Garden cities must offer affordable homes and a place to live for all ages

As leading designers set out their ideas about how to build a new garden city, they need to address our biggest housing challenges head-on, says Kathleen Kelly.

The Wolfson prize has clearly garnered a lot of enthusiasm with 279 entries all tackling the pertinent prize question: “How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable and popular?”

So far I’ve only had time to scan the overview of the shortlisted candidates and there’s a lot to like in that. With a median settlement size of 50,000 in the proposals, ambition is clearly not lacking and that’s great to see.

There looks to have been some welcome thinking into how to offer residents a stake in some of the cities, which has surely got to be a key underpinning principle in both building support and maintaining a lasting legacy for growth and stewardship. It’s great to see design feature so strongly too, especially given our sustainable urban neighbourhoods work with urban design and sustainability agency URBED, which highlighted lessons on creating new communities.

The other welcome strands include moves towards a more explicit strategy on garden cities – where they might be in terms of a potential ‘search area’, how you might build on (and learn from) major infrastructure projects such as HS2; as well as what city governance arrangements might look like. These are all really positive features which I’m very pleased to see.

Leaving aside for now the ‘where?’ question, there are two really pressing questions I’ll be looking to explore on reading the full proposals.

The first is: Who are these cities targeted at? Forty seven per cent of entries suggested a target population, which seems low to me, given that viability often rests on end values and that is as much about your target market (i.e. your demographic) as your product.

It’s fascinating that one entry is focussed on older ‘pioneer’ residents. JRF’s evidence does point to the need to make a better housing offer to older people. It is also clear, though, that what we really need in a city is an offer for all ages - a place to grow up and grow old in.

Building this in from the start will be a key ingredient of success for new communities, not to mention the importance of meeting new demographic challenges for city design such as dementia-friendly approaches that can ultimately benefit everyone. The latter is likely to become ever more important.

The second is the end cost of the homes to those pioneers who move into the proposed new cities. So far Shelter’s entry looks like the one to watch here. What really attracts me to their entry is that they are explicit about affordability. With the current 300,000 shortfall in the number of sub-market priced rental homes increasing to 934,000 by 2021, the one third social homes in their bid is fantastic to see.

To be successful in making a varied housing offer, the new garden cities will hopefully avoid setting rents against the abstract marker of a clearly dysfunctional market. Instead they will think about a ‘living rent’ that can support the economic buoyancy that the shortlisted entries aspire to.