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This Idea Of Sustainable Urban Planning Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 3111 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The idea of urban planning and policy is to create and help define place within an urban environment. In doing so urban policy can help to construct and craft urban identity via the mechanisms of spatial construct, and the manipulation of activities within that space. Today urban policy making is tasked with providing new mechanisms that enable citizens, planners and policymakers to explore the ways in which we can plan and develop communities that meet the long-term human and environmental needs of our society [Wheeler and Beatly2004, pp 1]. This is the idea of delivering a ‘sustainable city’ – i.e an urban environment that is capable of meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs [WCED1987 in Williams et al 2000, pp 3]. Achieving this idea of sustainability in urban planning and policy is not easy. The very idea of sustainability encompasses a broad and extensive range of inter-related issues that continues to challenge ingrained attitudes regarding relationships between culture, nature and governance [Mather 2005 pp 280]. Ebenezer Howards Garden City vision ideal offered a look at how sustainable urban policy may be realized and continues to offer important lessons for our contemporary policy decisions.

‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’:

This idea of sustainable urban planning is not a new subject, but is of growing importance in today’s society on a global scale. In 1898 Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ redefined urban planning by offering the first real insight into the ideas of sustainable urban planning and development. One of the single most influential and visionary books in the history of urban planning the Garden City vision outlined a strategy for addressing the problems of the industrial city in a more detailed fashion than had ever been attempted before. So influential was this work that two English garden cities were actually built in the early twentieth century, namely Letchworth and Welwyn, and the concept inspired the British New Town Programme that constructed eleven satellite cities around London between 1940s and 1960s [Wheeler and Beatly 2004, pp 11]. The book was seen as a revolutionary breakthrough in how planning is considered in an urban context, as it was the first set of ideas that really attempted to balance urban and rural developments. The Garden City concept still offers a vision that can be used to evaluate contemporary urban policy in its attempt to deliver modern sustainable cities on a worldwide scale [Wheeler and Beatly 2004, pp 11].

The Origins of the Garden City:

The industrial revolution brought about rapid growth for urban areas, and with this growth a set of new problems for our town and country planners. As more and more people were drawn to urban centres in search of work and a better standard of living, the rapid expansion of our urban populations placed great strain on the infrastructure, housing and resources of our cities, which quickly became overcrowded, unsanitary, expensive and highly polluted and poorly serviced. Coupled with this was the continued fall in wages of our agricultural workforce that prohibited new building and development in our rural areas. These conditions precipitated a devastating cycle of urban migration that simply couldn’t be controlled, and many people were faced with making the unfulfilling choice between living in a culturally isolated rural area or giving up nature to live in a city [Nair 2009]. As the industrial revolution continued unplanned, congested, polluted slums jammed with a newly impoverished urban proletariat began to characterise and dominate the landscape of nineteenth century industrial cities [LeGates and Stout 2007, pp 12]. As cities continued to expand in this fashion, so negative images began to be associated with our urban centres and the suburbs became characterised as a sprawling cancer of bricks spreading out across the British landscape [Jones and Evans 2008, pp 141].

Patterns of Modern Urban Growth:

These patterns of growth seen in the UK during the industrial revolution mirror those that we are seeing in countries across the world as the developing nations begin to emerge on worldwide markets. The world’s urban population has more than doubled since 1950 and a recent about the growth of urban populations from the United Nations Population Division notes that half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and within the next 30 years, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas [Rodrigue 2005, Vlahov et al 2007, pp 16]. These patterns of growth precipitate the same problems seen during the industrial revolution in the UK as rapid urbanisation continues to place too great a strain on urban resources. In the developing world, where most of the global urbanisation is to be observed, a large segment of that growth is into slums – concentrated areas of disadvantage [Vlahov et al 2007, pp18]. These areas are characterized by lack of basic services, inadequate and often dangerous living environments, overcrowding, and poor sanitation. Urban policy needs to start considering how to turn these patterns of urban growth into something that can become sustainable for both our environment, and ensure that the needs of our society are met.

Design of the Garden City: In What Ways is it Sustainable?

Many have identified Garden Cities as examples of sustainable cities that can continue to offer key lessons for modern urban policy. In order for a city to be considered as a sustainable urban development its principle aims must be to create a user-friendly and resourceful area, not only in terms of its form and energy efficiency, but also its function as a place for living [Elkin et al 1991, pp 12]. Sustainable urban development also requires the achievement of urban development aspirations concerning inter and intra-generational equity via a stock of natural resources that should not be depleted beyond its regenerative capacity [Breheny 1992, pp 1]. From these ideas Smith et al 1998 established a list of sustainable urban principles which included

Living off environmental ‘interest’ rather than ‘capital’

Acknowledging the idea of environmental thresholds and living within these

Developing a sense of equity and social justice

Forming inclusive procedures for decision making

Howard saw the extreme overcrowding of early industrial cities – with its accompanying problems of sanitation, services, pollution and public health – as a growing issue of urban design. His Garden City concept was a response to this, with planned communities aimed at relieving both the overcrowding of cities and deprivation in the countryside. Founded with Letchworth, then Hampstead, Bourneville and Port Sunlight, the Garden City was an attempt to create a modern utopia in urban design [Campbell 2010].

Howard believed that creating new balance between city and country in which populations were decentralized into carefully planned new communities in the countryside would help to create a more sustainable urban landscape [Wheeler and Beatly 2004, pp 7]. The Howard vision was for Garden Cities to become self-contained co-operative settlements – sustainable urban centres that could create networks of self sufficiency by creating a symbiotic relationship between urban and rural development. Garden Cities were to be defined by a radial planning style, with pre-defined zonation for public parks, private lawns, new forests and agricultural holdings. Commercial, residential and public use areas were to be clearly defined (as shown in figure 1) and wide arching roads and the idea of a radial rail network were incorporated to ease the burden on infrastructural requirements of urban areas. These urban developments were to become more than just a place to house a growing populous. They were to designed to be viable economic communities where industry, public buildings and housing would be carefully planned to create an environment on a human scale, where the built environment would be balanced with the natural [architecture.com].

Figure 1: Howards outline for an ideal Garden City [From ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ Howard 1902 Source: RIBA British Architectural Library].

When evaluating the design on this Garden City vision in relation to today’s urban policy framework, it is clear where the ideas of sustainability are found. Howard’s vision incorporates vast areas of green space – both landscaped for recreational use, and set aside for agricultural practices. Green spaces like these can be seen as both a social advantage but they are also invaluable carbon sinks in moving towards sustainable urban policy. Surrounded farmland creates an automatic market for local agriculture, which can be significantly more sustainable than conventional agriculture given its low transport emissions [Campbell 2010]. Pedestrian friendly cities, encouraging an increased focus on social conditions and a respect for our natural environment is a fairly modern approach to sustainable urban planning. Howards objective, in short was’ to raise the standard of health and comfort of all true workers of whatever grade – the means by which these objects are to be achieved being a healthy, natural, and economic combination of town and country life, and this on land owned by the municipality’. His ideas received worldwide acclaim, with developments created in the UK, South Africa, the USA, and in Germany where the steel company Krupp, concerned about the low morals of badly housed workers, built the garden village of Margrethenhohe [Girardet 1996, pp 54].

Sustainable Development in Modern Urban Planning and Policy:

The broad aims of sustainable development are now central to urban planning and public policy [Batty 2006, pp 29]. For the first 70 years on the twentieth century the designs and master plans for our modernist cities were focused on new development. Urban planning was focused on starting fresh – building new cities stripped of the chaos of the nineteenth century city and the dull provincialism associated with Howards Garden City [Haughton and Hunter 2004, pp 105]. The Garden Cities were defined by their spatial zoning patterns – with different areas designated different land uses (as shown in Figure 1). Current patterns of urban planning appear to be moving away from this approach as it became more considered that the most effective solution to achieving sustainable urban form was the implementation of the compact city idea. The compact city advocates the use of high-density mixed use urban form. Many planners preferential use of this urban form is attributed to the perceived advantages of mix-use planning such as conservation of green-belt areas, reduction in commuter distances and the associated effects of reduced emissions, more efficient infrastructure and utility provision, and the revitalisation and regeneration of inner urban areas [Williams et al 2000, pp 19]. In essence many urban planners adopt and create mixed use developments in order to better achieve a long terms economic stability and to add to an areas vitality and vibrancy that could perhaps not be achieved with single use spatially defined development.

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There are obvious advantages to this approach when evaluated against the Garden City idea. Firstly there is a better use of brownfield development – preserving Greenfield sites and protecting these areas from the threat of urban development. As a result of the growing importance of a sustainable approach to urban policy, brownfield sites have quickly become the key strategic target for meeting housing and development needs across our urban regions by re-using previously developed land. This was further emphasised by Planning and Policy Guidance Note 3 (2000), which set a target for local authorities of building 60% of new housing on brownfield sites [Jones and Evans 2008, pp 5]. Many urban policy makers would consider that new communities based on Greenfield development, show little regard to the long-term environmental impacts. The impacts of losing that land to urban development, as well sourcing materials, maintaining buildings, the environmental impact of the building itself, infrastructural developments is not really thoroughly built into the costs to our natural environment. In the wider view, however, the question of urban form is much more than simple density and brown/green choices – it is about the spatial structure of human activities [Williams et al 2000, pp 255].

Garden Cities – Lessons for Future Urban Policies:

The Garden City style was cautious, pragmatic and designed to appear reasonable to the average citizen [Wheeler and Beatley 2004, pp 12]. Though Howards search for a balance between city and country life is still central to sustainable communities, the emphasis has shifted in many developed nations. Instead of the extreme dense nineteenth century city with a frequent shortage of decent housing, clean water, and basic sanitation, we now have relatively low-density, automobile-dependent suburbs with a much higher quality of housing and infrastructure but with many other problems [Howard and Beatly 2004, pp 12]. Even in developing countries the pragmatic application of the Garden City idea needs to be called into question. Howard’s garden settlements were based on the development of very low density housing. In his work Howard cites that the ideal population size for his new Garden Cities was to be 32,000 on a site of 6000 acres of available cheap rural land. Of this acreage 1000 acres would be reserved for the city itself, which would be surrounded by another 5,000 acres of green-belt farmland [Haughton and Hunter 2004, pp72]. These figures today are clearly not sustainable, however many overlook Howard’s vision of emerging social cities – linked Garden Cities in a multi-centred metropolis interwoven with green space. This is shown in figure 2 which shows a central town of 58,000 is shown surrounded by six garden cities around its circumference, each with 32,000, providing a city of 250,000 people [Haughton and Hunter 2004, pp 72].


Figure 2: The Garden City Complex from Garden Cities of Tomorrow: Taken from http://humanitieslab.stanford.edu/UrbanSustainability/943

Highlighted in both figure 1 and 2 is Howard’s idea of concentric road and rail networks. This idea is seen extensively in modern urban planning, where congestion problems are often eased via ring-road development. These have become an important attribute of the spatial structures of cities, notably in North America [Rodrigue 2005]. Howard was also interested in more than just the physical plans of a city; he also wanted to develop an urban centre where the shared ownership of land was encouraged. Howard wanted the Garden City to be socially, economically, as well as ecologically sustainable [Giradet 1996, pp 54]. While this idea had many merits, these ideas were formulated before cars became widespread and its implications understood. It also came before the huge wave of twentieth-century suburbinization turned Howard’s garden city idea into much-simplified garden suburbs and created a whole new set of development problems in the process. In recent years the presumption is for high density and brown field development to be used as a sustainable model. Despite the sustainable ideas of the Garden City model did not quite created the modern urban utopia Howard had envisaged. Welwyn Garden City today is a city of 100,000 people and is considered as a Garden City of form rather than function. It serves mainly as a commuter city for London, and its agricultural belt never became a reality [Girardet 1996, pp 54]. Though not realised in its entirety the Garden City concept, of creating a spacious city in the garden has not been forgotten, and there is a strong continued desire to re-instate the countryside in inner cities in the hope of attracting people back to the city centre and to allow those who wish to do so to migrate to new purpose built garden cities, constructed on Greenfield sites [Giradet 1996, pp 170]. More importantly a lot of the ideas are coming from the urban community itself. The concept of urban permaculture (long-term crop growing in the city) has become fashionable in countries such as Australia, the USA and Germany and there is a growing trend in maintaining sustainable lifestyles within our urban environments [Giradet 1996, pp 138].


The British Garden City experiments were hugely influential policy-expressions of concerns over the problems of large cities during the Industrial revolution [Haughton and Hunter, 2004, pp 73]. The rise of congested and unsanitary urban environments became of great concern, and urban planning became preoccupied with trying to develop ways of making urban development sustainable. Ebenezer Howard was revolutionary in this idea of sustainable growth. He envisioned humane, social, ‘Garden Cities’ surrounded by greenbelts, encapsulating the idea of a new balance between our cities and our natural environments. These sorts of visionary or utopian writings help expand the framework of permissible ideas for a generation or more. Although mainstream thinkers tend to scorn idealism of all sorts, it has often been extremely influential and successful [Wheeler and Beatly 2004, pp 278]. So successful were the ideas and visions of Howard’s ‘Garden Cities’ he lived to see several of them built, and though his ideas never quite materialised beyond this time, his ideas about developing sustainable communities are should still be considered as the foundation of urban policy and planning today. Howard defines the mainstream of utopian tradition. His utopian vision may not have been realised in its entirety, but each had influence on the way contemporary cities, and city life, developed in the twentieth century [LeGates and Stout 2007, pp 300]. The question now, as at the turn of the nineteenth century, remains how to rethink this balance and achieve sustainable city development. The Garden City model, if re-applied in a modern context, could go a long way in helping urban policy makers achieve this goal.


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