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Reject garden cities and pursue garden villages

Jackie Sadek
There can’t be a town planner or an urban regeneration practitioner in the country who doesn’t harbour a soft spot for garden cities, but there could be a better alternative
And most of us have followed, with some real amusement, the recent furore over the suppression of a government report calling for the construction of two garden cities in the South-East to help meet the nation’s housing shortage.
Suddenly (and this must be a symptom of how few real responses we have to the housing crisis), everyone is obsessed with the idea of garden cities. Industrialists lead the charge. Lord Wolfson, chairman of retailer Next, has offered a prize of £250,000 to anyone who can come up with a design. And Nigel Wilson, chief executive of insurance company Legal & General, has pledged an eye-watering £5 billion of institutional funding to support the build-out of garden cities.  
I would urge that we get a reality check. First, the two garden cities always cited are Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City – neither of which is, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, a city. We have 64 cities, enough for our small islands, and neither Letchworth nor Welwyn GC is one; they don’t have cathedrals or a Royal Charter for starters. Garden cities, as conceived by Ebenezer Howard, are over 100 years old. They were never cities; they are isolated and special examples of green settlements and, moreover, rather dependent on the use of the private car. To find sites for new settlements of comparable size will be fraught. The location of new garden cities has the potential to be way up there – alongside HS2 and fracking –as political hot potatoes. 
Second, the clever money will point to the lesser publicised success of the garden suburbs, as assessed in Martin Crookston’s recent excellent book Garden Suburbs Of Tomorrow? as the real achievement in housing – some three million, in fact, over the past 100 years. 
So, in pursuit of a new zeitgeist for our politicians to mobilise around, we should reject garden cities and propose instead fiscal and planning stimulus for “garden villages” – good old urban regeneration. Take all the lessons from the garden suburbs and transfer them onto brown land in unloved bits of existing conurbations. Build out mixed-use villages where people can live and work, preferably without cars, and that will serve to stitch fractured bits of cities back together and boost the local economy. This could house many more people than the proposed garden cities – and do it in places that have grown up organically over the centuries and where people want to live. 
Jackie Sadek is chief executive of UK Regeneration



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