What is a garden city, and why should you want one?

Letchworth, 1912. Image: Topical Press Agency/Getty.

The government is investing more than £300m in building what George Osborne has described as the first “proper” garden city in nearly a century, near Ebbsfleet, Kent.

To understand what garden cities are, and why they deserve investment, we need to go back a bit – in fact, more than 100 years. At the turn of the 20th century, Ebenezer Howard proposed building a constellation of towns, each with about 32,000 residents. Famously expressed through a series of diagrams, these towns would be largely self-contained places to live and work.

They would be located around industrial cities like London which themselves, over time, would be decentralised into smaller garden city-style settlements. All these places would be linked by electric rail and canal to permit the easy movement of people and goods.

Ebenezer’s vision. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Howard wanted to control what he called the “smoke fiend” of polluting transport, which was already blighting cities at the turn of the century. The idea was to give people the chance to get away from London’s rank conditions and offer them the best of town and country combined: healthy air; affordable, good quality housing; and (mostly) local food, facilities and jobs. Many of Howard’s intentions were realised in two garden cities: Letchworth Garden City, built from 1903, and Welwyn Garden City, built from 1920.

The idea of garden cities – and especially garden suburbs and towns – took off around the world, in countries including in Scandinavia, Australia, the US, South America and Japan. In many places, hybrids emerged, building on both garden city ideas and related traditions such as Utopian settlements, industrial villages and the City Beautiful movement.

Before and between the two world wars, there were plenty of garden villages and garden suburbs created in the UK, including the famous and beautiful example of Hampstead Garden Suburb. But there have been no more garden cities built in the Britain since Letchworth and Welwyn.

What happened?

After World War II, a number of “new towns” were built following the New Towns Act of 1946: examples included Stevenage, Hatfield, Telford, Runcorn and Milton Keynes. The new towns, though, have drawn a much more mixed response than the garden cities that preceded them. While sometimes criticised as places to live, many new towns have strong support from residents and proponents of their social purpose and design.

More recently, in the light of increasing worries about making new places sustainable, a previous Labour government tried to develop a number of so-called "ecotowns" on former airbases and other pieces of leftover land; but most of these weren’t built after local communities rejected them.

Over the last 40 or 50 years, there has also been quite a lot of pretty ordinary housing developed by builders in dormitory estates. These have tended to make places which are just residential – not proper towns.

Milton Keynes: bleak or beautiful? Image: Ian Halsey/flickr, CC BY-NC.

Many people aren’t impressed with the way that postwar housing estates in cities have turned out either; this was most recently reflected in prime minister David Cameron’s announcement about redeveloping the hundred “worst” housing estates. All of this means people usually aren’t too keen to hear that any new housing is being built near them – as any scan of local newspapers makes abundantly clear.

One thing has stood out, though. Most people still really like garden cities. They like the Arts and Crafts houses designed by Barry Parker and others at Letchworth, and the delicacy and refinement of the red brick neo-Georgian architecture of many of Welwyn’s houses and public buildings. They appreciate the numerous trees and avenues that make the garden cities feel fresh, green, open and pleasant to walk around.

And in Letchworth, they value the way that money which comes from the town’s landholdings (things like farms, shops, office buildings and so on) is poured back into the local community by the town’s governors, as part of a unique arrangement whereby people who live there get extra health facilities and other valued services.

Where to next?

With this context in mind, the UK funding announcement, made by the country’s chancellor, George Osborne, starts to make sense. England is in the middle of a housing crisis. In the south of the country, where the economy is strong, there aren’t enough places to live. In the north, there are problems caused by low demand for housing, because economies there have been suffering for a long time.

For governments of any complexion, the upshot is that supporting new garden cities increasingly looks like a good idea as a way to help supply more houses – and to make homely towns to live and work in, instead of sprawling housing estates people have to commute from for jobs and services.

It’s particularly important that the garden city brand is still a positive one: there seems more chance that people will be less opposed to new garden city developments than they would be to other kinds of settlements. They may even welcome them.

More of this, please. Image: paulafunnell/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

The garden cities of Letchworth and Welwyn were created without any government support, and their early days were fairly financially precarious as a result. But now the government is prepared to help with substantial financial contributions to at least three new garden settlements, with Bicester and north Essex in addition to Ebbsfleet.

New garden villages – like one on the edge of Hatfield in Hertfordshire – are being planned, and some people advocate them as a way to solve the housing crisis.

Of course, garden cities will not be the only way to meet housing demand in England’s south-east. What’s more, there’s a risk that they might not be put in the right places in terms of transport, suitable land, population and housing need – just where land is available.

It’s not really clear how far new garden cities in northern locations could help revive local economies and deliver Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse”. There’s also some anxiety that they could infringe on the green belt, which many hold sacrosanct. These are all valid points.

But despite these fears, I remain optimistic that in supporting a new round of garden cities and other kinds of garden development we are heading in the right direction. My university did some detailed consultation and design-based work on this idea in 2008, and again in 2014. It remains clear garden cities could work well as part of any new development balance.

I’d like to see a number of different kinds of settlements created to make beautiful, diverse, affordable and compact places – and that would include both new garden settlements and remade housing estates. Garden cities are not the whole answer, but they could and should be an excellent part of the mix.The Conversation

Susan Parham is head of urbanism at the Centre for Sustainable Communities, University of Hertfordshire.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.