NSL Blog

Letchworth the model community in David Cameron's big society?

April 4, 2012

Apparently David Cameron sees Letchworth as a model community. And, our Prime Minister says he wants to apply the principles of Garden Cities throughout the UK.

I read this article with great interest since (though I got to the end of the article wondering whether the article was about Letchworth, David Cameron or perhaps a PR piece on John Lewis?) I was born in Letchworth in 1964 and my parents moved there from London in 1959/60 and still live there. There is no doubt that Letchworth was inspirational in its conception and design. Indeed Ebenezer Howard the Quaker who conceived of this sustainable community, green and greenbelted, economically vibrant and teetotal gave a significant gift of what a sustainable community might look like in 1903. Its impact upon the world was to inspire the garden suburbs of Hampstead and Brentham, Welwyn Garden City and garden village suburbia in New Jersey and elsewhere in the US, explains Jonathan Glancey. And yet is it not extraordinary that we still look to 1903 as our moment of inspiration!

Especially when Guardian journalist Peter Heatherington writes,

Letchworth clearly offers a different challenge. While its residential properties, half of which are social housing and affordable homes often in the same street as more expensive houses, are physically in good shape, the town’s shopping centre and businesses have seen better days.

Today the town centre has been hollowed out, this happened years ago to begin with, the core of the town centre demolished to make way for the inevitable albeit small shopping mall, and today a monstrous Morrison’s supermarket sits whale like in the town centre sucking what little commercial air there is out of the small retailers – its like Tesco’s a supermarket come DeathStar but on a smaller scale. If you look at the original design of the town centre you will see much of its charm and true character have been stripped from it. Only residual clues are left.

The indoor market that has existed since I was a boy is closing up as the rents have been pushed so high it is no longer commercially sustainable. we can now all go to Argos instead. David’s the Bookstore which also a stalwart of the town will eventually close, as the impact of the supermarket selling books, CD/s postcards etc has it inevitable impact. The Post Office a beautiful and remarkable building has been shut by the Post Office. There is NO post office in the town centre! Frankly I wonder what the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation has been doing? The large open space that sits just up the way from the Library, had all its magnificant trees cut down and modernised several years ago. The Spirella building with the first ever sprung ballroom in the UK has been fully restored and renovated, so thumbs up for that. And the local museum is slated for closure. Two secondary schools have been shut down, The Norton School which my good friend’s father was a successful Headmaster of – was also highly regarded further afield. Now kids either shlep to Fearnhill or the Highfield school in cars or make the trek in their cars to the Knight Templar school in the next town Baldock.

Yet once upon a time Letchworth’s patronage was venerable,

The first Garden City Association conference was held in 1901. Cadbury was the host, George Bernard Shaw one of the distinguished speakers. Among the high-minded architects in attendance was Raymond Unwin, who had joined Morris’s Socialist League in the 1880s. In 1903, the association founded Letchworth Garden City, the very first of its kind; Unwin and Barry Parker were appointed its planners and architects the following year.

There are indeed beautiful aspects to Letchworth, but I think its legacy has been squandered by those that claimed to be its protectors. Whilst at the same time architectural students and planners come from the world over to admire the vision of sustainable town planning and the worlds first ever roundabout.

Designing and creating a sustainable community in the 21st Century: Can David Cameron our PM learn from Letchworth? Yes is my answer – though I think Letchworth could learn much from those that first dreamed of creating a sustainable community. Its not that I am against modernisation, what I am suggesting is that if you look at the vast majority to what has been done to Letchworth since its heyday – it has been poor, and poorly executed (How on earth did Morrison’s get planning permission?), and over the years that has left me feeling frustrated and saddened every time I go back there. The only place you can park for free in the town centre is you guessed it – Morrison’s.

Lessons in resilience and sustainability: Balancing the needs of a self sustaining community is important – bringing in large out-of-town retailers is not the answer. It is about looking at how food, locally grown, made, baked or brewed can be integrated into the local economy, and how that creates jobs, for example this story tells how one creates resilience in sustainable communities via Community Supported Farms, Bakeries and Breweries. Once upon a time Letchworth had the Letchworth Bacon Company, it had its own farms, reared its own animals, slaughtered them and made meat products and delivered them locally, to butchers, pubs, mini-markets, and grocers. I know because my father worked there, I know because I used to go out on his rounds during the summer holidays.

As a side note the local factories and businesses like Spirella all had their own social clubs – life was truly local and self-sustaining.

Are the Letchworth Heritage people thinking and doing this stuff or, do they only “own” the one farm boasted of in the Guardian article? Are they looking at projects like The People’s Supermarket, which is showing a more sustainable model of convenience shopping? From a simple economics perspective such eco-systems ensure money is fed back into local economies, whereas Morrison’s or Argos say take it out and send it somewhere else. The mantra that our supermarkets/shops/retail stores create jobs though true, is, depressingly shallow and myopic.

Shareable civic space: are they looking at the idea of the shareable civic space? Pioneered in San Francisco by Mayor Ed Lee, who initiated the The Sharing Economy Working Group, its purpose to take a comprehensive look at the economic benefits, innovative companies and emerging policy issues around the growing ‘sharing economy’. This evolved into what is called the shareable city. Instead of pursuing strategies based on big taxpayer subsidies for big-capital projects managed by political and corporate elites, the San Francisco “shareable cities” vision aims at decentralized participation by ordinary citizens and neighborhood groups in conjunction with nimble, socially attuned startup businesses.

The Open Society: were the Heritage Foundation to look at the city of Naples that is now a hothouse of participatory democracy, bottom-up initiatives, and social innovation and talk to Mayor Luigi De Magistris he would explain the open society which is designed to be inclusive and allows for vibrant economies and innovation to flourish. Or they could talk to the City of Linz, Austria who in 2010 completed a year-long study of an “Open Commons Region” for government. The findings of the study introduce a framework for open government, with the goal of creating a vibrant public-private ecosystem that includes public administration, corporations, arts communities, educational institutions, and citizens.

I wonder if Letchworth would be a better place if some of these practical, realistic, no-nonsense true life examples were put into practice?

Summary: We have the opportunity to transform our local communities, to deliver regenerative societies , we have the opportunity to be as inspirational and creative as the Cadbury’s, the Bernard-Shaw’s, and the Howard’s as they were in their day – but we have to do it for our time, and curate all the great examples which clearly show how we can create better towns and cities for our world – today. As Wassily Kandinsky said, ‘every work of art is a child of its time’.

To find out more, read the Open Access No Straight Lines book.



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