Category Archives: Planning

Are Garden Cities the World’s End?

I recently went to see ‘Worlds End’, the final part of Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’. For those who don’t know it, the film is a science fiction comedy, the third in a short series of action films starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. I saw it in Letchworth, in the Broadway cinema. Why is this relevant? Well, Letchworth forms the backdrop to most of the movie; it was filmed there and indeed the Broadway Cinema was one of the locations in the film (‘The Mermaid’). 

The first Garden City has long been held up as the apex of good urban planning, including by the current government, so it was interesting to see it used a somewhat sarcastic comment on Britain today. As Peter Bradshaw put it in his review of the film for the Guardian: “It is different from the locations that usually show up in movies: London or the leafy countryside. This is New Town Britain, Visitor Centre Britain, the suburban commuterlands and hinterlands: bland and agreeable.” The film is multi-layered, but one of the underlying themes is that living in the suburbs turns you into a robot. Hardly a new message, but ironic that they chose to illustrate this by using the crucible of the garden city movement, whose principle aim was to counter the way that industrialisation had de-humanised people.

Regular readers of this blog may remember my post from last year – “Where have all the trees gone?” ( In this, I began to explore why many developers don’t really plant trees and how this might be addressed. I followed it up with a lecture at a conference in Devon (staged by the excellent Barcham Trees) in which I postulated that the garden city movement was indeed a turning point in modern planning, but it was also where it all started to go wrong. I pondered on what it was that made particular housing estates ‘successful’. For the moment, let’s ignore esoteric or academic definitions of success and instead look at market or colloquial definitions. The most expensive, the most sought after areas of housing are dominated by something larger than the houses – trees. And not just any trees; large, mature, forest species – horse chestnuts, oaks, planes trees, limes, even sycamores. So clearly, green leafy suburbs are what we aspire to. In fact estate agents and the media frequently use the word ‘leafy’ as a synonym for affluent when they are talking about neighbourhoods.

Belgravia - typical leafy Victorian upmarket London

If we trace the roots of housing development back 100 years or so ago, we come to the genesis of large scale housing development the garden city movement. Before that, during the Victorian era, most development had been urban. At both ends of the social scale, mass housing as a concept had really only come into being at the beginning of the C19th, with developments such as Bath and the Nash terraces in London for the wealthy and mass terraced housing for the working class. But the rise of a middle class in late 19th century England meant that a different demand started to emerge. The landed gentry wanted their town houses to be elegant and urban – gardens were not a part of that. The working classes could only afford back to backs. Whilst the middle classes could pay more for housing, they could only afford one house. What they hankered after was mini version of the country estate. Both the architecture and the gardens point towards this – half-timbered houses evoking an idealised view of Elizabethan country houses; lawns, which had previously only been the reserve of the very wealthy, became available to all with the invention of the lawnmower in the C19th.

The dream...

The garden city movement pulled many of these threads together. It distilled elements from the arts and crafts movement (with which it was closely allied), social reform (particularly of the Quakers), town planning, and mixed all this with a heady dose of social idealism with which all great reform movements are imbued. For me this is

...the reality

where it all started to go wrong. The fork in the road where it all seemed so nice led us after sixty years ago from Letchworth – pleasant enough, to some of the more horrible modern housing estates. One of the reasons that the Garden City idea was so popular was that it plugged into the

English Dream. But continual watering down of that dream has made it into something of a nightmare.

Meaningful space in Alexandra Road

In city centres, one clear way forward is to go back to a landscape-dominated high density development model. There have always been versions of this around – look at Darbourne and Darke’s Lillington Street for example (a social housing project for Westminster City Council c1961-62, and a beacon in early 60s architecture-landscape partnership), or Janet Jack’s landscape around the Alexandra Road development in Camden – one of the last great social housing schemes. I would argue that both these developments are relevant today, although Alexandra Road has suffered from poor maintenance. I first went to Lillington Street in 1977 – it was one of the things that caused me to choose to train as a landscape architect. I revisited the scheme more recently and it has fared

Lillington Gardens development by Darbourne and Darke

very well. It feels as fresh and relevant now as when it was first designed 50 years ago, although the trees are bigger! There is no vandalism, and although people do have small areas of defensible space, the overall quality of and scale of the landscaped spaces is such that the estate is really leafy (there it is again!) despite being very high density. The overall feel is (not by accident I am sure) similar to traditional London squares. These principles are applicable to smaller scale developments.

We have tried to use similar principles ourselves in design of dense urban housing developments. Admittedly, these were privately funded; I suspect that the days of well-funded grand (or even modest) social housing are over, at least for the moment.

The Collection, London NW8

Both the Collection and Tercelet Terrace developments adopt this approach of public landscape at the expense of private space. Actually, in both projects the cost of the landscape was a very small percentage of the total.

Tercelet Terrace London NW3. A development tightly stitched into the urban fabric.

What this shows is that the truth here is somewhat counter-intuitive: that in urban development at least, up to a point, higher density is actually a pre-requisite of good landscape and greater biodiversity, rather than acting as a restriction, as one might expect. It creates the opportunities for more meaningful spaces and often provides the funding to address those opportunities. The counter to this is that suburban development does not create good quality spaces, particularly at the densities mostly being built in recent years. Perhaps the government should apply more joined up thinking in this respect.

Rural development is another story – another post on that coming soon (or perhaps another movie?)

The money drought – but is rain on the way?

Sources of funding are drying up - but might there be oases on the horizon?

In these straitened times, all spending decisions are understandably tightly controlled. Councils and voluntary organisations have seen their sources of funding dwindle. For landscape projects, this funding drought is actually much more serious than the literal drought we see developing week by week in the south of England. But as traditional sources of money dry up, are there new springs that we can seek out?

The UK planning system is going through a major upheaval at present. There have been a number of pieces of legislation culminating in the Localism Act (enacted in November 2011) and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which was published the Government today. This document has reduced 1200 pages of planning guidance to about 50. Some may argue (and I would be amongst them) that this is an over-simplification and that although 1200 pages is a bit much (‘growed like Topsy’) most of the guidance and policies are there for a good reason. However, let’s set that aside for the moment (or alternatively read my blog post ‘We all like to make plans’). Lurking back in the Planning Act 2008 was a section on something called ‘The Community Infrastructure Levy’ (CIL). This has only really come into force in the last year or so*. In simple terms, it is a charge that a local planning authority can set for all new developments in the Borough, to be paid by the developer to the Council.  The collected money will be put into a central pot and will be spent on improving infrastructure in the Borough. This process has been reformed and simplified in the Localism Act of 2011. “The changes would require local authorities to pass a meaningful proportion of receipts to the neighbourhoods where the development that gave rise to them took place, clarifies that receipts may be spent on the ongoing costs of providing infrastructure to support the development of the area and provides more local choice over how to implement a charge.” (from Dept for CLG; link to document here). The real points here are twofold. Firstly that the CIL must be spent on infrastructure which in simple terms means something that requires construction of some sort. The second point is that the levy (or most of it) should be used to benefit the neighborhood in which it was raised. Now what is really interesting about this is that all local authorities are required to provide proposals for a green infrastructure. Do you see where I am going with this?  One last piece in the jigsaw: Neighbourhood Plans. The point here is that under the Localism Bill, these are legally binding on Local Planning Authorities. Effectively local communities can force their local planning authorities to include aspects from the neighbourhood plans in the Local Development Framework (‘The Core Strategy’).
Parks and Community Gardens can be defined as green infrastructure under the Localism Act

So, let’s put these pieces together: a mechanism for channelling funds from developers into infrastructure that will benefit local communities; a mechanism for neighbourhoods to to demand certain facilities from their local planning authorities, and a requirement on local authorities to provide proposals for ‘green infrastructure’ (which by the way is fairly explicitly defined – for once**). This represents a significant opportunity for community and other groups to gain access to funding that is otherwise disappearing fast. The Government has already said that priority will be given to projects that would not normally receive funding under local authority spending. Under the current squeeze this is an chance that most communities should recognise and pursue vigorously.

John Wyer

*The Community Infrastructure Levy regulations 2010 made the first use of these powers and came into effect in April 2010.

** An explanantion of how CIL works (in Havant DC) can be found here, there is a good list of what is defined as ‘green infrastructure’ on page 7.

Where have all the trees gone?

This is from a developer’s sale details – not a tree in sight!

Why is it that most house-builders are so against planting trees? In fact, why are they generally against putting landscape in place? This question lurked behind (and occasionally in the foreground) of many of the recent discussions in the Landscape Institute lecture series staged at the excellent Garden Museum in Lambeth, London ( Historically, those schemes that have incorporated a high quality integrated landscape have become highly valued, both in market terms but also in wider social terms. Many of these were in their day landmarks in the way in which housing was built on mass – The Garden City movement, Span Developments, Wates housing estates from the 1960s to name but a few.

Span Houses at Cedar Chase – designed by Eric Lyons

One of the common threads in all of these was their incorporation of dense planting and trees into the structure of the developments. Often they were planned at relatively high housing densities, allowing higher returns for the developer.

As land prices have moved up and car ownership increased, developers tended to move more towards apartment block schemes in urban areas. The more imaginative operators (such as Urban Splash) and those working at the top end of the market would always incorporate landscape. Sadly, this was a minority. Our experience working in this market has clearly shown that fantastic results can be squeezed form the most difficult sites when Landscape Architects or Garden Designers are involved early enough. Bowles & Wyer recently picked up the ‘Landscape Architect of the Year’ and ‘Garden Designer of the Year’ awards at the New Homes Garden Awards ( This has been run by Denis Rawlings and David Hoppit for several years to try and drive forward the quality of landscape design in housing.

Squeeze those trees in! A scheme of ours in London.

One of our schemes won ‘Best Urban Landscape’ on a very tight site in London. It just shows that there is never an excuse not to plant trees. On this site, they are squeezed between the houses and the backs of the neighbouring shops, on top of an underground car park! you can see more of this scheme on our website in the project pages: The Collection, St Johns Wood. The interesting thing about it is that the cost of the soft landscape was only about £70,000, which represents just £5000 per house. I would hazard a guess that it added a lot more than that to the sale price of each unit.

John Wyer