Last night, the London think tank Policy Exchange announced the winner of its Wolfson Economics Prize. This year, the £250,000 prize was awarded to whoever it was who came up with the best plan to tackle Britain's housing crisis – specifically, by creating "a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular". Given the widespread opposition of existing homeowners to building anything anywhere in this country, this would be no mean feat.
Historically, “garden cities” have mostly meant either brand new towns, or massive expansions of tiny villages. But the winning team, led by David Rudlin of Manchester-based consultancy Urbed, took a different approach. Prevailing wisdom is that the economy of the future will be all about services, technology, knowledge and so forth. If you're going to build a lot of houses, then, it helps to do so near existing institutions that generate those things. Ideally, that means a university.
So the winning team came up with "Uxcester": a template for doubling the size of any city that already has a population of around 200,000. It's not based on any specific place, but is an amalgam of about 40 of them. Specifically, these ones:
Instead of just extending a city in all directions, Uxcester would mean adding "three substantial extensions", each of which would house around 50,000 people. All these homes would be within 10km from the city centre, and within a 10 minute walk from a tram stop (oh, the plan has trams, too, by the way). As a result, everyone should be able to get into town in half an hour or less.
Between these new developments, there'd be country parks and so forth (the “garden” bit of the garden city). So while we would be building on the green belt, in practice, we'd probably end actually making more green space accessible to the public, as opposed to the current morass of pony clubs and farm land that’s there now.
This design, as shown below, is known as the “snowflake” pattern. Awww.
Actually, there’s even more cutesy jargon in the plan. While the government would assemble the land and provide the infrastructure, it wouldn't actually build most of the housing. Instead, it'd sell it as individual plots and let the private sector do that part. This, Urbed says, is the "trellis" and "vine" model.
In theory, this is all very lovely. In practice, no British city actually wants to double in size, and translating theory into practice is going to be remarkably hard, as Urbed admits:
"We are also aware that by working in a fictional place we are avoiding some of the complexities, both political and practical, that each of these forty small cities face. The danger is that each will say 'that's all well and good but wouldn't work here'.”
So, they decided to test it by looking at a real city. Oxford is meant to be one of the great centres of the urban economy, but it's in danger of falling behind (it only has two science parks; in Cambridge, there are 18). To prevent this horrific fate, Urbed has set out how it could expand:
This plan would mean expanding the nearby settlements of Kidlington and Abingdon, and building on empty land to the east of Oxford. (To the west, this would be harder, so this area's been left untouched.) All these new suburbs would be linked by some kind of tram network, and protected from the elements by a new "flood attenuation system".
There's one other problem of course, brought about by high land prices:
"In the UK most of the money and talent in the house building industry is focused on unlocking the land through a contested planning system; on the Continent it is focused on what is built on that land."
Urbed's solution is to begin the process with a Garden City Act, which would give the government the power to make compulsory purchases of land, and then build on them. This shouldn't be expensive: because it has no development value, green belt land is relatively cheap.
There would no doubt be political battles to fight before introducing any such policy, not least from the aggrieved homeowners, landowners and golf course who’d complain of the damage done by building new homes. But this proposal does at least move us beyond the fight over whether to build at all, and instead delves into how we might do so. It’s worth thinking about.
The other finalists were:
- "Stoke Harbour", a new city of 144,000 people on Kent's Hoo Peninsula (runner up).
Homelessness charity Shelter, architects PRP, with advice from KPMG, Laing O'Rourke, Legal & General.
- Four garden city "types", to be used to deliver up to 40 new garden cities over the next 25 years.
Consultancies Barton Willmore, with EC Harris, Pinsent Mason, Propernomics.
- A new garden city south east of Maidstone Kent, to be served by trains on the High Speed 1 rail route.
Chris Blundell, a director of Golding Homes, writing in a personal capacity.
- An "arc" of 30-40 new garden cities, of 25,000 people each. These would be built around London, from Southampton to Oxford to Cambridge to Felixstowe.
Wei Yang and Partners and Peter Freeman, in collaboration with Buro Happold Consulting Engineers, Shared Intelligence and Gardiner & Theobald.
All images taken from Urbed's "Uxchester Garden City" report. You can read the rest here.