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Rogers: New garden cites 'threaten urban revival'

Richard Rogers has warned that new ‘garden city’ greenfield housing developments favoured by the coalition government risk undermining the potential of urban regeneration and lead to new ‘suburban sprawl’

The high-profile architect and Labour peer said the main parties’ responses to the nation’s housing crisis ignored ‘the fragility of the urban renaissance’ seen in Britian’s cities in recent years and overlooked the damage that ‘careless relaxation of planning controls’ could do to both cities and the countryside.

Writing in The Guardian, Rogers said the coalition’s garden-city drive, and the suggestion that Labour is considering urban extensions modelled on the postwar new towns, underestimated how much the nation’s cities still had to offer.

‘Opening up greenfield sites for new towns - even rebranded as ‘garden cities’ - will create commuter dormitories without the critical mass to sustain local shops or services,’ he said.

‘What is more, we will divert investment away from complex urban brownfield sites, and will deprive existing urban and suburban centres of the vitality they need.

‘Why develop Ebbsfleet as a new town when east London still needs investment and offers brownfield land to accommodate tens of thousands of new homes?’

Rogers said the de-industrialisation of Britain was replenishing the nation’s supply of brownfield sites and that some 30,000ha of previously-developed land suitable for housing was available, according to 2009 statistics.

“These derelict sites tear apart the urban tapestry of our cities, creating threatening voids, and making local services and infrastructure, from schools to shops, unviable,” he said.

“Building on greenfield sites does not just waste land, but also undermines urban amenities and the communities that depend on them.”

Rogers added that the nation’s ‘biggest opportunity’ for new homes may not be in large sites but in ‘intelligent retrofitting and redevelopment’ that could transform high streets and neighbourhood centres.

‘Using London as an illustration, if 600 high streets and town centres took 500 extra homes apiece, this could provide 300,000 new homes, as well as shoring up and protecting the prosperity of existing places,’ he said.

‘King’s Cross and Stratford are examples of how new towns can be built in urban centres.’

Rogers also called for councils to be put back in the driving seat for planning the development towns and cities, with appropriate tools and resources such as enhanced compulsory-purchase powers and new property-tax arrangements.

Housing and the Unfinished Urban Renaissance by Richard Rogers                  

Cities are the engines of innovation and the heart of our culture.  We will destroy their vitality, if we build new towns while there is still space in urban areas.

In the 15 years since the Urban Task Force, which I chaired, published its report, our cities have bounced back remarkably.Towards an Urban Renaissance, the Task Force’s report, argued for well-designed, compact urban development, on previously-developed (‘brownfield’) sites and around public transport hubs, alongside excellent public spaces and social amenities.  The report marked a move from suburban sprawl to urban regeneration, and the the centres of cities like Manchester and Birmingham have been transformed. 

But we are still failingto provide enough well-designed homes for our fast-growing population, together with the public spaces and mix of uses that create decent places to live.  The latest Government forecasts suggest that we need around 250,000 new homes every year in England.  We haven’t built anywhere near that number since 1975, and the trend for the past 20 years, as construction of council housing has ground to a halt, has been to build around 150,000 a year.  The recession caused a further slowdown: last year we built fewer than 110,000 houses, the lowest annual total since 1922.

A panicked retreat to suburban sprawl and new towns is not the answer

We can’t go on like this. The housing shortage threatens both the economy and our quality of life.  The Government has called for a new generation of ‘garden cities’, and recent reports from Sir Michael Lyons’ Housing Review suggest that the Labour Party are considering ‘urban extensions’ modelled on the post-war new towns. These policy responses ignore the fragility of the urban renaissance, and the overlook the damage that careless relaxation of planning controls could do to our cities as well as our countryside.  And they underestimate the potential that our cities still offer.  We live in the age of cities, and a panicked retreat to the Twentieth century solutions of suburban sprawl and new towns is not the answer.  

The original garden cities turned their back on the grim industrial centres of their day, seeking healthier happier lives for their residents in a green setting.  This was understandable given the appalling conditions that most city-dwellers endured 100 years ago.  But it set in train a process of urban depopulation from which our cities are only just recovering.  Middle class people moved out by choice, and working class communities were carelessly and disruptively transplanted to the new towns that emerged after the Second World War. 

Opening up greenfield sites for new towns (even rebranded as ‘garden cities’) will create commuter dormitories, without the critical mass to sustain local shops or services.  What is more, we will divert investment away from complex urban brownfield sites, and will deprive existing urban and suburban centres of the vitality they need.  Why develop Ebbsfleet as a new town, when East London still needs investment and offers brownfield land to accommodate tens of thousands of new homes?

We do not need to repeat the mistakes of the past.  Our cities industrialised earlier and more extensively than many others in Europe; and as heavy industry continues to decline, our stock of brownfield sites is replenished.  These derelict sites tear apart the urban tapestry of our cities, creating threatening voids, and making local services and infrastructure, from schools to shops, unviable.  Building on greenfield sites, when there is still dereliction in our cities, does not just waste land, but also undermines urban amenities and the communities that depend on them.

The Government’s last estimates, published in 2009, identified 30,000 hectares of brownfield land suitable for housing in England, which could provide nearly 1.5 million new homes, based on fairly conservative current assumptions on housing density.  You can debate the suitability of particular sites, but there is clearly no urgent need to abandon the principle of ‘brownfield first’.

For example, London, which needs 42,000 homes a year, is already accommodating around 98 per cent of new development on brownfield land (reflecting the policies set out in the London Plan).  Government estimates suggest that nearly 500,000 more homes can be built on previously developed land in the capital. Peabody alone are planning to build 7,000 homes around Thamesmead, taking advantage of Crossrail’s arrival in South East London. 

But the biggest opportunity may not be in large sites, but in intelligent retrofitting and redevelopment, repairing tears in the urban fabric, adapting existing buildings, and working out from high streets and neighbourhood centres - the places with best access to public transport, shops and other amenities.  Town centres like Croydon, hollowed out by 1960s town planning, have huge untapped capacity.  Using London as an illustration, if 600 high streets and town centres took an additional 500 homes apiece, this could provide 300,000 new homes, as well as shoring up and protecting the prosperity of existing places.  King’s Cross and Stratford are examples of how new towns can be built in urban centres.

Our housing market is dysfunctional

So, we have the space; we can retrofit our existing centres as well as making best use of brownfield sites.  The question is,why we are not able to build faster, in the face of such overwhelming demand?  Briefly put, our housing market is dysfunctional.  Landowners – from housebuilders to supermarket chains – have huge land banks, but rising land values give them no incentive to release these for development.  Councils should be in control of planning their cities, not the Treasury or housebuilders. 

We need new ways of planning and building more homes. We must put elected councils back in the driving seat, with the tools and financial resources to plan for their towns and cities, and to make development happen (through enhanced compulsory purchase powers or new property tax arrangements, for example).  We should also be seeking a richer mix of developers and builders, including housing associations, small builders, long-term developers and community groups, as well as the big housebuilders.  Off-site manufacture, with a growing number of British and international firms developing standardised components, can also create economies and scale and a dramatically faster construction, with houses being built on site in hours or days rather than weeks. 

With intelligent design and planning, we don’t need to overflow into new towns on green field sites; doing so would damage the countryside and – more importantly – wreck our cities.  We do need to make more of what we have, unlocking a million development opportunities, and building new places that mix uses, tenures and people, rather than slowly churning out identikit housing estates. Our urban renaissance does need new towns, it’s true, but they must be new towns in our existing cities.

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