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Garden Cities or High Rise Dystopia?

Claire Wansbury | 20 Mar 2015 | Comments

In an article in the Times (paywall) on 9 March, the Future Spaces Foundation commented on government plans to build three new ‘Garden Cities” of about 15,000 dwellings each. The Foundation’s report claims that 67 garden cities, each with a population of 30,000, would be needed to meet a projected shortage of a million homes in London and the home counties over the next 25 years.

In 1898 Ebenezer Howard introduced his vision of a garden city: “The advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination”.

However, Ken Shuttleworth, the Foundation’s chairman, says: “Before we even consider bulldozing greenfield sites, we must explore every option possible to densify what we’ve already got.” They say dense “vital cities” must be the way forward. So, in setting the direction for UK housing are we facing a decision between quality of life in a garden city idyll and quantity of dwellings in a high rise dystopia?

In practice, different people prioritise different things in their search for homes, and failing to take this into account will result in a mismatch between what is built and society’s aspirations. It is also essential that we consider people’s interaction with nature. People need access to natural greenspaces.

There is a nod to the value of parks and other greenspaces in the Foundation’s report, but it is illustrated by stereotypical lollipop trees in settings of concrete or lawns that have little more wildlife value than Astroturf. Scientific studies have shown that a daily dose of nature is more than ‘nice to have’. It has a direct and measurable impact on both physical and mental health. This in turn translates into economic benefits to society. For example, the health benefits of living overlooking greenspace are estimates at around £300 per capita per year. It is in the densest of urban areas that accessible natural greenspace can provide most added value.

So where does this take us in the battle of ideas between garden cities and densification? In the UK we have the skills, knowledge and opportunities to apply both approaches. There is room for, and a need for, both approaches, but they must learn from each other. Garden cities can accommodate elements of higher density living. Vital cities will only work if there is greater recognition of the factors that allow healthy humans to flourish. ‘Vital’ cities must provide what is ‘vital’ to people, and that includes interaction with the natural world.