‘Visionary’ plan for new cities divides UK

Best laid plans: Some urban creations of the past and future.

Faced with dramatic population pressures in some areas of Britain, ministers want to build new cities from scratch. But what sort of communities are best suited to life in the future?

For some it’s an exciting opportunity to come up with a blueprint for how to live in the future. For others, an outrageous plot to concrete over green spaces in an already over-developed region. A third group of pragmatic types believe that if many thousands of new homes are needed over the coming decades, it would be better to contain them in a controlled manner rather than allow existing cities to sprawl further out beyond the suburbs.

The government says it wants to create new garden cities, taking up an idea that dates back to 1898 and a philanthropist who designed model towns based around green spaces.

With the population in the South-East of England expected to grow quickly and create a need for so much more living space, these Victorian dreams of a life combining the best of town and country have been revisited.

But as the 2015 general election comes nearer, Conservative politicians are worried about losing votes in South-East England: this week ministers indicated that only two schemes would now be proposed. Their coalition partners in the Liberal Democrats want several more.

Some town planners doubt whether the political hold-ups can be resolved – the last government promised ten garden cities, they say, and none were built. But others are digging out the old plans.

Will the shopping centres and concrete cows of Milton Keynes, the most famous new city of the late 20th century, be well suited to contemporary needs? they ask. This time the designers and planners have new considerations. Sustainable living was always part of the garden city idea, but the needs of the environment have become more pressing since then.

Even more dramatically, some thinkers now question the need to start with physical communities. Why not, they say, just meet like-minded people online and plan to get together with them? People might be happier if they chose their neighbours only if they had already got to know them by digital means.

Town, country, cloud?

Some political outliers say they would like to see new settlements that experiment with different ways of designing society. Others foresee a future of ‘digital communities’. These are unlikely ever to receive public funding and may never get off the ground. But they raise the interesting question of whether garden cities, seen as a threat to England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ by traditionalists, are radical enough.

Can a basic design dating back so far meet the demands of an expanding population? Will its low-rise homes and carefully created circles and grids for housing, commerce and recreation be exciting enough for the future generations who are born in them? Or should we say ‘yes’ to creating new towns, but go back to the drawing board?

You Decide

  1. Which appeals to you more, an ‘organically-grown’ city, a brand new city, or country life?
  2. Should new cities be based on traditional communities, on utopian political ideas, or on the digital connections that people now make online?

Activities

  1. In groups, make a list of what you would want to provide in your ideal new town. Make some images – a map, maybe.
  2. Creative writing: What is your day like living in a city of the future?

Some People Say...

“The higher the buildings the lower the morals.’Noel Coward”

What do you think?

Q & A

Not everyone likes city life.
Good point. Some people’s idea of the ideal community is a small village half an hour’s walk away! And there are plenty more who like the idea of village life: Anthony Seldon recommended in a book a few years ago that happiness and trusting community relationships could best be achieved by emulating traditional village life.
OK, now I’m not so sure.
Well, there are drawbacks to any type of human settlement. But definitely those who prefer bright lights and constant stimulation might want to plump for an urban environment, while those who can deal with solitude and prefer nature and quiet contemplation might be better off in the country. Unless of course you can design your own hybrid of all these spaces.

Word Watch

Philanthropist
Someone with money and enthusiasm who funds projects for the good of society. In this case, a man called Ebenezer Howard who founded the garden cities movement with his ideas for combining the best of village and city life in newly-built towns. Letchworth was the first garden city, but the idealism caught on and there were soon many more around England and in other countries.
Town and country
Garden cities tended to arrange their rows of red-brick family houses in circles around recreation lawns and bandstands, with provision for commerce and employment carefully included to make life there happy and manageable. Their invention led to the creation of a whole new profession, town planning.
Milton Keynes
Designated a new town in 1967, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire was designed to grown into a city, and in the census of 2011 it had a population of over 200,000. It took its name from an existing village on the site. It used modernist designs and a grid pattern of roads. The concrete cows were a piece of public art which became famous (or infamous), it was created in 1978 by artist-in-residence Liz Leyh.
Environment
No-one in the 1890s or even the 1960s would have envisaged the contemporary worries about greenhouse gas emissions and energy shortages.

Subjects

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