Garden cities can be wonders of our age

November 14, 2013

For too many young families, the aspiration of home ownership, with all the security it brings, has become a distant dream. Even if they rent their home, many are priced out of the neighbourhoods in which they were raised. The next generation simply won’t have the opportunities that were open to their parents. House price inflation is socially divisive; it widens the gap between rich and poor, between old and young, ossifying society.

Britons already live in smaller, less comfortable and more expensive homes than virtually any other European country. And it is not just houses that are cramped. Years of cramming more people into existing urban cordons have left our transport systems creaking at the seams.

The cause of these problems is clear: we aren’t building enough new homes. But garden cities might just provide an answer. They would do more than solve social problems. They represent a huge economic opportunity at a time when we desperately need growth. In addition to providing fantastic places to live, with spacious gardens, they would add billions to GDP, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and send a powerful message to the rest of the world – Britain believes in its own future.

Currently we have an impasse: there is an unspoken, seemingly unbreakable, conspiracy against building the type of houses people want, where they want to live, at prices they can afford. Add to this an army of protesters ready to spring up at the mere whisper of new development, and you can see why housing is in short supply.

I sympathise with people who oppose local developments; their motives are understandable. Too many housing developments are uninspiring, ugly, and lack the infrastructure they require. But if we want to tackle our housing crisis our answer cannot always be “no”.

The biggest problem is the notion that new homes should only be built in, or next to, existing communities. It is a belief born of an illusion: the sense that if any agricultural land is given up, then the last green spaces will be swallowed up in an unconstrained urban jungle.

Most people would be surprised to learn that 92 per cent of Great Britain is undeveloped. We could develop a small fraction of our least attractive land and leave our beautiful countryside and existing communities unscarred. The maths is powerful: a mere 2 per cent of undeveloped land could increase space for homes by more than 25 per cent. Garden cities provide a verdant alternative to endless infill, shoebox flats, urban creep and strip development.

In place of the sprawl, we could create cities that are architecturally inspiring and easy to get around – with continuous, covered, perfectly flat cycle paths, quiet and unobtrusive roads, effective public transport and utilities delivered in accessible pipelines (not submerged under the busiest road in town).

Cities can be green; they can harness as much from the beauty of nature as they get from the splendour of their buildings. Parklands, waterways, and gardens can make our urban spaces more bio-diverse than the agro-industrial monocultures that surround them.

That may all sound attractive but it will also be expensive. In an age of austerity, projects must be self-financing, without one penny added to our national debt. Fortunately, the wealth created by new cities is more than enough to pay for the best sort of development.

One acre of agricultural land in the South East of England is worth £20,000 at most, an acre of land with open planning in excess of £1,000,000. Capturing this value to fund the costs of finance and infrastructure will require innovation. It may require the creation of a new type of authority that has the powers of both developer and local government. The first 50 years of any new rates generated in the city might have to be ring-fenced to pay for infrastructure.

Finally, if an area is to be subjected to such upheaval, it must be done with the active consent of the people most affected. That means making generous provision to compensate local people, giving them a meaningful share in the rewards that will come from the transformation of their community.

A new city is the ultimate design challenge. The winner of this year’s Wolfson Economics Prize must deliver inspirational architectural ideas, innovative infrastructure and sound development economics. They will receive a handsome £250,000 prize but, more importantly, they will have the chance to change our country for the better, make a meaningful difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and provide the UK with much-needed economic growth.

If Britain is to succeed, we need to be optimistic. We must have more faith in the potential achievements of our own generation. Let us build something that will be a credit to our age, so that people will look back at our time and say: “That was built at the turn of the millennium: what a wonderful, energetic and creative time that was!”

This article originally appeared on the Daily Telegraph website.

To find out more about the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014, please click here.

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