Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new documentary charts the recent history of Basildon, one of Britain’s first post-war new towns.
What happens to a city when the ideals that built it start to fade? This question lies at the heart of New Town Utopia, an affecting new British documentary released this month that charts the recent history of the model modernist city of Basildon.
Founded in 1949 roughly 30 miles east of London, Basildon was one of Britain’s first post-war new towns, a network of planned settlements that developed on the earlier Garden City model. Created by state development corporations in a spirit of practical idealism, these new towns sought to provide better homes and lives for mainly working class residents of Britain’s crowded, bomb-damaged cities.
In Basildon, the resulting city—green, rigidly-zoned, and almost exclusively state-owned housing—proved for decades to be a largely successful community. But as the film reveals through the words of Basildon artists, musicians, and creatives, the sense of vibrancy and cohesion the city fostered started to fray in the 1980s as the country’s government abandoned the social democratic values that underpinned the town’s creation.
Watching the film, it’s easy to see how heartening and radical towns like Basildon must have seemed after the war. Their creation was part of a wave that also introduced Britain’s first fully-fledged social security system and tax-funded National Health Service. The ideals that underpinned Basildon’s creation were humane, says New Town Utopia’s director Chris Smith. “The original vision behind Basildon was very noble—to create a place for people to live where they would be able to grow their communities,” he tells CityLab. “Where they would experience art and culture, where [there would] be a lot of green space.”
In keeping with urban policy of the time, this utopian setup involved rigorous zoning, landscaping, and architecture that mixed Modernism with updated versions of English suburban vernaculars. As such, its layout can now make it seem a little fragmented, but Basildon is a kind of test case for Mid-century urbanism.
Smith is nonetheless wary of either fetishizing its modernism or laying all the city’s problems at its door. “I’ve always been interested in Modernist art and design, but also aware of the potential conflict between that and the lived-in experience,” he says. “It's all very well taking a middle class, aesthetic view of this kind of architecture, but those don’t mean much to someone living in the top of a tower that was freezing cold in winter, where their heating doesn't work properly.”
Accordingly, the film criticizes its construction mishaps and poor layout more than any aesthetic flaw. Among the missteps, the film cites heating pipes being embedded in one building’s ceilings, while some low-rise project neighborhoods designed to shield residents from cars evolved into alienating labyrinths that risked shielding residents from any sense of life or vibrancy at all.
Planning glitches aside, the film is a love letter to the town. It’s not that it paints the city’s past as universally rosy, noting that the city developed a decidedly macho street culture where (not uncommon in Britain) walking into the wrong bar could get you in trouble. This is shown as counterbalanced, nonetheless, with a strong sense of social solidarity. With its decent housing on state-controlled rents, Basildon, the film notes, was once such a union town it was dubbed “Moscow-on-Thames.” With a publicly funded arts sector giving misfits a place to congregate, Basildon also developed a lively counter-culture in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. During that period, it fostered a music scene whose most famous product, Depeche Mode, still brings thousands of fans to the city as a site of pilgrimage.
And now? It’s not as if the city has faded away in recent years. High costs elsewhere in the London region still encourage people to move there in search of cheaper housing. In the mid 1980s, however, Basildon’s state-owned homes came up for sale to tenants as part of Margaret Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy scheme, and the inclusive ethos on which the city was based started to unravel as it changed from a city of tenants to one of owner-occupiers. As the city was handed over from a development corporation to the local municipality, the idealism on which the city was based was drained away as funding for community projects came under ever stricter scrutiny.
Nowadays, in a country where living standards are falling for people on lower incomes, many of Basildon’s shops and art venues have been shuttered or demolished. The city has developed a stigma as a place outsiders tend to assume is rough and crime-ridden. Smith says that partly stems from “the demonization of working class people, because these environments were designed for them.”
That doesn’t mean the city’s future is inherently bleak. New planning guidelines are softening the city’s formerly rigid zoning, while the influx of new citizens from elsewhere provides potential for future transformations. Watching the changes charted by New Town Utopia, it’s still hard not to reflect on what has been lost in Britain when it comes to providing a good life for people with few resources.