The Sustainability of “Garden Cities” 1

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016
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Ebenezer Howard’s concept of the Garden City is one of the most influential planning models produced by 20th century urbanists, supported by Peter Hall’s 1998 book, Sociable Cities: The 21st Century Reinvention of the Garden City.

A recent special issue of the Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal (JURR) evaluates the concept of the Garden City for a rapidly urbanizing 21st century world.

The Garden City concept is informing – consciously or unconsciously – new proposals for environmentally sensitive development, social and environmental sustainability issues, especially where they  concern cultural diversity and inclusivity.

Planned, mixed-use, “live-work-play” developments can be viewed positively through the “Garden City” model. Dense, amenity-rich town centres and civic gathering places interact with smaller clustered multi-centred suburban areas and with clustered, tightly knit villages. This interaction is increasingly facilitated through affordable distributive energy opportunities, high quality telecommunication and transit/transport corridors, their walkability/cycleability, and their ability to transcend ethnic and cultural diversity   divides.

The “Garden City” framework and zero-carbon cities have significant areas of intersection. Progressing toward zero-carbon is a core compact entered into between global, green building councils in response to the Paris Agreement of COP21. Focusing on how buildings will attain zero-carbon objectives, unaided by fully considered environmental and fiscal policy settings, will result in a mismatch between the capacity for on-site solar generation, the energy consumption of even the most efficient buildings, and the density of development demanded by a compact cities. It is not possible or feasible to resolve these challenges through infill development, transport connectivity, affordable housing and a high quality public realm alone.

Distributed energy systems and improving energy storage at household and infrastructure scales will be increasingly pervasive in the creation of new Garden Cities around the world. If regulatory frameworks can be established that support the large-scale generators, distribution entities and household/neighbourhood distributive energy opportunities, the potential to support increasingly populous and dense cities will be enhanced. Private and embedded networks present the best current opportunity to optimise some of the energy regulation challenges for decentralised renewable generation. By increasing the scale and diversity of private demand, the capacity to fully utilise embedded generation substantially increases.

Walkability will govern wider transportation planning – shared vehicles, electric vehicles, light rail and other transport forms, cutting down (at least in theory) the use of personal automobiles for travel to work. Telecommuting is supported by the provision of auxiliary and co-working workspaces and a high-speed broadband network connectivity.

Additionally, water conservation measures will be critical to success in Garden Cities, including water efficient toilets, faucets, showers (a requirement in Australian legislation); washers and dryers (promoted through Star ratings and other mechanisms); water metering systems with tiered pricing; artificial turf on sports fields; water-saving native plants in landscaped areas such as urban forests; and, most significantly, technologies for harvesting and recycling rainwater.

Formal agricultural greenbelts and conservation zones are essential to success. Urban vertical gardens and community gardens or rooftop gardens will become more prevalent. The idea to turn scrubby, trash-strewn vacant lots into vegetable gardens, tree farms, stormwater management parks and useful agrarian spaces that make neighbourhoods both more livable and more sustainable has been evolving at the grassroots level for decades in places in many cities around the world. Now, they are starting to attract significant funding from private investors, non-profits and government  agencies.

There is significant interest because some of these opportunities and solutions are lower cost than traditional development, but at the same time, their implementation will actually make the other land more developable. Detroit, which has at least 50 square kilometres of abandoned land, has been a leader in envisioning alternative uses for sites that once would have been targeted for conventional redevelopment. The city has 1,400 or more urban farms and community gardens, and tree-planting plan that could become a model for cities around the world.

As cities become increasingly diverse in their cultural fabric, where ethnic enclaves can be “constructed” through poorly managed social, housing, and hard and soft infrastructure policy development and implementation (and vise versa), where does the role of urban planning and design at the practical day to day operation of planning practice intersect with the theoretical and philosophical frameworks of the Garden Cities, New Urbanism and other models?

Will people who identify as being from an ethnic or culturally diverse community be drawn to communities built on Garden City-style models? All planning schemes aim to achieve the triumvirate concepts of ecological, social and economic sustainability. Yet, planning practice does not, and possibly cannot, discern the nuances of cultural variables into the commercial, social, residential and public spaces of a city.

Presently, how ethnic diversity affects urbanism and vice versa (i.e., how urban life is experienced by people of diverse cultural backgrounds) is an afterthought even in more progressive, sustainability-conscious urban planning circles. For example, traditional mosque and church design is almost completely at odds with the design criteria requirements of a modern, western design aesthetic. Cultures vary in their design preferences for both residential and public space. The built form and aesthetics of civic and residential architecture carry particular cultural connotations and meanings, and thus have appeal across ethnic groups.

The broader vision of a “Garden City” needs to consider how to concentrate economic development in a number of “nodes,” each of which would be surrounded by leafy corridors of “re-greened” land. The corridors would separate the nodes, helping to give each neighbourhood a more distinct identity, as well as bring residents the benefits of open space and serve as pathways for wildlife moving between existing natural areas.

Equally, the “Garden City” model can be applied to Urban Renewal programs. “Deconstructing” rather than simply demolishing buildings so that contractors can comb them for valuable old-growth timber, vintage fixtures and other reusable elements can help to divert materials from landfills. “Contractors” could be equally defined as a corporate entity or a local resident group, this providing economic opportunity for development, employment, and social cohesion.

Different cultural and ethnic groups can value and assign different meanings to water. In many cultures, water is a spiritual as well as an economic good. Cross-culturally, water management is not simply a technical matter. Urban planners and infrastructure service providers need to recognize these different cultural uses and meanings of water in the preparation of planning schemes, assessing development and perhaps even within the manner in which planning law is created.

Non-western concepts of water as sacred can easily dovetail with a western ethos of environmental sustainability. However, water regulating strategies like metering, recycling, and budgeting can conflict with particular cultural values identifying water as sacred and even as a basic human right. Certainly, management strategies like differential pricing of water based on intensity of use can easily discriminate against some cultural groups and contradict broader Garden City commitments to life quality and social equity.

Culturally and ethnically diverse groups experience parks and other open spaces in different ways as a function of different cultural values and needs. Just consider the differences in landscape styles of different societies: Japanese gardens, Balinese gardens, Australian native gardens. Clearly, varying preferences among ethnic groups with respect to park attributes (such as water, trees, and scenic vistas), the ratio of developed  to undeveloped (“wild”) space, and patterns of use (for instance, as individuals vs. in larger groups, for recreation vs. relaxation, with vs. without food, and so on) are discernable.

“Garden City” models of development can be evolved to address the challenge of urban sustainability by incorporating various forms of food production, intercultural literacy and sensitivity, into the master planning process. Understanding the cultural, ethnic and demographic diversity of a locality (or the target market of new master-planned communities) will help drive and deliver appropriate culturally sensitive communities. This could include development that incorporates community gardens as a substitute for front yards and medium-sized farms as a substitute for traditional suburban amenities like golf  courses.

How a culture defines itself can be as much about its water and food as it is about its urban/architectural design narrative. Decisions about food – what is grown, how it is harvested and prepared, how and where it is consumed, its symbolic meaning, and so on – are central to how a culture is defined and importantly how it is perceived by others. Planning law needs to be flexible enough to cater for these opportunities, or at the very least, permit the opportunity to challenge accepted norms to create communities (or even small scale projects) that permit a point of distinction from the dominant urban form found in any city or region.

Cultural inclusion, life quality, and social equity are important elements of what makes a city “sociable.” Designing built and open space for broad intercultural appeal should be a top priority going forward. Modern, 21st-century Garden City, Sociable City, and other urban models that seek to better integrate cultural diversities could benefit from a greater understanding of how ethnic groups recognize and identify their cultural and natural surroundings differently as a function of history and socialization.

Planning practice needs to have a greater awareness of cultural variation in ways of dwelling, using water, producing food, designing public space, and interacting with the natural environment for our increasingly ethnically diverse cities and communities. The Garden City concept has a compelling intuitive appeal to meet these challenges. Planners and architects are up to the task of making a traditional and still desirable form of settlement more environmentally and inter-culturally attractive and sustainable.

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  1. Patrick Sunter

    Thank you for this engaging and well written article Brett.
    I imagine many aspiring planners, including myself, encounter Garden Cities as part of learning about planning's ambitious reforming history.
    But I have to remark :- your article tends to avoid the question of the political challenge required for getting support for the level of very active spatial planning that developing 21st century versions of garden cities would require.