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?)

2 responses on “Are Garden Cities the World’s End?

  1. Gilly Leach

    Haven’t seen the Trilogy, John, so my comments may be way off mark – or indeed, my views may well have been pilloried by Pegg et al.
    But I would like to make the observation that it’s not just the developers who are creating havoc with our suburban environment.
    We moved to Harpenden – a close neighbour to both Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth – from N. London 17 years ago. The lush beauty of the area, largely created by the predominance of garden and street trees, inspired me to re-train as a garden designer. (Previously a graphic designer, with an architect father.) Since that time we have seen vast numbers of people move to the area from London and other cities and as soon as they have bought their ‘leafy’ property, promptly cut down all the trees. I was recently asked to give advice to a lady who had removed all the trees from her garden, around 15 of them, because they made the garden shady! She had no intention of replanting. Fortunately, I made my opinions so clear that I have not been asked back to create her new garden.
    Developers of course, also have a lot to answer for – as do the local planning offices. In our area many big old houses with large and tree filled gardens are being ripped down and two or three houses built on the space – leaving minute gardens where there is not room for a tree to grow. I have been able to add trees to most of the gardens I’ve designed but some clients just do not want them. “They drop leaves”, “They shade out my other plants”. “They get into the drains” – seems to be the relocation mantra. What is needed is education. Get yourself on the telly John. You have the reputation and the portfolio which will give you the clout to make the ordinary person wake up and realise that urban spaces need the life breathing back into them with trees and integrated, properly designed landscapes. All the town planning in the world can’t make ordinary Joe realise that trees in his own back garden can help, not only his health, but the greater environment too.
    Rant over – thanks for your interesting blog. Gilly

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Whereas most of my blogposts are conceived and written over a relatively short period, this one was 15months in gestation. The process started about 18months ago when I wrote the first post (where have all the trees gone?) which came to me as I was gazing out of the window at a particularly bland and treeless development. I did a more detailed exploration of the subject at the Barcham conference in Devon in April 2012 and have spent the time since then trying to get the post down to a digestible quantity.

      You are of course absolutely right about developers. It was perhaps unfair of me to focus on developers (I probably should have used the term housebuilders instead). As well as Local authorities – and there were many bad examples of those, one should not forget that historically developers played a huge role in enlightened urban design in the UK – Span, Wates Homes in the 60s and 70s, Urban Splash and many others. There are still many smaller developers turning out really good quality work.

      One of the sections I cut from the blog was that much modern ‘suburban’ dense housing development result in impossibly small gardens. There is really only room for a small patio and a lawn, almost never a tree. And the majority of buyers do not know what to do with these spaces. So we all wish for our own patch, but actually do not have the skills or experience to deal with it and it’s too small anyway. Some would therefore argue that there is a real opportunity here for garden designers. However, the truth is that by the time most of these buyers have paid the mortgage, they don’t have enough money left for owt else.

      As for telly, I would love to, although God knows where I would find the time. I must confess that I hate the whole Chelsea Landscape Luvvies (although many would argue that I am part of that) but there is a lot to be said and not enough people saying it.

      Know any good TV producers?

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