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A University Garden Village for North Essex: Breaking the Mould

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Synopsis Our Vision

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A University Garden Village The Sustainability challenge The Town Planning Challenge

Urban scale and design

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A Plan for Action

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Synopsis Colchester, Braintree andTendring Councils have broken the Local Plan making mould to form new partnerships and create a shared vision for long term and comprehensive town planning in North Essex. New local delivery vehicles are being proposed giving confidence in how key upfront infrastructure will support the housing and commercial growth we so badly need.This initiative project delivery is to be welcomed but we also need innovation in plan making to ensure what is delivered achieves the Councils’ shared vision. Valuable lessons should be learned from empirical study of previous large scale urban developments at home and abroad, but they cannot hold all of the answers to what we should build in the future; different challenges from a changing world will require fresh approaches. Statistics show beyond any doubt humans are exceeding the environmental carrying capacity of our planet.The challenge of achieving sustainability goals should therefore underscore every aspect of how we live, work and relax. Before embarking on a programme of major development it is timely to review the robustness of our sustainability strategy and what actions are required.

It is natural to react to changes affecting where we live.Yet beyond this understandable opposition to new development there is also a rising perception that our towns and cities are generally not as good as they could be. Today development proposals automatically trigger opposition and we need to understand why this is so before opportunity to see what lessons can be learnt from plan making over the last 120 years and how we may better achieve sustainability goals. Strategies need to be carefully considered as history shows good intentions do not necessarily lead to good outcomes. A University Garden Village offers a unique opportunity to take a fresh look at planning strategies and to apply research and innovation to reverse current negative trends in sustainability. embarking on future projects.The Councils’ new vision presents an

Synopsis

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Our Vision To break the mould not only do we need the vision to create new and better ways of delivering growth, but we also need to revisit our master planning approach to face the two greatest contemporary challenges: o Moving towards sustainability, not away from it. o Learning how to design successful adaptable places. Our sustainability challenge is to heed the stark warnings that within the last 50 years human activity has seriously threatened our planet’s biosphere integrity and, if unchecked, will threaten future generations’ ability to endure. A new pathway is required, not a modified ‘business as usual’ adjustment of direction. The challenge of delivering successful and adaptable places needs a reconsideration of urban design at a deeper level than accepted master planning methodology. The Garden City ideal of urban planning was to deliver the social, cultural and economic benefits of urban life whilst maintaining a connection with nature, and is relevant today.

However, we also need to remember that in history towns have constantly evolved and regenerated themselves and are therefore animate. On the other hand large new urban areas created in the 20th century have unforeseen issues arising out of being designed and built over a short period producing functional but often inanimate places.We need to review our design methodology to ensure Garden Settlements become animate places. As tempting as it might be to copy past solutions best outcomes will need a fresh master plan strategy. Over a century ago Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, Letchworth, warned that trying to recreate the past does not work and new urban forms were therefore necessary, but they also needed to be harmonious and lift spirits.We should be inspired by their vision but not think to mimic their work. the architects responsible for the innovative new urban forms at

Our Vision

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A University Garden Village The recently launched ‘Colchester the Creative City’ prospectus ambitiously sets

• and involving new Local Delivery Vehicles.

out an agenda to make Colchester ‘a world class knowledge city’.The four columns of the prospectus are: • A world class knowledge city • Creating capital in Colchester • Embracing the entrepreneurial spirit • No better place for your family and business to live and grow The opportunity to create a University GardenVillage offers a powerful mechanism to help implement the Creative City concept for north Essex and the University.The combined Councils are currently preparing new shared Strategic Local Plans which will set out their development proposals for the next 15 years and more.To achieve better planned places complete with necessary infrastructure they are showing a determination to improve the way we deliver them. Broadly speaking the Councils have five new initiatives; • following Garden City planning principles, • promoting ambitious schemes spanning more than one Plan Period, • working jointly across District Boundaries, • supporting the role of Essex University,

These matters are generally concerned with the management or governance of the process showing how things will be delivered in the future. Nevertheless to be successful the Councils will also need to devise equally ambitious details of exactly what is being proposed. Longer term plans will require foresight and contain great flexibility to account for changing circumstances that cannot be foreseen at the outset. One of the Preferred Options now supported by the Councils is a University GardenVillage. The eventual scope of development is a matter for the Councils and will be debated as part of their Local Plan consultations. A University Growth Area in this location has been promoted by Mersea Homes since 2008.The logic behind selecting east of Colchester was to follow the successful trend of university linked towns, such as Cambridge and Norwich, which promote multi-levelled partnerships between academia and the wider community.There are many potential mutual benefits which could flow from shared interests such as the creation of high quality business parks to

accommodate university partner organisations and create local employment opportunities.

A University Garden Village

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The very existence of Essex University and its Knowledge Gateway will increasingly generate new technology based businesses which will cause a ripple effect of economic benefit throughout North Essex. Mersea Homes’ project concept included delivering strategic Highway access direct to the University, effective public transport to Colchester’s town centre and mainline station.There is also the possibility ofThe University’s own rail halt adjacent to the campus.These proposals have been incorporated into the shared Strategic Local Plans’ Preferred Options. Important as improved education and the creation of better jobs is the Councils are now realising how important a University can be in other ways and in particular helping to resolve the challenging question of creating a sustainable future. It is commonly accepted that human activity, founded on growth based economic strategies and consumerism, is now exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity in terms of natural resources and biodiversity. Simply put we are using up natural resources faster than they can be The Sustainability challenge

replaced and creating waste faster than it can be absorbed naturally. In 2014 the UN General Assembly’s working group on Sustainable Development set out 17 Sustainability Goals. Part of breaking the mould could be a partnership with the University to see how a new growth area can physically demonstrate better pathways to the UN’s Goals. The UN General Assembly’s assessment of Sustainability Goals is a sensible template for action as it was widely consulted and has benefited from many contributors worldwide. It shows how development will have a sustainability impact locally as well as globally. In 2000 the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan initiated the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment [MEA] which was tasked to assess the impact humans have had on the environment; the results were published in 2005. Its key finding was that: “Over the past 50 years humans had changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on earth”.

The Sustainability challenge

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The unavoidable conclusion to be drawn is the capacity of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.The assessment considered the degradation can be halted, but that policy change and practice necessary to do so is not in place. Why is this so? Individually we consider our actions have an insignificant impact however it is the combined impact of individual behaviour which is so damaging.The combined human impact on the planet’s resources were recognised in the ‘World Commission on Environment and Development’ chaired by the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland. Its report back in 1987 came up with the new concept of ‘Sustainable Development’ and had worldwide traction leading to United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and its ‘Agenda 21’ with aspiring commitments by world leaders to introduce Sustainable Development. Bruntland’s definition was ambiguous, some think deliberately so: “Development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Whilst world leaders accepted this new concept the label of ‘sustainable development’ has been the subject of endless interpretation. Misuses of the term have often reduced its meaning to being mere cosmetic environmentalism. Without reappraising the effectiveness of our efforts 21st centuryTown Planning’s take on sustainability risks becoming a box ticking exercise in which the sustainability strength of new projects is reduced to business as usual. Local communities are mostly unaware of their Council’s sustainability visions and continue to drive more, consume more and waste more.The impact of this disconnection between policy vision and everyday life is evidenced by the UN’s MEA reporting increasing worldwide un- sustainability. It is clear that the aims of the 1992 Agenda 21 have not been reflected in the 2005 MEA study and we should remain alarmed at the MEA’s gloomy conclusions.The UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development need to inform new development actions at the local as well as the global level because we have ‘unlearned’ the sustainable skills of our predecessors.Those communities lived within the environmental capacity of the nature that surrounded them allowing hundreds of generations to inhabit and manage land without depletion of its

The Sustainability challenge

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resources.Whilst their traditional skills could not support population levels of today we can still learn the meaning of real sustainability from them and apply their concept to today’s situation supplementing tradition with modern tools of innovation and technology. Despite its constant misuse the definition of real sustainability is not complex but essentially very simple. It can best be explained by focussing on historic human activity in sustainable communities and then expanding the idea to other situations.The essence of sustainability is illustrated by the ancient skill woodland management which dates back to Neolithic times. Managed coppicing rotations of the same tree delivered both a constant local supply of wood and diverse natural habitats supporting greater biodiversity. Global benefits of woodland include the regulation of climate, C02 capture, air quality and water flow control.This enduring management of a natural resource requires a close connection with nature and an understanding of the environmental and its capacity.Today urban lifestyle no longer requires this connection to provide for our needs and the resulting disconnection with the natural world has allowed us to become oblivious to its

plight. Promoting awareness of the natural world will be a necessary part of a holistic approach to achieving sustainability goals.The overwhelming evidence of increasing unsustainable performance should indicate current policies are either inefficient or superficial, or both.Two themes are now emerging which suggest a different pathway toward a levels of sustainability deemed necessary by both Bruntland and the UN they are; the need for a unified informed collective responsibility and, using knowledge and technology to reduce our consumption of the world’s natural resources instead of increasing it. The University GardenVillage represents an ideal opportunity to forge partnerships between the local community and academia to map a new pathway to improved sustainability.

The Sustainability challenge

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The Town Planning Challenge

In 1909 Raymond Unwin, one of the two architects working on the first attempt of creating a Garden City in Letchworth, quoted from Ebenezer Howard’s book “To-morrow” in which he said “it would be comparatively easy to try the experiment of developing a town on the obviously rational method of first making a plan, and, by the exercise of foresight, providing in that plan all public needs likely to arise and then securing the development of the town along the lines of this plan”. We may think this an obvious approach hardly worth Raymond Unwin raising it, but at the time Howard’s book along with arts and crafts inspired architecture by Unwin and Parker was a revelation stimulating interest worldwide. Unwin’s own book “Town Planning in Practice”, is a beautifully written and illustrated treatise which is well worth studying today, in it he says: “It is the lack of beauty, of the amenities of life more than anything else that obliges us to admit that our work of building towns in the past century has not been well done”.

Many would say this sentiment could be equally true today. At least we should look more carefully at the successes and failures British town planning in the 20th century.The early socialist Garden City dream faltered without government money or interest.The government met housing demand with mass suburban extensions along the new railway lines spreading outwards form our cities.The ubiquitous semidetached housing has a glimmer of Unwin’s Letchworth, but with none of its eloquence or context. Although short on Unwin’s ‘amenities of life’ the new estates had relatively low densities and were often passed off as ‘Garden’ settlements.This 90 year old misrepresentation still occurs today as it seems every new scheme proposed is labelled a ‘garden something’ showing how keen both Councils and developers are to cash in on the appealing sentiment of the original concept. After the 2ndWorldWar the Labour government’s social consciousness, reminiscent Ebenezer Howard’s vision, arose again with the NewTown Act of 1946 and theTown and Country Planning Act of 1947. Early confidence in the success of the NewTowns experiment was demonstrated by the then Minister forTown and Country Planning, Lewis

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Silkin, when he proclaimed the NewTown of Basildon:

Council house building coupled with over- confidence in the capacity of the private sector and the rise of NIMBYism has inevitably led to today’s housing crisis of significant underbuilding.Then, out of the blue in 2012, David Cameron promised the country Garden Cities to solve the housing problem, after 120 years British Town Planning had turned full circle. As we apparently embark on a further round of large scale urban development under the banner of the Garden City movement we need to take stock of lessons to be learnt from the first round.The experiment in rapidly constructing large urban areas differed from the natural evolution of towns most commonly found in the UK. Did the new experiment have any unforeseen drawbacks?The answer is we don’t really know because surprisingly there was no government level formal re- evaluation despite the recommendations of a Commons Select Committee and pressure from theTCPA. The demand for British NewTowns arose from a combination of poor urban conditions and extensive bombing during the war. In many ways this was reminiscent of the Garden City’s socialist dream of a better future life based on Ebenezer Howard’s rational argument that towns needed to be organised properly.

“Would become a city which people from all over the world will want to come and visit”.

So why did his dream not come true?The ‘mark one’ new towns which were designated between 1946 and 1950 were not popular with existing residents as the existing Conservative voting population Londoners who came to occupy them. NIMBYism was beginning to be a force to be reckoned with.The NewTown programmed continued with Marks 2 & 3, but eventually ended by MargretThatcher in 1970s. In addition to two Garden Cities begun inWelwyn and Letchworth 32 new Towns were built post war and now accommodate 2.7 million people, a truly remarkable exercise in delivery. Nevertheless despite meeting the heavy demand for new houses after the war, neither that nor their financial success made them sufficiently successful in political terms to continue. Housing the population, it seemed, was a vote looser not a vote winner in the Shire Counties that determined the fate of governments. The politically inspired move away from around London were not greatly enamoured with the working class

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Looking back on these expectant times full of hope for a bright future in ‘a land fit for heroes’ who could have foreseen tidy and well planned places could be anything other than ideal?To answer this it’s necessary to realise that, especially for town planning, best intentions don’t necessarily deliver best outcomes. Despite the post war deprivations and housing shortage there were also many positive aspects to life in large towns; established communities, ‘messy ‘vitality, strong social interactions, noise, hustle and bustle of people engaging with their livelihoods. For all best intentions clean and tidy towns lacked this social richness and complexity.The planned separation of where people lived and worked, the large grass parks and indoor shopping malls lacked the vibrancy of towns which had evolved over time. NewTowns may have been inspired by the Garden City movement but were hijacked by the 20th century cult of functionalism, a new order of well-intentioned segregation of land uses, defined spatial order, car prioritisation and endless acres of grass. If other considerations did not appear on the master plan for city planners then they simply did not exist.The attempt to ‘liberate through order and open space’ led to unfriendly and alienating spaces.

Silkin’s Basildon become known by its residents as ‘Silkengrad’.There were also issues of expediency as functionalist architecture offered fast and economic construction and this should not be forgotten. Diverse local activities like fishing coal mining book shops, ports, trade, manufacturing, markets, merchants, guilds, cultural centres, crossing points are what historically defined a town. A NewTown location on low cost farmland separate from existing towns will have few of these attributes and therefore lack identity.TheTimes newspaper coined the phrase ‘NewTown Blues’ to describe the melancholy people were feeling in their functionally organised towns without identity. Lewis Silkin’s confident prophecy of international attraction was not to be fulfilled. NewTowns are now gradually developing the social capital missing at the outset as they are now beginning to evolve. Nevertheless there are valuable lessons to be learnt from this unintended consequence the most important of which is to understand exactly why our existing towns seem consistently better than existing ones.

Traditional towns were mostly built building by building or street by street

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over time creating a palimpsest of cultural activity and social capital and purpose.They have important buildings, main streets and squares and a myriad of narrow back streets formed over hundreds of years by thousands of hands. After the functionalism of the mid 20 century New Urbanism searched history for inspiration and has emerged as the predominant new planning theory which sought to change public perception and behaviour through ‘organised and good design’. It is a broadly based movement but generally advocating neo-traditional street plans, pedestrian scale public realm and ‘sense of place’ to encourage socialability. However, looking around at urban areas created in the last 50 years there is little empirical evidence to demonstrate this approach has significantly changed travel habit, cultural mind-set or social behaviour. Raymond Unwin advises in ‘Town Planning in Practice’, that traditional towns are not possible to replicate as the complexity of evolution over centuries is impossible to reproduce in an instant. His legacy is, whilst we are obliged to design new urban places, they should nevertheless be based on careful observation of the places that work

rather than fail. In her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, Jane Jacobs famously underscores this point saying: “The pseudoscience of planning almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.”

The Town Planning Challenge

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Urban scale and design

The scale of moderately freestanding self- contained new settlement[as much as any place can be in the 21st century] has to be measured in hundreds of thousands of people in order to contain the diversity of employment, business, industry, culture and everything else necessary for the people to have the familiar urban choices they need without travelling elsewhere. The level of urban infrastructure required would need significant government funding to ensure it was in place before pay back could occur, [as provided by the NewTowns Corporations]. However, necessary social capital would add another layer of cost. A new settlement would need instantaneous delivery of, sports centres, town halls, libraries, train stations, town centres, museums, hospitals, theatres and much more besides. All things which would have been added by successive generations in an existing town but cannot be funded in an instant.The NewTowns were generally started with populations of 80,000 – 100,000 people, Garden Cities of the early 20th century envisaged a maximum size of 35,000. For a new urban area for 16,000 – 20,000 people’ as proposed for the University Growth Area’ is much too small to be a self-contained settlement.

evolved social capital, activities, opportunities and choices.The

relationship would necessarily have to be symbiotic such that each offered benefits to the other. For the proposed University Growth Area this would mean exchanging access to the Colchester’s rich cultural background and commercial diversity for access to a new country park community facilities, extended healthcare, innovative new businesses with cutting edge technology from the innovative heart of the University. In the NewTowns further unintended consequences arose from of building everything at once. Firstly, everything built in this way needs repair or replacement at the same time with a Secondly, once built a new urban area cannot adapt or change for a long time, whereas existing towns undergo constant regeneration or ‘rolling renewal’ bringing a constant flow of activity and opportunity. Ironically new urban areas quickly feel out of date as everything gradually gets older without change, there is no rolling renewal for as much as half a century capable of accommodating change in a fast moving world. In the University GardenVillage flexibility would financial cost beyond the already stretched purses of Local Councils.

The best strategy is to graft onto Colchester which is already rich in

Urban scale and design

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need to be created to allow the same opportunities for constant natural urban evolution. Having settled on a University Garden Village ‘grafted’ onto Colchester what intangibles can be adopted to better realise the vision which the Councils have for new Garden settlements? A metaphor New Urbanism could be a modern hotel, well designed, pleasant, functional and with a coordinated design approach throughout. In every aspect a great hotel, but not a home where we are at liberty to make the place our own. Perhaps there is no ultimate urban design theory that can trump an individual’s ability to participate in how a place is brought about. Perhaps we should not try to rationalise and simplify but instead concentrate on facilitating the natural and unpredictable complexity of a town. For a new major development to maintain its freshness and vitality maybe its construction should not simply advance across a wide front like a lava flow which then solidifies to an inanimate object fixed in time.The opportunity to evolve could be factored in to allow constant evolution, for example green spaces could be left for later use for future community projects to meet increasing

need as the new population grows. Community Management Organisations could provide low cost business start-up opportunities. A three dimensional master plan can have the basis of key infrastructure and transport routes but remain open ended.This will allow the emergent resident population to participate in the settlement’s future and enable each new tranche of development to reflect its own time, social trends, priorities, challenges and technologies. If the local Councils are indeed intending to identify broad locations for future development which would cover more than one 15 year Plan Period then it would be prudent to think what a post card from the future would say.What are we doing now that the next generation will wish we had stopped and what would they have wished us to do but didn’t?We believe the most likely candidate would be that we should have engaged in meaningful progress towards sustainability, but tackling the ongoing proliferation of car use which was identified as a future problem nearly 60 years ago would surely be a close second.

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The ‘Traffic in towns Report’, commissioned in 1960 by Ernest Marples and written by Professor Buchanan, forecast that “the rising tide of cars will not put a stop to itself until it has almost put a stop to traffic”. He went on to identify the paradox of the situation; “It is impossible to spend any time on the study of the future of traffic in towns without at once being appalled by the magnitude of the emergency that is coming upon us.We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great potential destructiveness, and yet we love him dearly.To refuse to accept the challenge it presents would be an act of defeatism”. The situation is probably the world’s largest ‘Tragedy of the commons’ where we each think our individual contribution to the problem is insignificant, after all traffic queues are made by other people, aren’t they? In his conclusions Buchanan sets out options for the planners: 1. Rearrange and rebuild the town to accommodate more traffic. 2. Restrain vehicular access. 3. Accept the consequences of congestion and a degraded urban environment.

Option 1was an early choice with disastrous consequences for the quality of our towns. Option 3 is the current default position as virtually all new development is based around car use with increasingly disastrous consequences. Option 2 has been tried with great success both in existing towns where central squares have been recaptured from the and in new urban areas on the Continent such as the well- respected example at Vauban, just outside Freiburg in Germany. 60 years on it is now timely to get to grips with the In the UK the 20th century governments recognised the need to invent new towns as the only way of meeting urgent housing need. Delivery on the ground was a spectacular success, however, despite best intentions NewTowns met unforeseen problems.We now need to benefit from hindsight and plan for better outcomes. problem and come up with better solutions.We need an option 4.

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A Plan for Action

Amid agreements between Councils, consulting Local Plan Preferred Options and Concept Feasibility studies a master plan vision statement may seem to be a low priority item at the moment. However, to avoid setting off in the wrong direction it may be unwise to place outcome in second place to process. Just as in Ebenezer Howard’s time his mould breaking vision was not based on contemporary best practice, so our new vision will involve new thinking. Action will need to be focussed to successfully remain on course to achieve the vision. A plan for action must establish a clear and demonstrable link between the vision and the outcomes. Issues must be defined priorities established and best practice researched. For the Sustainability challenge a clear understanding of its principles needs to be agreed and shared. Sustainability policy relating to land use issues cannot be tackled in isolation but need to be integrated with other policy and legislation. An overarching framework for tackling the UN’s 17 Sustainability Goals should be created for implementation across disciplines and boundaries. Some solutions may be inspired by the past, but most will come from future innovation.

The urban design challenge should be firmly rooted in lessons learnt from the past. Solutions will come from managing complexity, facilitating urban evolution and creative place making.

A Plan for Action

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Stuart Cock | Mersea Homes Managing Director t | 01206 383159 e | stuart.cock@merseahomes.co.uk w | www.merseahomes.co.uk

Brian Morgan | ADP Ltd Planning Director t | 01206 242070 e | brian@adpltd.co.uk

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