Friday, 15 November 2013

Wanted: new garden cities

The news of a new Wolfson Prize for the best new Garden City ideas is welcome indeed. The concept of Garden Cities (above) represented the best of Edwardian social reform, an ideology of national progress that cut across political Left and Right and focused on the health, happiness and dignity of working people. They were to be 'light' and airy, bringing parkland into the heart of the town while spreading small but proud semis out along rivers and lakes. Providing work, shops and amenities in their peripheries as well as their centres. Allowing normal people to aspire to live a life previously available only to the privileged few. That's a far cry from today, of course, when central government seems hell-bent on stigmatising local authority tenants as 'over-occupying' spare rooms they might use as studies or stores, but there you are. The money's on the table. Have a go if you want to.

The real reason we need to think about such new-old spaces is that we have to build more houses. Many more houses. Think: tripling or quadrupling our output. Now. This minute. Look at the numbers: building one million more homes in the next five years will only keep up with demand. At the moment we might 500,000 to 600,000 if we're lucky. At a time when most articulate young people are coming to realise that older generations have grabbed all the deckchairs, doing anything else would shortchange anyone under the age of thirty to an entirely unacceptable degree.

What's happening on this front? Well, the Prime Minister's entirely well-intentioned announcement that new towns and cities were on the way has just been quietly junked. Mainly because Conservative voters in the South-East of England - mostly over the age of thirty themselves, of course - don't like the idea. And everyone else can just live in vastly over-priced boxes in the middle of nowhere, thank you very much.

That's a mindset that will just have to be ignored in the years to come. It's as simple as that.

Now don't think that 'Public Policy and the Past' wants all our green spaces just concreted over. There's no need - especially when golf courses cover more of Britain than housing does. Such spaces could be contained, as the post-war New Towns were. No-one thinks Harlow is about to eat all of Essex, or Crawley Sussex. A new generation of garden cities could be high-density, high-public-transport, bike-laned adornments to our society. They could be visceral, surprising, winding, new-old places for us all to meet, greet, charm and chat - along the lines of Lord Richard Rogers' Towards an Urban Renaissance, published in 1999 but never paid more than lip service in the intervening years of toy-build and low-build.

Come on. Let's build a new city between Oxford and Swindon, between Swindon and Bath, and between Leamington and Oxford. Then let's build more - between Stevenage and Bishop's Stortford, and between Bishop's Stortford and Chelmsford. For a start. Because that's what it's going to come to in the end, and if we start now, we can manage and control the building so that we're proud of it.

We face a housing emergency. We need whole new cities. We can build them interestingly, vividly, brick-by-brick, square-by-square, wiggly line by zig-zag terrace. But we need them desperately. And we need them now.