New towns need a bigger dream than ‘green’

If desperately-needed new towns are to take root, and win popular support, planners need to come up with something more inspiring than carbon-neutral houses.  Derwenthorpe, near York, is a case in point.

Launched by the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust in 2002, Derwenthorpe was conceived as a new community “built to the highest standards of energy efficiency”.  The heart of Derwenthorpe would be The Energy Centre, a biomass heating plant with a community centre attached.  And that – apart from a promise to include some social housing – was as far as it went, vision-wise.

The Trust claimed that Derwenthorpe would share the spirit of New Earswick, a genuinely visionary plan for a new community, created by chocolate maker and philanthropist Joseph Rowntree in 1902.  New Earswick was planned by Unwin and Parker (who would go on to create Letchworth, the world’s first garden city) and offered people – Rowntree employees and others – a new way to live, with decent affordable housing set in leafy surroundings.

New Earswick’s vision inspired people.  Derwenthorpe, by contrast, met fierce resistance from local residents and the plans were subjected to a nine-year planning process, estimated by the Trust to have cost £5m, and involving a public enquiry and a (resented) top-down decision from Whitehall.

To build a better future we need to set out sights a lot higher than the last government’s dismal plans for new housing estates of “low and zero-carbon homes” (Gordon Brown, 2007).  Without ambition – and a powerful vision for how new communities will help people lead better lives – the current government’s hopes for a new generation of new towns will never leave the drawing board.

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