One of my more local projects this year is to try and prevent a new development on a small park about 200 yards from my house. Building on a park is rarely a good idea, and Luton has below average green space as it is. One of my particular problems with the plans is that there is a derelict clinic next to the park and some boarded up shops, and that would make a great development without having to take a single square foot of green space. My suggestion to the architect was that they terrace the houses and fit the whole development on the site of the demolished buildings. But no, the plans keep coming back with semi-detached houses, two parking spaces for each house and big swathes of grass between them – and no park.
Jon Reeds would be on my side. For 100 years, he argues, we have been re-shaping our environment around the false promise of suburbia, “spurred on by a fuzzy nostalgia for our ancestors’ rural past, by a desire to live in the countryside the sprawl destroys, by a widely held belief that low-density garden city or garden suburb living is good for us, and by a retreat from community into individualism.”
Britain is a densely population nation, and if you take England alone, it would be the most densely populated in Europe at 395 per square kilometre. We don’t grow enough food to feed ourselves as it is, but vast acreages of agricultural land have been built over in recent decades. If we built for city living instead of suburbs, we’d have transit systems to get around. Instead, all these low-density developments are joined together with roads, with long commutes and school runs literally built into our lifestyles. With CO2 levels to wrestle down and a rising oil price, we’ve taken something of a wrong turn here, but the plans for sprawling new housing projects continue.
Reeds goes back and investigates the history of the suburb, and it’s actually a pretty fascinating story. Before the Victorian era, a large proportion of British society lived in slums, in dirty and overcrowded industrial towns. The Victorians did a lot to fix them, building those long streets of terraces. The author has nothing but admiration for these homes. They were densely packed at 100 to the hectare in places, but comfortable and far more spacious than the slums people were leaving behind. Shops and pubs were incorporated from the start, and horse-drawn buses and trams moved people to work. The Victorian terrace worked, and where they still exist, they continue to work. I’ve lived in them myself in Stoke on Trent and walk past them every day here in Luton.
The Victorian era was the last time we had compact, sustainable towns. “No model of urban development proposed in the last 100 years has come anywhere near being as sustainable as that evolved in the late nineteenth century” says Reeds. What happened? The garden city movement, and the car. The garden city movement is one of those things that must have been exciting to be part of at the time, and looks rather short-sighted in retrospect. It was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard, who imagined new towns built from scratch that combined the best of the city and the best of the country. A noble ideal, and one that spawned the pretty Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. They’re nice to drive through, it has to be said. Leafy boulevards, fountains. Just don’t bother walking anywhere.
He also imagined his new cities to be owned by the people, to be limited in size and to be self-sustaining. Instead, the basic principles were adapted and watered down. Rather than build whole new cities, planners just started building sprawling suburbs with gardens. If you couldn’t live in the country, at least you could enjoy a large garden. Advocates of garden living lobbied to get a maximum density in law for any new housing, and that set the tone for the rest of the century. Add to that an aggressive car lobby with an ever-increasing list of roads and highways they want built, and you can see how we ended up with the country we have.
Unfortunately, the finite nature of the oil supply suggests that “the future for low-density suburbs, especially those remote from town centres, must be slow decline.” We’d be better off looking at ways to re-generate town centres, build in the gaps, build upwards, and connect everything with transit systems. In so doing, Reeds suggests, we might just re-discover a better way of life anyway. “Community grows in cities, towns and villages, but it seldom takes root in low-density suburbs and when it does, it’s weak.”
British planners pride themselves on having the best planning system in the world, and Reeds has an uncomfortable message for them here. For ways forward, we need to look at what’s happening in the US. The Smart Growth movement is re-imagining US cities, re-training planners, inspiring innovative new developments and breathing life into public transport. They are designing according to a sustainable manifesto, and it’s working. Support from the Obama administration goes all the way to the top. The US Department of Transport and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are official partners, and their ministers attend the national Smart Growth conferences. It’s the cutting edge of planning right now, and we have no equivalent movement in the UK.
Jon Reeds is trying to kick-start Smart Growth here, and the book is his pitch. It veers into polemic sometimes, and it doesn’t include any figures about how sustainable various ways of life, so you’ll need to look elsewhere for factual evidence that city dwellers use less energy and oil. Otherwise, it’s a both a great modern history of the British landscape, and a handbook of good ideas for its future development. It should be on the reading list for every planner in the country.
Smart Growth is published by Green Books.