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Competition: Reimagining the Garden City

Garden city concept 1902 by ebenezer howard
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Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation is holding an ideas contest calling for contemporary Interpretations of Ebenezer Howard’s visionary Garden City principle

The two-stage competition, launched by the RIBA, invites participants to draw up proposals for a landmark 44.5ha site to the north of Letchworth Garden City.

The call for concepts comes nearly two years after the government announced plans for 200,000 new homes in a series of ‘garden villages’ and ‘garden towns’ across the country.

David Ames of the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation said: ‘The foundation is seeking to recapture the pioneering spirit of the founding years of the Garden City, where many of the original Letchworth homes were designed by architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin.

‘We believe that there is a huge opportunity to reimagine some of their founding principles and values to create new homes in Letchworth that meet the needs for how we live now and in the future.

‘Competitors are invited to submit ambitious and sustainable solutions which address the social, environmental and financial challenges of the 21st century, embedded in high-quality place-making. The foundation hopes that the competition will help move the debate about new housing away from purely numbers and delivery, to creating beautiful affordable homes in great places where people will want to live and work.’

Former RIBA president Jane Duncan said: ‘This is a very rare opportunity for architects to showcase their empathy for the pioneering garden cities ethic, hone their most subtle masterplanning skills, and recreate the most delightful 21st-century reworking of sustainable living in this newly released area of Letchworth Garden City. I look forward with great relish to seeing the outcome of this competition.’

Garden cities were conceived by architect Ebenezer Howard, who set out plans for self-sufficient garden cities ringed by agricultural belts in 1898. Architect Raymond Unwin and his partner Barry Parker won the competition to lay out the first, Letchworth, in 1904.

Twenty-seven new towns drawing on garden city principles were built in the UK following the passing of the New Towns Act in 1946. 

The winning scheme in the latest competition will be expected to inform the overall masterplan for the area which will contain 900 new homes – of which 40 per cent will be affordable housing – together with a new primary school, local community facility and retail space.

Four shortlisted teams will be invited to further develop their designs following an initial open and anonymous round. Each finalist will receive a £6,000 honorarium and the overall winner will take home an additional £6,000.

Backers include the TCPA, BRE, Homes England, Anglian Water and the University of Hertfordshire. Judges include Duncan, Ames, Gillian Hobbs from BRE, Fionnuala Lennon of Homes England, and Katy Lock from TCPA.

The deadline for entries is 2pm on 13 December.

How to apply

Visit the competition website for more information

Contact details

RIBA Competitions
No 1 Aire Street

Tel: 0113 203 1490
Email: riba.competitions@riba.org 



David Ames, executive director of the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation

David Ames

David Ames

David Ames

Why are your holding an international contest to harness contemporary Garden City principles for the expansion of Letchworth?

For the first time in a generation, a new wave of Garden Cities, Towns and Villages are being developed, to help address part of the housing shortage. Letchworth, as the world’s first Garden City was seen as a lead to new settlements in the early twentieth century, from a design, governance and economic perspective, applying Ebenezer Howard’s core principles. We believe that Letchworth remains relevant today, particularly as we are the only example of the land value capture and reinvestment model being applied at scale in this country. We are often asked about what a new Garden City should look like and we feel that this is not as straightforward as may originally sound. We can point to the beautiful architecture found in the early Garden Cities such as a at Letchworth, Welwyn Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb, but Howard spoke about being modern, pioneering and meeting today’s needs. We therefore believe that there should be a design led debate to ensure that the discussion moves from the number of homes that are required, to how these can be provided in high quality places to meet the needs of this century, rather than copying what was built a hundred years ago.

As part of this, we need to have a strong grasp of what constitutes a modern Garden City and the components of a modern sustainable settlement. We are therefore hosting a design competition to engender this debate, but also ensure some of these core attributes are represented. Therefore, the panel and organisation involved, will provide expertise on important aspects such as landscape, planning, architecture and urban design, water management, building efficiency and urban agriculture. In the second phase of the competition, we will being in commercial advice, to ensure that proposals are viable and can be delivered by the market.

We also have a great opportunity to use Letchworth’s expansion as a living case study, which we think provides something more tangible to focus the discussion and an excellent way to encourage participation in the competition.

There are over 200 Garden City schemes across the world. They are seen as an international solution to meeting growth requirements and therefore we feel that the competition should be open as an international exercise, so that we can understand different interpretations of how to address this issue.

What is your vision for the new Garden City-inspired addition to Letchworth?

Letchworth has not since any substantial growth since the 1980s. We now have a 45-hectare site allocated in the emerging Local Plan. The site is on the northern edge of Letchworth and a greenfield site. It represents an opportunity to create an exemplar development, which will not only benefit the people of Letchworth, but influence other development schemes. As is the case with most sites, there are constraints, but the Competition Brief addresses the most significant of these, which is vehicular access, which is confirmed in the supporting information. There are existing hedgerows which should be retained as far as practicable and we believe that there is a strong opportunity for additional habitat creation. There is a requirement for some community facilities to be provided, including a 2 Form Entry Primary School and the allocation in the Local Plan is for 900 homes.

The Heritage Foundation has committed to 40 per cent affordable housing provision and a significant programme of community engagement by way of a town wide conversation, to ensure that the development is community led, a high quality development, which has sustainability at its heart.

Our Trustees feel strongly that this development should be something that the whole town can be proud and this we believe to be an excellent starting point. This should include flexible accommodation, which can meet all stages of life, walkable neighbourhoods, access to open space, high quality landscaping reflecting the very best of Garden City design and overall seeking to meet the aspiration of creating a great place where people can live and thrive across ages and tenures. Building design should reflect these aspirations, but also endure, as the early phases of Letchworth, included in the Parker and Unwin plan, clearly have. This is in our opinion a measure of the quality of their work, which can be seen across Letchworth today and we hope will be achieved with our growth plans.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

I believe that there is an opportunity for architects from different practice sizes to be involved and certainly this should not be restricted to large practices. We hope that there will be a diverse range of entries from different backgrounds and experiences, from across the world. Ultimately, we are seeking to encourage great places to live, work and play and we would welcome a range of ideas and approaches, to widen the debate in this important area. I am sure that there will be a number of entries that will take approaches that we would never have dreamed of, but we should remember that the Parker and Unwin Plan from 1903 was at the time highly innovative, but then became the mainstream as its influence grew. We should also remember that Parker and Unwin were awarded the master planning of Letchworth following a design competition in 1903.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

The case study site is our largest project for many years and the winner will not only receive a cash prize, but will be commissioned to design the illustrative plan for the development site, which will be a key component of the Development Brief and will be used as a basis to appoint a partner to help bring the site forward. They will also have an opportunity to present their ideas to the appointed development partner, to provide them the best opportunity of being appointed to be the lead master planner. At the moment this competition is our main focus and we do not have any plans for competitions for other projects.

Are there any other recent Garden Community projects you have been impressed by?

We have seen a number of new settlements plans and it would be wrong to single any out at this stage, but there are some bright examples out there that show what can be achieved. A scheme that seems to have a captured the spirit of the Garden City Movement is at Bicester, particularly the Graven Hill development, which is a major development on former RAF land acquired by Cherwell District Council. This has a large proportion of homes for self-build, which I believe creates an exciting opportunity for people to build their own homes, and for design innovation. This includes opportunities for local people and is certainly something that we believe should play a strong part in the planning of new settlements.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Letchworth Garden City have launched an international ‘Design Ideas’ competition for 900 homes, a school, community building and retail space. They are expecting an indicative master plan and indicative house types/typologies on 2 A2 sheets plus 8 pages of further detail plus a visual image to summaries the proposed concept. From this they will shortlist 4 schemes.

    On the one hand the implications is a creative charette of ideas to explore the relevance of the Garden City for the 21st century, but of course the reality is a huge amount of work to distil a vision into 2 small sheets.

    You would expect there to be some guidance in the brief on some of the key urban design issues, of which car parking is probably the most important. There is no reference in the brief to car parking or the PTAL rating of the site. Under ‘Design Approach’ in the brief there is the encouragement to propose ‘positive alternatives to the private car’ . The Brief does however refer ‘for more information’ to the Local plan which refers to the ‘SPG for vehicle parking at new developments’. This document requires minimum of 1 car parking space for a 1 bed unit and 2 car parking spaces for 2 or more bed space units. On this basis the minimum number of car parking space required for the residential units alone will be around 1650 (that is around 3 hectares of car parking). If this is likely to be the default planning standard applied to the new development it will have a dramatic impact on any design solution. Wouldn’t it be sensible for the competition organisers to be more definite about the realities of the Planning framework rather than encouraging the design of a plethora of urban villages with barely a car in sight which will be binned as soon as the harsh realities of the local plan kick in.

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