Report from a ‘New New Towns’ conference

February 29, 2008

I attended a conference on ‘New New Towns‘ last week, brilliantly chaired by Sir Peter Hall, Professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning. A highly diverse audience comprising architectural and planning students and practitioners, academics and local government officers spent a fascinating day divided into three sessions – on the past, present and future of New Towns in the light of recent government announcements on plans for eco-towns. For our purposes it was interesting to hear from David Lock, TCPA chairman, that eco-towns were a diversion away from the challenge of intensifying the existing suburban environment. Nicholas Falk warned against repeating the mistakes of the past with “nameless suburbs”.

Despite some fascinating accounts of exemplar projects in the past and present: Sylvia Borda showed her photographic account of the Scottish New Town of East Kilbride – highlighting its success as a community due to its unusually having a good mix of middle and working class inhabitants (if you look at her book you see she also mentions ‘connectivity’ as being a factor in its success) and Nicholas Falk presented the suburban extensions to Freiburg), little attention was given towards the human scale of the built environment: how new housing can be inserted into existing areas with the new requirements for green energy and recycling. Equally troubling, was the defeatist attitude towards the lack of tools for creating good communities. The consensus seemed to be that although we in the UK have in the past come up with inspirational and influential ideas, such as the Garden City movement, we are unable to create successful communities (with the exception of the continuing success of Hampstead Garden Suburb and Span Housing). It is indeed correct to say that society has changed and become more fragmented; people have become more mobile, but surely it is wrong to suggest that we don’t have the tools to begin to engineer solutions to these problems. The worst-case scenario of continuing with the prevailing orthodoxy of urban regeneration will be worsening housing conditions, overcrowding and social dependency.

On the subject of eco-towns, see also the following article in Building Design on a new proposal for a suburban development in Sutton. Of course the devil is in the detail. The report concentrates on the master-planning, but clearly the detailed design is just as vital to ensure the future success.

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One Response to “Report from a ‘New New Towns’ conference”

  1. suburbanite Says:

    In an article in The Sunday Times magazine from June 15th the debate about eco-towns continues (see here: http://tinyurl.com/67eehq). As noted above, the criticism that the size and location of these new settlements has been taken up by Richard Rogers, saying: “I think eco-towns are one of the biggest mistakes the government could make. They are in no way environmentally sustainable… building in green areas for 5,000 to 10,000 people means it has to be car-based… It will not be a walking community.” The article concludes that “All this reinforces the obvious argument that the only genuine eco-communities are the existing towns and cities, which have infrastructure already in place, and that the most sustainable form of development, exemplified around Cambridge, is the “densification” of the urban fringe.” and goes on to point out that the much vaunted Freiburg, Germany (see previous post here: http://tinyurl.com/4hmgb6) “was built within an existing urban area well served by public transport and a short distance from the centre: it is not a remote satellite among the fields.”


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