Yesterday I took part in an interesting debate at the Town and Country Planning Association, ( TCPA ) as a member of the Garden Cities and Suburbs Expert Group. There's a publication planned later in the year and I'll include a link in this blog as soon as the results are published. The aim of the exercise is to identify ways of bringing forward new 21st century garden cities, which are green, comprehensively planned and high quality.
The discussion got me thinking about the size of such settlements. Is there a sustainable size?
The eco-towns initiative selected 5,000 homes - about 12,000 population - as the minimum sustainable size. The programme also recommended that some settlements could be as large as 10,000 - 15,000 homes, which would equate to a maximum population of about 40,000 people - the same size as Canterbury. I understand that this scale was fixed becasue it was considered size enough to create the economies of scale needed to finance new infrastructure.
Similarly the New Towns Programme sought to develop new settelements of approximately 50,000 people over ten years. In spite of extraordinary powers of land assembly and development, and in spite of continuous large scale public funding through the recessions of the 70's, the final population growth attributable to the New Towns Programme was less than planned (and achieved more slowly than planned.) By 1991 the actual growth was about 1.4million as opposed to the target of 2m. ( Transferable Lessons from New Towns Programme)
However amongst the new towns generated by the programme are winners and losers. Failing estates in Cumbernauld near Glasgow have since been largely demolished, while Milton Keynes has expanded to become a successful city and a unitary authority with a population of over 200,000. There were about 50,000 population within the original 89km2 of designated land.
Looking back its easy to see why Milton Keynes, less than 50 miles from London, on a motorway and on main line rail link would do better at attracting development than Cumbernauld. Having said that Cumbernauld did continue to grow and now has almost reached the planned population of 50,000. In fact it's become quite succesful on its own terms, benfiting fin recent years from a surge of new businesses including Isola-Werke, OKI, Yaskawa Electronics and the worldwide HQ of AG Barr, who make the popular soft drink Irn-Bru.
So it would be too simplistic to conclude that size is the only thing that matters in developing sustainable locations.
It is often an accident of fate that creates the conditions for sustainable growth. Montpellier in France grew first as a result of an influx of North Africans, who were dispossessed by the Algerian wars. Instead of seeing this influx negatively, the city fathers of Montpellier started an ambitious growth programme which has seen the Agglomeration (the wider regional area) grow to a population of over 500,000. A city of this size is large enough to have developed a tram system, an opera house and can boast a glittering array of first division sports teams including League 1 football, rugby, hand-ball, ice hockey and even water polo. Sports are important for a young city like Montpellier.
In the 80's Montpellier was able to create a whole new central district with shops, offices, a swimming pool, mediatheque and a new 2000 seat opera house, funded on the back of its meteoric expansion. Designed mainly by RIcardo Bofil in a post modern style it has now blended well. The area is mainly pedestrianised, designed on a grand scale and fed by trams which form a web which now links all the suburbs to the centre. Photo Wendy Shillam
In considering the options, I can't think of many functions that are essential for an eco-development. Good communications are important - but there are hundreds of village railway stations all over the country, where expansions might take place. There are hundreds of suburbs with already good public transport that could be extended. There are hundreds of towns and villages which might link very well to a nearby centre of industry or commerce. In these locations a little ingenuity could improve the access with a bus, a water bus or even - as in Portland Oregon - with a cable car.
There are suggestions that district heating or vacuum recycling systems are essential elements and these rely not just on quantity, but also on density. But I would argue that they are not essential and do not form part of the critical considerations. In fact the more I look into the benefits of district wide systems them more concerned I am that they might not add to sustainability, but in fact reduce it.
Masdar, the Norman Foster designed eco-city in UAE is only going to be 40,000 population, we understand. (I'm not sure if that includesthe student population of the planned university.) They envisage a very high density walled city and underneath a mass of infrastructure. However the city is only 17 air conditioned tram miles away from Abu Dhabi, so the eco-city itself need not be self sustaining - it has a capital city on its doorstep.
Masdar city - courtesy of masdar city website
Something in this image reminds me of the miss guided pedestrian separated designs for Cumbernauld, where underpasses and streets in the sky had eventually to be demolished. Even in Milton Keynes the designers carefully separated cycles, cars and buses,making it now almost impossible to provide the city with an efficient public transport system.
The antithesis of these mega cities (in population but not in ambition) is the host of self starting eco-villages that have begun to grow up all over the world.
One of the new eco-houses in abundance Iowa. Courtesy abundance eco-village.com
The eco-village of Abundance is planned for a population, not of 70,000 but for barely 70 souls who have elected to live off grid and in much smaller houses, in the wilds of Iowa. "Their beer is cold; their showers are hot," says eco entrepreneur Ken Walton, who started the village. But these houses use a tenth of the fuel of conventional US housing. Abundance Eco-village
If you look on the internet, you will find hundreds of these small communities trying to do their own thing, all over the world. (Though few can boast such sophisticated house designs as Abundance.) LIke all early adopters they are fueled as much by religious or ecological fervour as by gas or electricity. But they are solving problems, designing solutions and living much more simply than the rest of us. International directory of eco-villages
So perhaps we should not become obsessed by relationships between size and sustainability. A small hamlet can survive off grid, on an agro-economy, a medium sized development can run a district heating system and survive on local businesses and its agricultural hinterland and larger towns, say over 50,000 can be more independent. But from my experience even the larger towns work better if there is already some local advantage, be it a rail link, a large existing employer some natural benefit, like availability of hydro-electricity, abundant sunshine or geo-thermal potential.
But there is another question more difficult to answer. Montpellier's example shows that continued growth is good for a local economy. So how fast should we develop and once commenced, is there a governing maximum size for a city? THat will be the subject of a future post, but in the mean time if you want more ideas I can recommend, http://gen.ecovillage.org/ecovillages/4pillarsofsustainability.html which has a very good article on the wider (social, cultural and economic) dimensions of an eco-village.