Editor’s note: Jon Reeds is a freelance journalist and author of Smart Growth From Sprawl to Sustainability. We’ve invited him to write a guest post for our Places blog on Smart Growth.
It’s easy to get despondent about the challenges of growth when you look at some of the things it’s been causing – urban sprawl, traffic gridlock, high street decay, rising greenhouse gas emissions and so on. For nearly 100 years our default development mode has been building low-density, car-dependent suburbs and, more recently, adding out-of-town shopping to our capacity for sprawl. But for England, Europe’s most densely populated country, to continue spreading itself across its vanishing countryside at the lowest-density in Europe is misguided for so many reasons. We urgently need a wiser approach.
One of the things the National Trust teaches us is learning valuable lessons from the past. Our forebears lived very different lives that were in many ways much more in tune with their environment. Then, around 100 years ago, we were seduced like Mr Toad by the motorcar and by the idea that living in a new suburb built on what had recently been countryside was “country living”. We came to despise the great, functional, communitarian towns and cities our Edwardian forebears bequeathed us and we forgot the strengths that traditional village, town and city communities offer.
For the challenging times ahead, we need to rediscover and reinterpret those lessons – not so much Back to the Future as Forward via the Lessons of the Past. Happily, there is an alternative that will meet our needs – and it comes from a most surprising source.
The last place most people seeking alternatives to urban sprawl, car-dependency, inner-city decline and sickly high streets would look to would be the United States, a country which has suffered all these acutely. But great challenges can provoke great responses and, over the past 20 years, America’s Smart Growth movement has done just that.
Where, two decades ago, US cities were expanding into vast suburbs dozens of miles across, city centres were descending into chaos, out-of-town shopping malls were sucking the life out of main streets, historic town centres were facing demolition, public transport was close to death and no-one walked anywhere if they could help it, today things look very different in many places. The rate of sprawl has been dramatically curbed, people are moving from remote suburbs now in economic decline back to cities, where house prices are recovering and heritage areas regenerating. Most surprising of all perhaps, city after city is reviving public transport and dozens are putting in rail-based metro or light rail systems.
Smart Growth in the UK
Things never got quite as bad in the UK, but current attacks on the planning system and proposals for a fresh wave of urban sprawl show we urgently need change. We can learn from, and adapt, the Smart Growth philosophy and start planning our country in a way which secures much better outcomes and allows us to face the future much more resiliently.
It means designing towns around the idea we can walk, cycle or use nearby public transport facilities. It means an end to the cul de sac beloved of garden suburb designers, while house building densities need to rise a bit. That shouldn’t mean endless blocks of flats – Georgian and Victorian builders showed how to build wonderful houses at far higher densities than today’s sprawl and the price of houses in areas like Notting Hill, Islington, Georgian Bath or Edinburgh’s New Town show clearly how desirable they can be. And communities function more effectively when people aren’t trying to put as much space between themselves and their neighbours as possible.
House builders clamour for “family homes” – but the real growth in households is the over-55s and it’s time we started considering how their housing needs are best met.
Instead of accepting the southward move of our economy as inevitable, we need to rediscover regional planning policy, reclaim brownfield land and pursue genuinely community-led regeneration.
We must revive our town centres – the true “social networking sites”- and end our addiction to out-of-town shopping.
Then, in a world of endlessly rising fuel prices and climate change, we need to future-proof our transport system. That will mean big investment in urban light rail and metro systems, reopening of lost railways outside our towns and investment in rail and water freight. We must find sustainable ways of moving around both town and country and convince Mr Toad he needs to drive less.
In economically straitened times, the Smart Growth philosophy of concentrating ourselves on our urban areas will allow us to make best use of their existing infrastructure, unlike the expensive new provision demanded by urban sprawl. We do need to invest in infrastructure, but this should be sustainable things like public transport, drainage, flood and sea defence and brownfield reclamation.
There is a healthy and sustainable future here. I believe that, if the Trust’s founders were still alive today, they would see the Smart Growth ideal embodies their objectives in a way that will meet the pressing needs of the 21st century.
Blog post by Jon Reeds, freelance journalist.