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As a country, we’re not building enough new homes. The reasons are complex, but fundamentally it comes down to one simple assumption: that new development makes places worse.

As the nation that led the world into the modern age, this isn’t what we used to believe. Somewhere along the way, we lost our hope that development might actually make places better.

Recent governments have tried to persuade us otherwise. For instance, the current government is supporting the development of new garden cities (though whether this will be on the democratic corporation model advocated in the ConservativeHome manifesto is doubtful).

The concept of the eco-town – abortively championed by the last Labour government – was another attempt to persuade residents to accept new development. In large part it was unsuccessful, with eco-town proposals attracting vigorous local opposition. If the new garden cities are to succeed, then all those involved need to understand why the eco-town model failed – both in this country and elsewhere.

The Chinese government, unencumbered by democracy, has no problem pushing development through the planning system. However that still doesn’t guarantee success. Consider, for instance, the sorry tale of China’s Tianjin Eco-city – which is recounted by Matthew Robare in a piece for the American Conservative:

“…as both a city and as a model of sustainable development, Tianjin Eco-city has all the hallmarks of failure. One doesn’t even need to read the articles about how difficult it’s been to convince people to move there, or the inconveniences they face when they do, to see why. A glance through the image gallery reveals everything: grandiose buildings on huge setbacks, wide roads clearly designed for speed, green space—not parks—forming buffers on sidewalks and highway medians and all overseen by the aforementioned apartment towers.

“It’s Le Corbusier with solar panels…”

Though the UK eco-town proposals were on a more modest scale, ‘Le Corbusier with solar panels’ sums-up the lack of trust that we have contemporary housing design. Most people don’t want to live in what Le Corbusier called “a machine for living in” – even if it is a green machine. No matter how eco-friendly, a charmless building in a soulless neighbourhood is human-unfriendly.

Though outright brutalism is now out of favour, 21st century architecture remains in thrall to the ideology of modernism:

“For Le Corbusier and his followers, the goal was not to work within a living tradition or build upon what had come before, but to completely obliterate the past. In a city or neighborhood he designed, there would be nothing left to remind anyone of what had gone before…

“Not for nothing has Theodore Dalrymple compared Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, ‘he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.'”

By disregarding living traditions and local character, architects and planners cut themselves off from a vital source of knowledge. The fact that certain building designs and street patterns remain successful and popular after centuries of use isn’t accidental. In standing the test of time, they have demonstrated their sustainability instead of merely asserting it.

If we want garden cities to succeed where the eco-towns failed, then we must have the humility to work within the old patterns – making improvements where opportunities arise, but respecting the lessons of history.

In doing so, local residents may come to see development as the organic growth of their communities, and not as an alien imposition.

5 comments for: How not to build an eco-city

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