So now we’re all talking about Garden Cities. For once, I feel (slightly) ahead of the curve as last month I went to Letchworth Garden City for an event on long-term stewardship hosted by the Town & Country Planning Association. At the time, things didn’t seem too hopeful for the future of the 21st century Garden City in England. It sounded like there was still a lot more lobbying to be done. Sure, garden cities had been name checked in the national planning policy framework but they were conspicuous in their absence in the planning guidance. But here we are with announcements made that Ebbsfleet is earmarked as the next Garden City, with critics as well as cautious praise.

Norton Common Local Nature Reserve in Letchworth, north of the trainline.

Norton Common Local Nature Reserve in Letchworth, north of the trainline.

The Garden City concept of the early 1900s was based on a number of big ideas, and what I would describe as the biggest idea is essentially place-keeping in practice – long-term stewardship. In essence, Ebenezer Howard and associates back in the early 20th century planned Letchworth as an asset that would be properly looked after in perpetuity. This was based on the establishment of a community-based organisation to manage the asset, and this was a great example of place-keeping being considered from the outset.

So how does Letchworth work in practice? Surely it’s one of those examples of best practice considered to be pie in the sky for other places to replicate because of the specific conditions and context of the time it was established. But before we write it off as undoable, one thing worth remembering is that the Garden City was a private sector initiative: commercial properties formed a crucial part of making that long-term stewardship model possible.

Architectural design and natural elements of landscape (here well-established trees) contribute to Letchworth’s particular character.

Architectural design and natural elements of landscape (here well-established trees) contribute to Letchworth’s particular character.

The Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation (LGCHF) is a self-sustaining charity that does not engage in any of the day-to-day open space management and maintenance that the North Hertfordshire District Council does in Letchworth. LGCHF gets involved in additional place-keeping activities – the ‘above and beyond’ what the council do. In Letchworth this ‘additionality’ includes a cinema, community health and cultural activities and managing the 13-mile greenway around the city. It’s the responsibility of the Foundation to look after the city’s heritage with its Advisory team giving permission (and advice) for any developments. And in this way, governance of the model is critical. The Foundation has strong ties with the Letchworth community, made up of over half nominated and elected governors on the Board, with consultation forming an important part of the Foundation’s activities.

Broadway cinema is one of the ‘additional’ activities of the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation

Broadway cinema is one of the ‘additional’ activities of the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation

An example of this in practice is a recent consultation exercise that was held in Letchworth. While Ebenezer Howard and co. might have had 32,000 people as the optimum population for Letchworth, the Foundation have posed the pertinent and controversial 21st century question to residents: does Letchworth need more housing? It’s grasping the nettle of this century’s housing needs in the face of some residents’ staunch opposition to any proposed increases.

The principal mantra behind the Garden City is a model based on ‘plan, manage and reinvest’, and that reinvestment is fundamental from the outset. How many open space assets are addressed using such a model? As we continue to find in our work on place-keeping, it’s when it comes to the long-term funding that problems always arise. The ‘reinvest’ part of the model is the most difficult to ensure. Public open space assets and ring-fenced funding do not naturally go together in England, regardless of how many trust models use it as their basis. For the Letchworth model, and future investors looking to get in on the garden city model (if ‘correctly’ interpreted), foresight is needed to calculate ‘total value’ in order to see how wealth can be created by towns that go way beyond the developer’s profits. This also means adjusting the timescales that we use when calculating value, profit, and returns on investment. This will require a shift in mind-set which we have talked about before in these blogs.

Broadway’s open space is a centre piece of Letchworth.

Broadway’s open space is a centre piece of Letchworth.

Do we have to go back in time over one hundred years to remind ourselves of how to think long-term? I think we do need to look back to face forwards and learn from past experience. Because we are talking about in perpetuity after all and we really do need to take a long-term place-keeping approach if we are going to get that right for this and future centuries.

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AuthorNicola Dempsey