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Garden cities have been gaining increasing attention from all sides of politics as a solution to the ever-present housing crisis gripping the UK. The Wolfson Prize for Economics, a £250,000 competition whose shortlist of winners was announced earlier this week, has attracted enormous recognition through putting garden cities at its heart. The problem is that garden cities, if delivered in the way they were originally conceived, could end up creating a diversion, rather than a contribution towards, the development of the UK economy.
Garden cities seem to capture the public imagination because they conjure up an idealised vision of green space and environmentally friendly places. In contrast, ‘normal’ cities appear to be ingrained in the national psyche as dirty and overcrowded places, something cemented by Victorian artists and writers. Garden cities were conceptualised in the eyes of their creator, Ebenezer Howard, as a most inspiring antidote to this ‘normality’.
But the garden cities movement is all about building cities somewhere completely new, with a great deal of green space, and with as low density as possible. And that has two main implications.
Firstly, and perhaps counterintuitively, in their construction garden cities eat up more of the countryside than an urban extension would.
Secondly, more travelling has to be done to get from A to B within the garden city (a journey more likely to be done by car because of its lower density), or to get to where the jobs are, often a long way from wherever the garden city is located.
Certainly from an environmental perspective, garden cities are not as ‘green’ as they can be portrayed, in contrast to existing cities, which are far from the models of environmental catastrophe they are so often portrayed. In 2011, carbon emissions per capita were 32 per cent lower in UK cities than non-cities. And if emissions per capita at the national level were on par with London (that big dirty metropolis) the UK would emit 114 million fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
These observations aren’t particularly new: Jane Jacobs delivered a devastating critique of the garden cities movement in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities back in the 1960s.
The answer to the housing crisis is not garden cities, but the cities we already have. So policy should focus on increasing their density, liveability and sustainability along the way. Not only would this be cheaper (building a settlement with the requisite infrastructure from scratch comes at a price) but it would also be better for the economy.
Providing houses where, or very near to where, there are jobs gives people access to jobs and businesses access to workers. Density also brings substantial benefits. For example, businesses, particularly knowledge-based ones, are more productive when they locate close to one another.
Many say that this isn’t possible because our cities are overcrowded already. But when compared to places like New York and Hong Kong, London looks positively flat. New York is around three times denser, while Hong Kong is more than five times denser. Nor is this just about high rises: more terraced housing or mansion blocks, as seen in cities such as Paris, would deliver greater density, while still giving access to green space.
Without doubt this density creates challenges, be that through congestion, pressures on sewers or access to green space. But then I’m sure there’s a prize out there that could incentivise innovation in these areas.
It’s still debatable as to whether a garden city will actually be built, despite all the political noises. And, unless it does happen, it means that the current popularity of the garden cities concept could simply serve to distract from the realities of the UK’s housing problem.
In an attempt to offer a different perspective we will be looking at the role that suburbs play in cities later this year.
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