CAN GARDEN VILLAGES SOLVE TODAY’S PROBLEMS OR DO THEY MERELY RISK CREATING DISGUISED SUBURBIA?
Turning in his grave or jumping for joy, how would Ebenezer Howard, mastermind of the Garden City movement, react to the latest wave of garden villages to be announced? Unfortunately, it could easily be the former.
Seaham, a harbour town in North East England, is one of nineteen additional UK developments named in June 2019, that the Government hopes will help reach the target of 300,000 net new homes a year. Its principles for garden communities are for high quality place making with local character, where everyone in society can live, work and play.
Home Group and Tolent Construction’s proposal for Seaham Garden Village, developed in conjunction with Durham County Council, will provide 1500 new mixed tenure homes. Community facilities sit at the heart of the masterplan. Green space includes sports facilities, parkland, play areas and 3 miles of footpaths and cycle routes.
Howard’s ideals were bringing nature back into our urban realm, city decentralisation and zoning for different uses. Seaham sounds like it ticks all the right boxes. However arguably Howard was most revolutionary in his engagement with politics and his desire to address the dire living conditions of the time.
Do Seaham and other proposed garden villages really provide a similarly visionary response to our 21st century crises?
Addressing current problems of well-being, seclusion and mental health issues feel lacking from the scheme. Seaham perhaps epitomises our fixation on technology to solve societal problems rather than using design. Jan Gehl’s work, summarised by the Scandinavian proverb ‘people come where people are’, states the importance of low intensity interactions to avoid feeling alone. Yet the scheme is still developed around the sterile, sprawling, suburbia model with residential and community buildings distinctly separate. The masterplan hopes to benefit from the latest 5G by utilising ‘digital technology to reduce social isolation’. But does contacting a virtual GP ease pressure on the NHS or, particularly in elderly neighbourhoods, just exacerbate the sense of loneliness? It begs the question of who actually benefits from the technology and why we wish to create a society which reduces human interactions?
Local engagement and sense of ownership is vital to creating a sense of community. Planning was approved assuming new residents would support local services, however only 300 permanent jobs will be created in the village. If everyone else commutes out to work, use of local services will decrease, undermining the interactions needed for a vibrant urban centre. Jane Jacobs speaks of the importance of dense mixed-use which encourages street activity. Marmalade Lane, Cambridge, a cohousing scheme, involved future residents throughout the process. This has created a strong community feel and pedestrian streets which homes and neighbourhood facilities open onto. A National Design Guide case study which should influence the design of new developments.
One key environmental issue is reducing the rate we deplete resources. When squinting at the Seaham masterplan the standout feature is the road through the village. This proposal is still driven by the car. The scheme speculates about using electric cars, merely transferring the reliance to electric cars rather than reducing use. Unlike Howard’s railways between developments, discussions have not included improving public transport links to this rural site, questioning the future proofing of the scheme. People will travel so access to frequent public transport, free bikes and priority for pedestrians, including integrated paths into the existing town, needs to be prioritised as a minimum.
In a society expecting convenience and consumerism, our ways of living need to urgently change to create healthy environments for individuals, communities and nature. Derwenthorpe, York, has successfully provided public transport and pedestrian routes, but mindsets are still to change. This is also a recent greenfield development which now struggles with car parking. Maybe we need to consider developing brownfield sites to Passivhaus standards, such as Goldsmith Street, to address todays challenges, instead of potential soulless suburbia expansions.
Joseph Rowntree’s progressive vision provided every home in New Earswick, York with a fruit tree. This reduced transport miles, increased appreciation of food, provided health benefits for all and gave every house a natural view. This reduces stress and psychologically embodies us within our growing landscape. Accordia, Cambridge, proposed a housing development design shift and designed with the landscape, successfully combining green public and private realms. The result? A strong sense of community remains 10 years on. If designs collaborate between people and our environment, we should champion these, rather than developing for profit.
Debatably the most sustainable way we’ve ever lived was the primitive huts of the savannah, where we were dependent on understanding nature for food, water and shelter to survive. This does not mean the Government should look at reimplementing this. Humanity has advanced, largely detrimentally to our environment. But new symbiotic narratives for living and working need to be proposed for today’s issues, rather than harping back to a bygone, but totally different, era garden villages were intended for.
Whilst many of the decisions at Seaham Garden Village are commendable, if this the epitome for future design, it’s extremely sad. This is a national exemplar, developing a greenfield site. Are we really serious about progressive changes, creating socially and environmentally sustainable communities?
If so, we need more holistic, innovative and radical design proposals.
 “£3.7 Million to Fund 5 New Garden Towns across the Country.”
 LeGates and Stout, The City Reader.
 “South Seaham Garden Village | IDPartnership.”
 “£3.7 Million to Fund 5 New Garden Towns across the Country.” Planning Committee Report Durham County Council October 2018
 Dale, “Does Derwenthorpe in York Live up to the Dream of a Model Village?”
 Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin.
 Steel, Hungry City.
 Holliss, “To Solve the Housing Crisis We Need New Ideas, Not Garden Cities | Frances Holliss.”