What is a Garden Community in 2022?

Russ Edwards, of Latimer by Clarion Housing Group, explores answers to this question, as he searches for a masterplanner to help create the Tendring Colchester Borders Garden Community....

As a nation, and an industry, we used to almost instinctively know the answer to this question, but I’m not sure this remains the case.

Nostalgic images of semi-rural communities, dominated by generous gardens come to mind - often including wide tree-lined streets with grass verges, and where semi-detached family homes are the predominant house type (including a drive and garage), coupled with modest but thriving high streets and market places. 

As compelling as these images remain – do they still epitomise the next generation of garden communities?

Garden City Principles

The Town and Country Planning Association has established a set of garden community principles (Garden City Principles), which are intended to ensure that these historic ideals can be retained in the design of new settlements, however I would argue that the majority of these principles should be applied to any, and all, new settlements.

For example… 

  • Should a new community include provision of significant open space with ambitious bio-diversity net gain targets? Of course
  • Should high levels of environmental sustainability performance be achieved and the use of sustainable methods of construction encouraged? Tick. 
  • Should a new community include mixed use, multi-generational and tenure blind homes? It goes without saying … 

Few would argue that a new community of any scale should aspire to anything less than these aspirations, and at our Tendring Colchester Borders Garden Community in North Essex we certainly do, but arguably this isn’t enough to create a genuine garden community… so again – what is it that sets a garden community apart from other new settlements? 

Socio-economic context

I think we need to move beyond the physical manifestation, and consider some of the socio-economic context. In revisiting Ebenezer Howard’s To Morrow; A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, it seems reasonably clear to me that a fundamental tenet of the Garden City is the idea of establishing an equitable society. Today, where the cost of living crisis is destroying communities, this ambition needs to be front and centre in our thinking.

In Howard’s treatise, community wealth was in part created by a mechanism where the land value-uplift associated with the development of previously rural/agricultural land was captured and used for long-term community benefit... but the development economics associated with strategic land projects in the UK have changed significantly in the last 125 years. Strategic land is now transacted including a baked-in assessment of the value uplift – typically with that uplift going to fund planning promotion costs, necessary infrastructure (e.g. schools, community assets, roads, etc) and profit to both the original landowner and the master developer in return from their up-front investment, so it is no longer available to support and fund the social mobility aspirations of a new community that in many ways underpinned Ebenezer Howard’s proposal.

Equitable communities

We therefore have to find new ways to establish an equitable community.

In my opinion, this will not be a purely economic solution. To risk a cliché, we need to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’, and consider ideas that ensure commonly marginalized groups are included, that all communities associated with the project are engaged, that inclusive design solutions are prioritised, that consider how we can excel as long-term custodians (with an industry leading stewardship model), and that offer self, custom and community build opportunities.

Of course, we need to adopt an ‘infrastructure first’ approach - ensuring that there are revenue generating community assets established early to support the pioneer stage of the place and beyond… but I am certain that to create a fitting legacy to Howard’s Garden City movement, this will need to be reinforced by creative and inclusive design, sustainability and public engagement solutions.

Garden Community in 2022

So what is a garden community in 2022, and beyond? The truth is we don’t know yet… but one clear ambition ahead of us is to create a new community that occupies a similar place in the psyche of the next generation of urban designers that, say, Freiburg does for my generation. We don’t expect the two communities to look the same, but we do aspire to a similar, equitable, sense of place.

  • Vauban im Freiburg

Perhaps, if the next generation of new settlement designers - interested in what best practice looks like for new, sustainable and equitable communities, choose to visit our new community in 20 years we will have our answer.

All images by Russ Edwards