Grow your own garden city | David Rudlin AoU

Words by Young Urbanist Adrienne Mathews

Following the End of Year Review on 10th December at the Gallery, David Rudlin AoU presented on the winning entry for the 2014 Wolfson Economic Prize. David Rudlin and Dr Nicholas Falk AoU of URBED led this submission, with Jon Rowland AoU and Pete Redman. Their report responded to the Wolfson Prize question, “How would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?

David began with an explanation of his rationale for engaging with the question of new towns and garden cities. For many urbanists including the URBED team who frequently work in denser contexts, these developments are often seen as the very style against which they are working and fighting, caught in the ever-heated political bunfight between proponents of urban living and of country living. After some thought, Rudlin and the team concluded that urbanists and thinkers should engage with garden city concepts on sustainable growth, and shouldn’t leave decisions regarding the development of new homes and communities to house builders alone.

The economic foundation of URBED’s submission was based on the concept of land value capture as a way to address the high cost of unlocking land for development. Garden city visionary Ebenezer Howard referred to the uplift of land values due to development as the “unearned increment”. Today’s unearned increments are so substantial that, following a change in use designation, little money often remains for the other costs of development including construction. Land value capture, then, could offer a potential solution to these negative externalities of development, allowing more efficient use of development funding without recourse to public subsidy. Using land value capture, more money would go into facilities and amenities such as transport networks and community facilities and services. Whilst landowners would not gain the windfall payments as at present, this method still allows a fair price paid to landowners albeit at existing use value.

One of the primary arguments underpinning URBED’s proposal was that garden cities could not be built from scratch. The team asserted that new garden cities could, and should, be built from the existing rootstock of existing small and medium cities and towns, building on the existing infrastructure, history, culture, and communities. The land for building these new urban extensions could start with brownfield development, but brownfields alone would be insufficient to accommodate housing need. The proposal asserted the need to take “confident bites” out of the greenfield areas in order to clearly define areas for development and areas to be retained as countryside.

Crucially, on this controversial issue, the team recommended that cities and towns must self-select, and cannot be chosen remotely. To promote this, the “deal” for cities would include investment in the town centre, a one-to-one exchange of open space for developed land, and a tram system, all in exchange for providing new homes. This would be expedited and facilitated through a New Town Act in Parliament, although the team believes that this would not be strictly necessary. A Garden City Foundation would be given development authority, and would then purchase the land through a compulsory purchase order, commission a master plan and seek planning permission for development on the site.

The imagined case study city of Uxcester is representative of around 40 cities in the UK, of a similar size and with similar challenges in meeting housing needs. In the case, the team used land value capture to cover the cost of plot development, consent, and additional community facilities such as schools and doctor’s surgeries. Harking back to the development of London villages such as Mayfair and Bloomsbury, the team suggested developing plots for individuals and for groups, in lieu of solely working with large-scale housebuilder developers. This would allow for more flexible development including self-build and for housing association involvement, and includes the provision for social housing. In this case study, relatively low densities were used to prove the concept workable at densities of as low as 20 units per hectare.

Audience comments were largely positive, and led to discussions of transit-oriented development, current planning policy and political challenges, and the economics of this plan. David Rudlin and Nicholas Falk responded to a question about the form and structure of the plan, noting that the physical structure of the plan was largely based around a proposed linear tram system connected street network. In their proposal, the existing town centre would remain the most well-connected and not more than a short walk or tram trip from the urban extension areas.

Group discussion also touched on current planning policy measures, which were felt to seriously hinder long-term strategic and spatial planning, including a lack of long-term housing provision. A few attendees raised concerns about the economic viability of the scheme including the logic of challenging the existing drip-feed method of releasing new homes onto the market to control prices. The URBED team responded that their proposal aimed to avoid this through the creation of the development authority and the sale of fixed-price development plots. They do not believe this method would impact value of development plots, but it could affect the rate of sales. David Rudlin mentioned examples of similar schemes used in the London Olympics.

A brief summary of URBED’s submission is also included in issue 4 of the AoU’s Here & Now journal. The full text of URBED’s submission can be found at the Wolfson Prize website.

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