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When in 1969 Ray Davies of The Kinks sneered, “Now that you’ve found your paradise, This is your kingdom to command, you can go outside and polish your car, or sit by the fire in your Shangri-La”, he summed up a generation’s scorn for suburbia.

The modern housing estates set in spacious, leafy surroundings, which had sprung up across Britain from the start of the 20th century through to the postwar era, had become dull, lifeless and stifling to a rebellious new generation.

A great movement back into the cities began to emerge — a trend that now sees London’s population about to hit a record high as it battles an economically choking shortage of housing. This is reflected around the world: for the first time, more than half of the global population now lives in cities and that number is set to rise to two-thirds by 2050, according to UN projections.

The tension between city and suburb can be traced back to the founding of the world’s first “garden city”, Letchworth in Hertfordshire, in 1903. Visionary social pioneer Ebenezer Howard shook a collecting tin among his influential friends to raise enough cash to buy a little patch of England — 4,000 acres of agricultural land on which to try out his theories of how people should live.

Howard set out to demonstrate that human settlements could do better than the overcrowding, pollution and poverty he observed in British urban areas which had grown rapidly over the past two centuries. The result of his vision — tree-lined avenues, varied architecture, everything on a human scale and with local shopping and employment — is little changed today.

Patrick Abercrombie, one of the most influential urban planners in the world, drew on Howard’s work when he proposed moving London’s postwar population out of inner city slums and into a string of spacious new towns around the city’s perimeter. In all, 32 new towns were built the length and breadth of Britain; they now house 2.7m people.

The master plan for Letchworth Garden City, 1904

Yet neither Howard nor Abercrombie appreciated the stultifying boredom with which their suburban Shangri-Las would come to be associated. Lacking in economic momentum after losing large local employers, garden cities and new towns have in recent decades struggled to sustain business and cultural life.

As Britain’s centres of work have become concentrated in its cities and larger towns, the inhabitants of smaller settlements have become increasingly mobile, commuting much longer distances to reach their place of work. The advent of internet shopping means that local retail is increasingly hard to sustain in many places.

The problem is not confined to Britain alone. Around the world, megacities of 10m or more inhabitants are increasing in number, leaving medium-sized cities and towns struggling to keep up. There are 28 megacities worldwide and the UN forecasts this will grow to 41 by 2030.

It means something must be done to reinvigorate medium-sized settlements, according to the judges of the world’s second-most lucrative economics award (after the Nobel), the £250,000 Wolfson Prize. Its creator, Lord Simon Wolfson, invited contributions late in 2013 on how to create a garden city that would be visionary, economically viable and popular.

Controversially, the winning entry, announced in September, did not propose a new settlement. Instead David Rudlin, of the urban design consultancy URBED, argued that existing towns should be expanded.

“When we are not really trying, when we are just providing somewhere to live, to trade and feel relatively safe, we have built some of the most sublimely beautiful towns and cities in the world,” read Rudlin’s winning entry, which focused on the fictional town of Uxcester.

“Yet in the era of the modern town planning system, when we have focused the best minds of the age on the problem, the results have been at best mediocre and at worst a complete disaster . . . Nowhere is this more true than in postwar new towns, urban extensions and private suburbs.”

A recent survey of council planning officers in new towns by the Town and Country Planning Association found that more than half felt their local town centre needed regeneration, with a shortage of local jobs, poor quality housing and a lack of community facilities also among respondents’ concerns.

A teacher with her pupils in Letchworth

Variety and choice are what make a place attractive, says Stuart Robinson, chairman of UK planning at property advisers CBRE. “Every city is trying to attract investment, and investment wants human capital, and humans want to be where things are happening.”

Yet greater variety needs greater demographic scale, says Andrew Jones, a managing director at planning consultancy Aecom. In order to be financially viable a local pub needs about 2,000 residents, local shops need 5,000 people and a children’s nursery 10,000, according to Aecom.

Further up the scale, a swimming pool needs 40,000 people, a library 60,000 and a small multiplex cinema 80,000. At the top end, big out-of-town retailers like Ikea need to be within reach of 1m.

“As a benchmark, London boroughs have resident populations of 250,000 to 300,000, usually with the full range of community, cultural, shopping and leisure facilities at their centre,” says Jones.

This means most new towns are not big enough to attract some retailers or to sustain some community facilities. Letchworth today has about 33,500 inhabitants; the largest new town, Milton Keynes, has about 255,700, making it the size of a London borough.

In order to improve new towns, and other medium-sized settlements, a swath of urban extensions should be built, Rudlin recommended, even if it means building on green fields.

In recognition of the controversy that any attempt to build on the countryside provokes, Lord Wolfson deliberately chose popularity as a key prize criterion. “The problem we’re facing is that everybody hates [development],” says Miles Gibson, the prize’s director. Working out how to win local support for a new garden city or urban extension would be a big step towards solving the problem of public opposition to new construction more generally, he suggests. “Any serious proposition has to be localist, or else you’ll end up in a five-year trench war [with opponents].”

New homes on the Lakeview estate in Milton Keynes

The Wolfson Prize is a very British phenomenon, revolving around the country’s postwar legacy, countryside conservation and a chronic housing shortage. Yet, as the world urbanises, the question of how best to manage this process is relevant everywhere.

The prize committee received entries and inquiries from around the world. “The British are seen as the thinkers internationally on garden cities; we invented them and they have been widely copied,” says Gibson. “Any country facing urbanisation at the moment is thinking about how we can do this sustainably.” In particular, the Wolfson organisers noted considerable interest from China, which is urbanising at a rate of more than 20m people per year, according to World Bank data.

Improving the conditions in which city dwellers live while making efficient use of land and creating economic vitality is a difficult problem to solve.

As Ebenezer Howard wrote in 1898: “Each city may be regarded as a magnet, each person as a needle; and, so viewed, it is at once seen that nothing short of the discovery of a method for constructing magnets of yet greater power than our cities possess can be effective for redistributing the population in a spontaneous and healthy manner.”

Kate Allen is the FT’s property correspondent

Photographs: URBED; The Garden City Collection; Robert Stainforth/Alamy

Slideshow photographs: The Garden City Collection; Getty Images; Robert Stainforth/Alamy; URBED


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Maybe Britain can’t sustain more than one major city / From Tony Welsh

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