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The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) recently held a conference on ‘New Towns – the next 70 years’ to explore the experiences of the original Garden Cities and New Towns so that important lessons could be learnt and applied to the next generation of Garden Communities.

As part of the TCPA’s work on this subject they gathered responses from chief planning officers in the relevant areas to better understand what the positive and negative legacies have been from the New Towns programme. There was a general consensus that the following legacies should form the basis of the broad lessons learnt from the past.

Positive legacies
Green infrastructure – the early emphasis on large and numerous areas of green spaces are a lasting characteristic of planned communities.
Transport networks – despite a need for renewal in many new towns, the planned transport networks were recognised as providing good accessibility and delaying, if not preventing, the kind of congestion that many unplanned towns have experienced.
Social mix – the positive role of new towns in providing opportunities for affordable housing provision whilst also bringing the prospect of home ownership to younger people was recognised.
Community development – community initiatives set up by development corporations have had positive lasting effects that are still very much present today and there is a recognition that living in new towns has engendered strong civic pride.
The roles of artists/architects are still prominent – there has a clear sense of pride in the role of design and art in new towns, particularly in their role in establishing local character and fostering a sense of place amongst residents and visitors.

Negative legacies
Poor quality materials and a current need for estate renewal – in many places the building materials used have not stood the test of time and where such materials were used throughout an entire estate this has led to significant regeneration problems for local councils.
Lack of long term investment for public realm management – despite new towns being financially successful the funds generated by the new developments were not retained locally and many development corporations were wound up too hastily in the 1980s leading to the premature disposal of their assets to the private sector.

Some initial responses to these lessons suggest that we need to ensure that long term stewardship of community assets is taken forward, which is of course included in the NEGC Charter, and properly supported by an appropriate endowment or a source of sustainable revenue. Not only would this commitment to stewardship mean that public assets are fully controlled and maintained at the local level but it is also critical in fostering local pride of place.

Furthermore design needs to go further than just the aesthetic if the Garden Communities are to secure excellent quality buildings that will truly stand the test of time. Creating character areas (making use of different architecture styles and therefore a wider palate of materials), utilising design reviews and promoting self-build opportunities are just some of the ways we can raise the quality of the built environment.

Overall the TCPA’s conference provided an excellent opportunity to look back on the previous experiences of planned new communities to better understand how we should move forward in the planning of the North Essex Garden Communities.