With the recent announcement from the UK government to deliver 14 new “garden villages” built outside existing settlements, it made me question how green are these villages actually going to be? It reminded me of an article I read in the CIEEM Bulletin, InPractice magazine from June 2016, discussing the case for high-density housing vs low-density garden city living. I also recently read an interesting post about green architecture in Singapore, one of the most densely packed urban centres of the world where the buildings are overwhelmed by greenery. With concrete, glass and steel seemingly reclaimed by the tropical landscape, Singapore gives a new and positive meaning to the term “concrete jungle”.
So I ask the question, is the garden city concept really the right way forward in the attempt to alleviate the housing crisis across the UK? And will it really deliver “beautiful, healthy and sociable communities”?
Firstly, what is a ‘garden village’?
According to the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), who has been leading a campaign for a new generation of Garden Cities, they state that a Garden City is a:
“…holistically planned new settlement which enhances the natural environment and offers high-quality affordable housing and locally accessible work in beautiful, healthy and sociable communities
…development that enhances the natural environment, providing a comprehensive green infrastructure network and net biodiversity gains, and that uses zero-carbon and energy-positive technology to ensure climate resilience.”
The government has plans for 14 new settlements across England, as shown below, but all sites will need to get through planning hurdles in order to become a reality as well as meet their ambitious claims as to enhancing the natural environment. However, many of these sites have been in the planning system for years, labelled as “Eco Towns” by the last Labour Government. Kate Ashbrook from the Open Spaces Society raised valid concerns with the Guardian that,
“Every garden village should have a village green, but it must not be merely in name. The green must be registered under the Commons Act 2006. Then it is protected forever and local people have rights of recreation there.”
The Woodland Trust has stated that they are worried about the lack of real guidance on how these new settlements should look or function, only a number of principles. They also stress that “there must be great public access to woods and green places and to be considered as a garden settlement these new developments must at least meet the Open Space Access Standard and the Woodland Access Standard.”
urban Planning in Singapore
The thinking behind Singapore’s urban planning is summarised by this quote “The beliefs that man is separate from nature and cities are separate from the countryside are obsolete”. The key focus for the country is biophilic design. This term originated from American biologist E.O. Wilson in 1984. He became aware that all humans have an innate desire to connect with nature, regardless of whether they have ever lived in natural surroundings. This concept, therefore, translates that desire into the built environment.
Singapore designers have embraced research claiming proximity to nature reduces stress, which in turn promotes mental health and wellbeing. I’ve written an entire thesis on the importance of green space proximity in urban areas to both local people and wildlife – it’s real, it’s important and it has a significant effect on communities. Singaporean designers also believe in the statement that “the only way to preserve nature is to integrate it into our built environment”.
“the only way to preserve nature is to integrate it into our built environment”.
However, Singapore is unique in the fact that it is constrained by its size – they can only grow upwards – while Malaysia has a lot of land. Kuala Lumpur, a neighbouring city with a similar climate but no distinctive architecture, has the option to spread horizontally. The demand for space in Singapore has also bumped up the real estate prices, Richard Hassell, WOHA founder, then claims that this, in turn, pushes up the construction budgets offering more opportunity to designers like them to innovate with form and materials. In the UK, our need is in affordable housing, so design to this extent simply isn’t possible or probable.
Greenfield vs Brownfield
In 2007, we saw for the very first time in human history the majority of the world’s population living in an urban setting. The post-war aspirations of low-density living have seen destructive urban sprawl as more as our green belts become under increasing pressure from new towns and cities. This has consequently resulted in higher car use when compared to more densely populated urban centres, increasing congestion and air pollution which has a more immediate impact on people’s health and that of the local wildlife. So despite low-density living aiming to enhance the natural environment, the environmental benefits could be undone due to the increase in residents driving.
In our urban centres, public transport provision is readily accessible, car use is constrained, walking and cycling is promoted and infrastructure is in place to encourage it. Homes are also smaller, using less energy and with lower heat loss during cold winter months. Many urban planners and economists also argue that well-organised, compact urban clusters are more economically productive and competitive. In the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) the government outlined its aims to concentrate new development on brownfield sites as a priority over urban sprawl into the green belt. However, this in itself has seen recent opposition from some environmental groups, highlighting the notable ecological value they hold compared with ecologically impoverished greenfield sites often used for agriculture.
An opposer of garden villages, Martin London from Denbighshire, stated in The Guardian:
“How many decayed or decaying homes remain in the abandoned towns of old industrial areas of Britain? The nation would be better served if our energies were devoted to recovering abandoned industrial sites, renovating repairable existing properties, or clearing away what is derelict and building on recovered land.”
Yet, this isn’t just about the ecological impacts of development when deciding between high-density housing or low-density garden city living. Brownfield sites are incapable of meeting the huge demand for housing, so greenfield development is inevitable. The real way to avoid significant environmental impact, be that ecologically or through climate change, is “through well designed, sustainable, compact urban development”, as stressed by Lincoln Garland from Biodiversity by Design. They also need to create a ‘sense of place’, provide good quality public services and high-quality design, along with attractive green space provision. These things are often lost in dense urban areas.
Bringing biophilic design to the UK
Like Singapore, new settlements planned throughout the UK need to meet the campaign by TCPA to deliver ‘a holistically planned new settlement which enhances the natural environment’. Ecologists need to step up to the plate in order to ensure this happens by working even more closely with architects and landscape architects, maximising opportunities for biodiversity and incorporating biophilic design into their plans, no matter how small or how big.
Such enhancement could include the likes of promoting green infrastructure, for instance, living walls and roofs; incorporating ecosystem services to provide multi-functional benefits; boosting landscapes considered sub-optimal for development, and; creating connectivity between new and existing green networks. Beyond the implementation comes ecologically informed management and measurement in order to track success and identifying any genuine enhancements achieved – both often allowed to slip post development.
There is no project too big or too small for biophilic design to be implemented. We just need to see the opportunities and take full advantage of the proposed scheme in order to implement them.
I would love to hear your views, are you pro-garden towns? Do you think high density is the way forward? Are you a city dweller or a country bumpkin? Would you like to live in a Garden Village or Town? If so, or if not, why?