Garden Cities and lessons for future climate resilience and health places

The centenary celebration of Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire is the focus point for the International Garden Cities Symposium being held this week featuring a creative exploration of the Garden City idea, an online conference and physical study tours.

The theme for the conference is learning from the past, transforming the present and re-imagining the future with presenters and delegates exploring how lessons from the Garden City movement can help address future challenges such as climate change, population growth and sustainable living.

The Garden City movement began as a campaign for radical development by Ebenezer Howard in the 1890s. His aspiration was a for a series of ideal towns, surrounded by green belt that would separate housing from industry combining the best of the city and countryside and helping to address the overcrowding and industrial pollution of growing Victorian cities. In Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, 1898, Howard stated “Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together”. The first garden cities – Letchworth, Welwyn and Brentham Garden Suburb were in and around London but many others, inspired by the original model, have been developed since across the world.

Rachel Brisley, JBA’s Head of Climate Services, participated in a Panel session  on ‘Climate resilient and healthy Garden Cities’ on Wednesday 15 September. The session was chaired by Julia Thrift, Director, Healthier Place-making, Town and County Planning Association (TCPA) with other contributors being Hugh Ellis, Director of Policy, TCPA and Ann Forsyth, Ruth and Frank Stanton Professor of Urban Planning, Harvard University.

After an introduction by the Chair. Julia Thrift, in which she highlighted that more than 200 health journals have called on governments to take emergency action to tackle the “catastrophic harm to health” from climate change, the three panellists provided initial thoughts on the conversation theme. Hugh Ellis reflected that the Garden City movement was intended to help manage change in a way that is desirable to human benefit, and that we now need to enter a period of rapid change as the health, inequality and climate crisis cannot be ignored. He also challenged Government and policy makers to face up to the reality that some communities on the coast and inland are not sustainable in the long term and we need to start planning for this now. Rachel Brisley highlighted the need for Net Zero and climate resilient objectives to be considered together to ensure that buildings and communities are both resilient to future change and minimise their carbon emissions. She also reported on key findings from the Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk including likely increases in the number of people at risk from flooding as a result of climate change and the issue of coastal communities that are unviable in the long term due to sea level rise, reinforcing Hugh’s point about needing to plan for the future of such communities now. Ann Forsyth reported on research she had led regarding healthy places and models for cities and neighbourhoods reflecting on different approaches: classic healthy places (healthy built environments and collaborative healthy cities), population based lenses (age and child-friendly places) and technology-focused places (healthcare industrial cities/science cities and smart health environment). She also reported on the distribution of Garden Cities around the globe reflecting on their varying success in meeting the aspirations of the original movement and that some remain underwhelming.

A variety of insightful questions were posed by delegates with much agreement from the panellists on the approaches required to address both climate resilient and healthy places in combination. A mix of low and high tech solutions were identified as required to maximise climate resilience health ranging from Whatsapp groups to sustain community cohesion, walking and cycling and the importance of community engagement and support. Lessons from the Garden Cities movement included the management of change and the need to be adaptive where there is no end state vision and flexible to address uncertainty. This reflects the challenge of adaptation which has no end state and, arguably, is less easy to garner support and identify practical solutions for than the Net Zero agenda which has clear targets and pathways. The availability of data was explored regarding understanding uncertainty for climate change and it was agreed that whilst local authorities and national agencies have a lot of information on flood risk, the paucity of data, information and policy regarding overheating is a significant challenge at all levels. The final question posed to each panellist focused on what needs to be done to prevent future ‘underwhelming’ places as identified by Ann earlier. The responses were mutually reinforcing focusing on the need for continuing care and attention for both places and communities recognising that 1% of effort needs to be on building a place and 99% on looking after it, the need to hold on to a vision and adapt this over time as circumstances change, and to be brave and face, head-on, the challenges that lie ahead particularly regarding places that may not have a sustainable future.

The conference continued yesterday with guided walking study tours of Welwyn Garden City to explore the design and architecture of Welwyn Garden City, as well as its cultural heritage, arts and social life.

Want to know more?

If you’d like to find out more please contact Rachel Brisley or visit our climate resilience page.

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