‘Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions & Reality’ – Observations from the Coal Face

Arriving in my inbox yesterday from a colleague, the ‘Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions & Reality’ publication by Transport for New Homes piqued my interest.

The report Visions & Reality makes for an interesting read and has already been picked up by the BBC. Much of what is set out in the report reflects DLA’s experience in over 30+ years of promoting and implementing strategic scale development and new communities. We are often frustrated by the watering down of ambition and aspiration for strategic growth proposals over time but have found that the reasons for this are both many and varied, and are more complex than those set out by TfNHomes.

Based on observations and research around 20 Garden Towns and Villages across England, the report concludes that much of the problem in translating the vision of Garden Villages to reality centres around “building in the wrong location and around the wrong kind of transport” (pp 4).

If only it were that simple. Let’s take the point about location first. In this context, it is worth noting that the scale of growth proposed in the current iterations of Garden Villages is simply not large enough to achieve the degree of self-containment needed to effectively negate the need to travel which the report suggests is possible (see Conclusions, pp 32).

Nor does it change the realities of people needing to move between places for work and to access higher order services and facilities. Even New Towns the size of Milton Keynes – where a high degree of internalised travel has been achieved over short distances and where 60,000 new homes were planned in a single location – recognised the need to locate a New Town relative to the centres of London and Birmingham, where both rail and road infrastructure to these centres was already in place.

Given that Garden Villages and Towns do not exist in isolation, their location must be selected based on the ability to move between places by a choice of – and sustainable – means. Depending on the location, this may mean a continuation of existing settlement patterns (developing at radial points along public transport connections into a large city, for example), or it may mean developing new places outside the urban area as ‘beads on a string’ of connected routes, most notably, but not exclusively, rail lines and stations.

For the latter, many of these potential locations fall at the boundary of administrative areas, or in rural locations where political opposition to new development – particularly at the scale needed to achieve the necessary degree of self-containment – is most articulated. No surprises then, that it is easier for local authorities to secure local political support for Garden Villages at brownfield sites in the countryside (for example airfields, which were located remotely for a reason!) where few constituents will be directly affected, but where deep pockets are needed to fund the necessary infrastructure.

Coupled with the absence of any strategic spatial plans which are overt about setting out long term infrastructure investment aligned with identified strategic growth locations, it is hardly surprising that many of the government’s supported Garden Villages are viewed as being in the ‘wrong place’.

I also agree that the transport outcomes of many of the Garden Villages have not secured the wholesale move to sustainable transport envisaged. However, the choice between roadbuilding and public transport provision is not quite as clear cut as the report suggests.

To start with, roads themselves are not inherently ‘bad’. It is a fact that roads are a very flexible and adaptable form of infrastructure – having started with the horse and cart, they can be adjusted over time to facilitate sustainable travel, whether that is bus priority, cycle lanes, hydrogen or autonomous vehicles- the list is endless. If we think of them as ‘conduits of movement’, it is not roads per se but their design which is critical to their success as part of a sustainable movement network.

Furthermore, at the Garden Village scale of growth, even with excellent walking/cycling provision within the new community and rail/public transport services to surrounding places, there will still be an increase in the absolute number of cars on the surrounding road network. Goods and services will need to access the new community and whilst people may be able to use their cars less, residents are still likely to wish to own a car (a peculiar UK phenomenon, I admit, but there you go).

It is therefore simply not realistic to ignore the need for highway improvements altogether, but there is a better way to secure viable alternative to private car travel. Put simply, the order of priority in decision making, design and funding goes as follows:

 Firstly, select a location and scale which maximises self-containment for day to day activity. This includes well-designed and flexible parking solutions within the GV (recognising that the better the sustainable travel options work, the more time cars owned by residents will spend parked);

• Secondly, design to prioritise excellent walking and cycling provision throughout the GV and linking to the surrounding area (coupled with accessible public realm and green infrastructure). This will mean challenging conventional highway design and location of land uses;

• Thirdly, give priority to the design and function of public transport/rapid transit/rail connectivity between the GV and other key destinations (employment/service centres);

• Then, and only then, consider vehicle movements to and through the GV, including measures to discourage car use for shorter trips (the ‘stick’ to make the ‘carrot’ of the first three priorities work).

The TfNH report is based on an admirable amount of research and site visits. Its readability will make it particularly useful for the lay audience it is targeting, and I have no doubt it will be widely referenced by local communities resisting Garden Villages in their patch!

However, the failure to achieve many of the qualities of Garden Villages owes more to the limitations of the land and planning system in the UK than the imaginations or ambitions of those promoting or supporting them.

But that’s a matter for my next blog, so watch this space….