Economics Prize for 2014 will offer £250,000 to applicants providing the best answer to the question: "How would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular?"

The idea of saving Britain by summoning up the ghost of Ebenezer Howard might seem quaint, but the prize has political weight behind it. Created by retail magnate and Conservative Party peer Simon Wolfson, it's part of a wider campaign to free up rural land for development to lessen Southern Britain's massive housing shortage. Wolfson himself has taken to the press, writing in the Telegraph newspaper that developing new communities is a "verdant alternative to endless infill, shoebox flats, urban creep and strip development."

A garden city model. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On first glance, a manifesto that attacks the evils of infill and encroaching urban character sounds like a recipe for yet more sprawl. Still, it's understandable that British planners might fall back on the garden city. The UK gave the world the garden city’s great theorist (the aforementioned Howard) and its first built example, Letchworth, northwest of London in the years following 1903. While they might seem old fashioned today, these new towns were progressive in their time in their plans to provide decent, integrated housing for all classes, rather than just villa suburbs for the wealthy.

Letchworth. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While later examples were larger and made room for some industry, new towns heavily influenced by Howard's ideas have been built in Britain until very recently. The new city of Milton Keynes was being developed well into the 1980s, when this TV advert promoting the city's rustic charms was aired. 

These new towns' growth is a byproduct of the city-flight found across the West. But in the UK they also tapped into longer-standing traditions. England, unlike continental Europe and Scotland, has historically preferred to build low-rise individual houses with some outside space (often for the poor too). Garden cities continued rather than initiated this trend, and often succeeded in creating modern housing that referenced traditional vernacular architecture in reassuring, attractive ways.

Often, they worked pretty well. Some of my family moved from inner London out to these new towns, grateful for amenities like indoor toilets and linoleum on every floor. Still, sprawl is sprawl, even if it's capped with cottage gables and shaded by flowering cherry trees. New towns surrounded by countryside was to create dormitory suburbs largely reliant on London, without the convenience of proximity.

So why would sections of Britain's elite be suggesting its return when it’s only recently been laid to rest?

The answer, aside from the need to drum up business for the construction industry, is that what came later was far worse. Since the 1980s, British planning has emphasized urban in-fill, redevelopment of former industrial sites and higher density development of smaller units. The problem is not these ideas, it's their terrible implementation.

London, for example, had a fantastic new housing opportunity in its former Docklands, where longstanding lower income communities stood amongst acres of defunct warehouses and wharves. Since redevelopment began in the 1980s, this opportunity has been largely squandered. Lacking a meaningful grand plan, Docklands is now a disjointed place with incoherent architecture, poor transit infrastructure and abrupt shifts between extreme wealth and poverty, where supposedly "affordable" housing is way beyond most people's means. Its new quarters are arid, boring and often ugly, places of social division where even the river Thames is a planning afterthought or private good. 

The docklands. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Political changes played their part in messing up such urban developments. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government introduced a Right to Buy scheme that let social housing tenants purchase their homes at knockdown rates, they created an affordable housing drought that remains today. Construction firms were once involved in major schemes for social improvement (albeit with mixed results), but they now focus on shoddy housing that demonstrated low design standards and little thought about community building. After living with decades of this slapdash, piecemeal approach, it's no wonder some British people are looking wistfully backwards. At least garden cities had a relatively coherent, holistic approach that sought to cater decently for all classes.

That doesn't mean they're necessarily the right idea. The classic British garden city property model – the semi-detached house with a garden – takes up too much space to be cheap enough to meet the country's massive housing needs. Early garden cities’ may have built housing for the working classes, but they swiftly became unaffordable for them. With Southeast England lying at the center of a frenzy of property speculation, it’s hard not to imagine new housing going exactly the same way.

Certainly, well-designed low-density new towns have recently proved successful in the Netherlands, but they have done so with a reduction of open space that has left much of the country looking like a single, spread-out suburb. Building on agricultural land is probably inevitable, but much of the British public would resist such encroachments bitterly, not least in the commuter lands where much of Prime Minister Cameron’s power base lives. 

A better model might be Sweden’s recently built urban districts. Places such as Stockholm's Hammarby Sjostad have succeeded in creating attractive, largely sustainable high-density districts on a mix of green and brownfield land.  Favoring multi-floor apartment buildings and balconies over low-rise houses and gardens, this sort of development might well have seemed too much like the bad old days for garden city pioneers.  Careful planning nonetheless makes Hammarby and its ilk seems spacious and green with a relatively small geographical footprint, while locations right next to existing city limits reduces sprawl.  Southeast England has sites for major projects like these, notably in the part ex-industrial Thames Estuary.  Some Britons may still be dreaming of country lanes and cottage gardens, but Sweden’s example show that it’s possible to build modern, sustainable, genuinely urban communities without looking back in longing.

Top image: The first garden city. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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