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Poundbury and utopia - forwards to the past ?

Redefining the suburb as  urban village


Andrew Rossiter, Université de Franche Comté
From a paper presented at the symposium on Urban and rural utopias, Besançon, France 2000.


    For the disciples of pure modernism, Poundbury is, and always has been, a joke. When the plans for this new suburb on the outskirts of the Dorset capital of Dorchester were first announced in the late nineteen-eighties, the self-appointed arbiters of contemporary taste and planning rushed in, lambasting the project with a barrage of ridicule in the columns of the press, both architectural and general.  About a quarter of the development has now been completed, sufficient for residents, visitors and analysts to get a coherent view of what this project in suburban development will be like when it is completed; and enough maybe to provide the first answers to the question: is this the new paradigm for suburban development in Britain and other parts of the world, or is it just a fantasy exercise in going forwards to the past?

    When the Poundbury scheme was first announced, the proposals for this new suburb destined in the long run to receive some 5000 inhabitants were derided as a pastiche, as a ridiculous exercise in retrophilia, or as a hopeless attempt to turn the clock back to some imaginary utopian golden age. Paradoxically, before the first brick was laid, Poundbury was even criticised for incorporating many the best features of modern 1990's building and design techniques - such as very high standards of insulation and discreet car access - in a supposedly authentically traditional English urban environment. In one of the most scathing reviews of Poundbury to have appeared in print (1),  Aldersey Williams berated just about every aspect of the scheme, from its situation and its reason for existence, to the "potpourri of styles" and the lack of authenticity.
    Symptomatic of many modernist architectural planners' inability to come to terms with the concept of Poundbury was the fact that the Architectural Record, which published Aldersey Williams' dismissive review of Poundbury, refused to publish a reply submitted by the leading American Neotraditionalist architect Andres Duany. Duany's response was thus published electronically on the Internet (2) where it has doubtless reached a wider audience.
    The irony of the controversy that erupted when the plans for Poundbury were first published, is that it was so premature and, with the benefit of hindsight, so absurd. Now (in 2000) that the first stage of Poundbury is complete, and that the first occupants have moved in, it is becoming increasingly evident that Poundbury is far from being "just another housing estate", and is proving to be a remarkably successful venture in redefining the norms for suburban planning. And while the stalwart defenders of modern architectural orthodoxy continue to deride Poundbury for being a pastiche and for this reason inevitably no more than a footnote in the history of town planning, mainstream opinion has now begun to swing round behind the project, those who inspired it and those responsible for the plans. After initially falling into step behind the pundits of modern planning and ridiculing the project, the British mainstream press - including the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Mirror and the Mail - has now changed tack, and since 1998 press coverage of the ever-evolving project has been largely positive. (3 )

    Poundbury: the origins of the project


    According to recent official estimates, the United Kingdom needs to build 4.4 million new homes between 1997 and 2016, in order to meet predicted population growth, and changes in residential living patterns. A considerable proportion of this expansion will take place in the already heavily-populated south of England, and consequently towns in this area - notably those that have the capacity to expand, have been encouraged in recent years to put forward proposals for major new suburban developments.
    In many cases, such as Chichester (Sussex) and Stroud (Gloucestershire), urban exapnsion programmes have been met by heated opposition from those already living in or around the existing towns. In Dorchester, however, local opposition to the westward exapnsion of the town, in the area known as Poundbury has been limited, in spite of the fact that the long term effect of the Poundbury development will be to substantially modify the nature of Dorchester - the model for Thomas Hardy's Casterbridge -  by increasing its population from the current 15,000 to 20,000 inhabitants - a 33% increase.
    Proposals for a major expansion of Dorchester were first debated in 1987, and two years later outline planning permission for the westward extension of the town was granted by West Dorset District Council, for a mixed-use residential suburb that will eventually stretch over 400 acres (about 190 hectares). The initial development was to cover 35 acres of land.
    For the authorities, the initial stages of the development of land around Dorchester had a great advantage, in so far as the town is surrounded on three sides by about 2,600 acres of agricultural land owned since the fourteenth century by the same landowner, the estate of the Duchy of Cornwall. Yet when they contacted the Duchy, asking to purchase the land for development, the authorities did not get any of the responses habitually given in such circumstances; for instead of agreeing to sell the land for development, the Duke of Cornwall - better known as Prince Charles - offered to take on personal responsibility for the development of the Poundbury suburb; and thus it was that one of the most interesting and potentially successful of modern suburban developments in Britain came to be.
    Prince Charles was not a newcomer to architectural planning; quite the reverse. In the course of the 1980's, he had repeatedly irked the architectural establishment in Britain - particularly the proponents of modernism - by his critical statements on the ugliness and brutalism of much modern architecture. In 1984, he caused the trustees of the National Gallery in London to totally rethink a planned extension, after describing the initial plan as a "monstrous carbuncle"; and later in the decade, his description of a new library in Birmingham as looking "more like a place where books are burned" than a centre for culture - further contributed to his falling distinctly favour with the radical chic pundits of the architectural world.
    In the opinion of a large part of the architectural establishment in the United Kingdom, Prince Charles was dismissed as an interfering and arch-conservative amateur, with no understanding at all of modern architecture. In particular, the architectural establishment objected to the fact that he benefited from an unfair advantage, and that people listened to what he said about architecture and planning not because he knew anything about them, but because he was the Prince of Wales.
    The fact that people listened to Charles because he was the Prince of Wales is, evidently, true; but to suggest that he knew nothing about architecture or planning was clearly wrong.
    In 1989, shortly after Dorchester's westward expansion had been announced, and as the West Dorset Council was finalising outline details of the project, Prince Charles published A Vision of Britain, a book in which he called on architects and planners to abandon the "heartlessness" of the "drab suburban sprawl" that had characterised a large proportion of post-war residential development in Britain (and, for that matter, other countries too) and return to "human-scale" planning, combining the advances of modern building technology with a respect for the traditions of the past in relation to the historic and geographic context of the site. It is, as much perhaps as any other, a blueprint for an ideal human environment or, in a phrase, a vision of Utopia.
    In brief, in his Vision of Britain, the Prince of Wales set out a list of ten principles of successful town planning, as he saw it:
    1. Place. That planners should understand the local environment, and design their projects to blend with it.
    2. Hierarchy. That the design of buildings should always reflect their hierarchical position in the community, that "public buildings ought to proclaim themselves with pride", and others be designed in function of their value in society.
    3.    Scale. That buildings should bear relation to the human scale, and the scale of other buildings in an area.
    4.    Harmony. That buildings should blend harmoniously with others in the vicinity.
    5.    Enclosure. That spatial identity is of major importance, and that new developments should incorporate such public spaces as squares and courtyards
    6.    Materials. that building materials used should reflect the diversity of local traditions, and not conform to any national or international standard.
    7.    Decoration. That decorative craftsmanship should still be, as it always has been, a major feature of the urban environment.
    8.    Art. That artistic decoration has a major and a symbolic role to play in the enhancement of the urban environment, and that artists as well as architects should have a role to play in the designing of new living environments.
    9.    Signs and lighting. That these also contribute to the success of the built environment, not detract from it, and should therefore be put up with care and attention.
    10.    Community. That a successful community is a place where residents feel involved, and contribute to the planning and running of their environment.

    The proposal to develop Poundbury as a residential extension for Dorchester gave Prince Charles the opportunity he had perhaps been waiting for, to put theory into practice, and create a new community from nothing, applying the ten principles set out in Vision of Britain.
    Charles thus rapidly contacted an American architectural planner whose work he appreciated, Charles Krier, and commissioned him to come up with a master plan for the development of Poundbury.
    As well as reflecting the ten principles, the remit consisted in planning a suburban environment that would include a mixture of owner-occupied dwellings and social housing, and that the two types of dwelling should be indistinguishable from the outside. The mixed-use plan also called for the inclusion, within easy walking distance of the residential streets, of shops, workshops and factories.
    Working closely with the Prince of Wales, Krier, another unrepentant critic of fifties and sixties architecture, came up with a plan to develop the site in four adjoining sections each of about 45 hectares, surrounded by parkland. Echoing the classic form of the traditional English village, each of the four areas has been designed with its own clearly recognisable focal point - a square or another feature, and a random mixture of different types of housing.
    The plan, which required many exemptions from current planning and zoning regulations, was greeted with considerable scepticism by architects and town planners. It was argued that the type of home buyers wanting to buy in Poundbury would not wish to buy houses that shared a dividing wall with social housing units; it was also suggested that the densely-packed housing environment was out of keeping with the tastes and expectations of modern middle-class British house-buyers, more usually attracted by the ideal of detached houses in spacious gardens. Others predicted that industry would not want to relocate in the middle, or even on the edge, of a residential area, and that in the end, Poundbury would end up as no more than a "glorified council estate".
    It was, indeed, a challenge. Reflecting on the issues at stake, the Duchy of Cornwall's estate office at Poundbury issued a statement on 8th May 1998, recalling the points at issue.
        "Poundbury is a radical challenge to many conventional planning issues. Instead of segregating private and social housing, workplaces, factories and schools, as in many modern developments, at Poundbury uses are mixed throughout the development. The four planned districts of Poundbury are of urban density.... Houses define the layout of the roads, not the reverse, and there are no cul-de-sacs.... The Prince of Wales was keen to ensure that Poundbury would be an attractive place, and would provide an example for planners, housebuilders and architects."

    In practical terms, Poundbury has been conceived as a modern application of principles - or absence of principles - that in the past led to the organic and largely unplanned development of the built environment of the English village.
    Like the village, it has been conceived as a community of mixed housing, catering for all ages and income groups. The first phase of housing consists of 55 units of social housing, administered by a housing association, the Guinness Trust, and 141 freehold owner-occupier homes, as well as retail and commercial premises (4). By the time the development is completed, towards the year 2020, Poundbury will have between 2,000 and 3,000 housing units, with social housing will accounting for about 20% of the total, in line with the national average.

    Evidently, any attempt to replicate a natural process of urban expansion by artificial means, through a carefully designed plan, is by its very nature open to criticism as a pastiche; but perhaps this says more about the cultural and intellectual prejudices of our time than it does about the suitability of copying from the past. In reality, the history of architecture has largely been a matter of combining the best that the past has to offer in terms of style and layout, with the new opportunities offered by technical and technological development - and this is precisely what Poundbury sets out to do.
    The plan of Poundbury is thus laid out as a patchwork of residential streets, linked by a small number of principal access roads; and while the main access roads, leading out of the development and into the focal point of each area, are more or less straight, the residential streets themselves are short and generally curved, changing direction and alignment in function of the need to incorporate buildings or gardens in the space available behind them.
    As in the traditional design of the British and European village - and contrary to virtually all modern suburban planning, houses give directly onto the street or have front gardens no more than a metre wide: in many places they are also contiguous, in rows of up to six units. As a result, the streets of Poundbury have not only the look, but also the atmosphere, of the traditional streets of an English village.
    On the other hand, they do not have the disadvantages that the streets of many Enlgish villages suffer from today; for while the architectural design of the buildings on the development may be essentially inspired, on the outside, from the historic local traditiions of Dorset, the layout of access to properties is based on thoroughly modern planning concepts, in particular the separation of pedestrian and vehicular access. Garages and parking spaces are thus situated out of sight, behind the residential streets, around small courtyards or car parks which, in fact form the hub around which each group of residential streets is linked.
    In the initial plan for Poundbury, these parking squares - planted with indiginous species of trees, were conceived of as purely functional spaces, not as streets or squares for living on. However, in an attempt to increase housing density, the original plan was modified to include a small number of flats built over garages or on these courtyards. Krier and his team had reservations about this change, imagining that these courtyard houses would not easily find buyers; in the event, demand for courtyard housing has exceeded supply.
    As far as the architectural environment of Poundbury is concerned, the main objective has been to produce varied streetscapes, incorporating a mix of houses of different sizes and finishes, all nevertheless reflecting the "architectural modesty" of vernacular styles found in the towns and villages of Dorset. These include a range varying from very simple harled cottages, to stone faced houses and brick-faced neo-Georgian town houses. Roof levels and lines vary from building to building, as do the roofing materials used, slate and tile. Notably absent from Poundbury are any of the neo-Tudor "executive homes" with their and totally un-functional half-timbered decoration, which are the hallmark of a large amount of contemporary up-market suburban development in Britain today.
    On the contrary, in line with the principles laid out in A Vision of Britain, there is considerable attention to architectural and artistic detail in the buildings, in the way of cornices, decorative brickwork and stonework, porches, lamp standards and street signs.
    The result is a new urban development on a greenfield site, that already gives the impression of having grown up over the years, in spite of the fact that the first brick was not laid until 1993. Wherever one goes in Poundbury, streetscapes are interesting and above all, friendly. The visitor spontaneously feels encouraged to walk down a street, knowing that it will not be a dead end, but will continue round the corner into some other, different streetscape; the whole development invites curiosity and a desire to see more, to discover the next unexpected and original feature, much in the same way as the visitor to some historic city centre feels drawn to explore and discover the other hidden charms and architectural features that have stood the test of time.
    Evidently, when attempting to assess the value of a residential urban environment, external aesthetic considerations are by no means the only - or even the most important - aspect to be taken into consideration. Many highly attractive and aesthetic urban environments, particularly those designed with the lifestyles and expectations of another age in mind, are totally unadapted to the needs of modern society, and provide housing that at best offers poor amenities, at worst low standard accommodation that caters only for those on the bottom rung of the ladder - low income or no-income families, young singles and the economically underprivileged.
    Yet without the attraction of aesthetic quality, either in the original planning design or thanks to the individual efforts of residents, urban environments can so easily transform into the type of soulless and dismal housing estates that surround the majority of the world's towns and cities at the end of the twentieth century - a fact that has been systematically recognised by generations of utopian town planners, from Titus Salt onwards. Aesthetic quality is thus an ingredient that is essential for the long term success of any housing development - and it is one that Poundbury has in no small degree.
    Any ultimate assessment of Poundbury as a development depends however not just on the external attractiveness of its streetscapes, but on its ability to provide a successful residential environment, both in its public spaces and its private spaces. Its degree of success in this matter can only be assessed from the reactions of those who have chosen to live or work in Poundbury.
    Judging by the observations of the embryonic residents' association, reactions are clearly positive; Poundbury's residents - from the successful achievers who have purchased the largest houses, to the single parent families living in the social housing - are virtually unanimous in their appreciation of their living conditions - in spite of the fact that many of them currently live in houses that look out over a building site. If there is one complaint that is voiced, it is one that is symptomatic of Poundbury's success, namely that there are too many tourists.
    Residents' positive reaction to their environment in Poundbury is partly due to the high standards of the buildings, both inside and out. Houses are being built with insulation standards that are superior to those required by current building regulations, and are all pre-equipped with terrestrial and satellite television reception by cable. Houses are furthermore designed to make optimum use of space and light, and kitchens are pre-fitted. But above all, each house is different - some totally unique, others as variations on a few basic models; the monotony and regularity of classic housing estates is totally absent.
    Naturally, this attention to detail and individuality comes at a cost, and it is estimated that house-building costs at Poundbury are on average between 10% and 15% above standard rates for similar-sized properties - one of the facts that initially aroused a certain amount of scepticism about Poundbury's ability to succeed. Ultimately, the success or failure of any scheme has to be judged in part also as a commerical venture - and here again, after a slow start, Poundbury now seems set to become a clear success, some of the houses now being sold even before building work has started on them. There is not yet a waiting list, but the development of Poundbury is still in its early days, and once the estate gets its first shops and its all important pub - community features that should be in place before the end of 1999 - its attractiveness as a residential environment will be considerably enhanced, and the prospect of waiting lists seems quite likely.
    Furthermore, there are strong reasons to believe that the extra 10%-15% spent on the buildings at Poundbury is money well spent, and an investment that will prove extremely worthwhile in the long term. Given the quality of the buildings and the attractiveness of the environment, there are strong grounds for suggesting that the houses at Poundbury will last far longer than most of the suburban housing that has been put up in Britain over the past fifty years. As a recent newspaper article put it, while most suburban developments deteriorate as they grow old, Poundbury will just acquire patina.

    Another aspect which will inevitably contribute to the long term success or failure of Poundbury is the presence of employment opportunities within or close to the development; and on this point too the initial scepticism has been proved ill-founded.
    By Spring 1999, three factories had moved onto the Poundbury estate, the first a subsidiary of an American electronics company employing sixty people, the second a high quality chocolate manufacturer, the House of Dorchester, which relocated to larger custom-built premises on the estate, in order to meet rising demand for its products. The third, another high-tech company, Integrated Photomatrix Ltd, moved into 2000 M2 premises in January 1999; and as of April 1999, two other small office units were ready for tenants.
    The electronics company, SM Tech, moved into a converted Victorian barn in the middle of the Poundbury estate in June 1996, at a time when the first houses were just completed; the unusual and attractive working environment of a large converted barn, fitted with a full range of high tech communications systems, offered them an ideal site for the new UK premises they were looking for at the time - and indeed one which would have suited their needs wherever it had been sited. The fact that this premises is located in the heart of Poundbury illustrates the way in which the site's success is due as much to the overall plan, as to the attention and care given to each individual building.
    Though the factory for the House of Dorchester chocolate company is a new building, the same attention to detail and to quality of construction has been observed here too.
    Naturally, there is no requirement for factories setting up in Poundbury to employ people living in the Poundbury development; that was never intended. What was envisaged, and what is now clearly proving to be true, is that the mixed-usage zoning of Poundbury provides an attractive environment for firms, and that firms are ready to set up business or relocate in the area, even though it does not correspond to the currently popular image of the modern business park. Furthermore, the firms present in Poundbury do provide some employment for residents, and conversely some of the employees of firms that have set up at Poundbury have already chosen to live on the estate too - after quickly coming to realise the great advantages of being able to walk to work.
    In addition to the two factories, Poundbury has also begun to attract a growing number of small businesses and craftsmen, thanks to the flexible variety of business premises and workshops situated at different locations within yards of the residential streets.
    The existence of an attractive and well-designed mixed residential area within walking distance of any factory or workshop on the estate is proving to be a valuable argument when it comes to attracting new employment opportunities - and thus yet another justification for the whole concept of Poundbury.

    So far, Poundbury is a unique experiment in redesigning the conceptual framework of the suburb: it is too soon to say for certain whether it will turn out to be the prototype for a revolution in suburban planning, or not; but given the increasing attention that is being paid to the project by architects and designers from all over Britain and the world, there are grounds for suggesting that the pioneering suburb that is taking shape in the fields outside Dorchester may well turn out to be one of the most influential ventures in suburban planning of the twentieth century.
    The idea of the "urban village", as exemplified by Poundbury, is already taking root nationally, with mixed-use solutions being envisaged for or applied in over thirty other development or redevelopment schemes in different parts of the United Kingdom. To coordinate and exchange ideas and ideals, an umbrella organisation known as the Urban Villages Forum has been established. Interestingly, this Forum includes not just middle-class areas such as Poundbury, but also some of the worst inner city areas in the United Kingdom, notably the Gorbals in Glasgow and the infamous and now-demolished Hulme estate in Manchester - formerly a classic example of the soul-destroying suburban architecture of the sixties so strongly criticised by Prince Charles.
        Working with English Partnerships, the English regeneration agency, the Urban Villages Forum is currently involved in a major programme under the name of "Making Mixed Use Happen", designed to promote mixed use solutions for the redevelopment of run-down districts in British towns and cities.
    Success at Poundbury may perhaps serve to demonstrate the general viability of the mixed-use solution; on the other hand it may serve to demonstrate its suitability only for a certain type of socio-economic context. For however successful the scheme may turn out to be in the context of Dorchester, it is clear that one of its major assets at the moment is precisely its unique nature, and its position as a pioneering project. It is virtually certain, for example, that were a new Poundbury to be built at Hulme, in Manchester, the results would be radically different, if only on account of the cultural and economic chasms that separate the worlds of suburban Dorchester, with its majority of economically active middle class citizens, and Hulme, with its high rates of unemployment and poverty. A built environment, however Utopian it may be, cannot alone provide the answer to all the problems of suburban squalor and poverty. As one among a whole range of measures, it can nevertheless play an important role - and this, no doubt, is what Poundbury will serve to demonstrate most specifically.
    There can be no doubt that one of the reasons why Poundbury is currently proving so successful is that the type of residents it is attracting are precisely those who believe in it, and in its conceptual framework, people who want it to work. If dozens more Poundburys were to start springing up in other cities and towns across the United Kingdom, their success would not necessarily be guaranteed, unless such an expansion were to be accompanied by a major change in mentalities, and notably a move away from the "two-car family" ideal that is now the norm in Britain. Such a change in mentalities is one thing that the proponents of Poundbury would certainly love to see; after all, one of the timeless characteristics of those who put forward radical and pioneering new ideas, is their desire to influence the whole direction in which society is moving - and Prince Charles and Leon Krier are surely no less keen to influence the future direction of society than any other pioneering planners. If they were to be instrumental in bringing such a change about, they would doubtless be more than satisfied; they have already begun trying.
    When submitting plans for the scheme, Krier and his partners were told by the Highways Agency to provide 2.5 parking spaces for each dwelling in Poundbury; after arguing that this vast car-parking requirement was unnecessary and would detract from the whole concept of their plan, they managed to have the car parking requirement reduced from 2.5 spaces per dwelling, to 2.3. Even this, however, is proving to be way above what is required, as the majority of households occupying dwellings in Poundbury are actually one-car families. Krier is thus hoping for lower car-density requirements for future stages of the project.

IS IT UTOPIA?


    So, to conclude, is Poundbury really a modern Utopia? Is it the shape of suburbs to come, one of the most exciting developments in Neotraditionalism, the style that is tipped to become the predominant style of the coming decades? (5) Or is it just a rather quaint and expensive bit of real-estate development in a tranquil English backwater, far from the real problems of large urban centres?
    When asked whether Poundbury was Utopia, Sue McCarthy-More, one of the first people to open up her own business in Poundbury, where she also lives,  replied unhesitatingly "No". But then she hesitated.
    "It depends what you mean. It's certainly not perfect, if that's what you mean; but it is a good place to live and work. Yes. Most of the people like it here."
    If Utopia is taken to mean a place where everything is perfect, then clearly Poundbury is not that place: indeed, given the constraints of such a definition, Utopia will certainly never exist anywhere.
    If, on the other hand, Utopia is taken to mean the best possible environment in which to live, a place which combines the best of the old with the best of the new, a convivial and congenial community where humans are provided with the best possible infrastructure and an attractive built environment, then Poundbury probably comes as close as any other pioneering suburb to achieving that ideal.

Notes:

1  Architectural Record, May 1996,

2  Andres Duany's reply to Architectural Record's Review of Poundbury - www.dpz-architects.com/controv1.htm (now offline)

3 The Guardian, Feb 12th 1998; Mirror, May 5th 1998; The Times, April 27th 1998, & passim.

4 Commercial and retail property in Phase 1: 400 m2 for shops, 75 m2 for a café, 300 m2 office space, 650 m2 of Enterprise Centre (training and conference centre), 400m2 for a pub, 800m2 of further commercial or business space, plus two factories.

5    Neotraditionalism: "Social, cultural and economic ethos, characterised by the pragmatic selection of options. It is distinct from the concurrent trends of traditionalism and modernism, which are purist and ideological." From the Lexicon of the New Urbanism, cited by Andres Duany, see footnote 2.

 

Further Reading:

Krier, Leon. Architecture - Choice or Fate. Papadakis 1998.

Wales, Charles, Prince of - A Vision of Britain, Bloomsbury 1989.

Urban Villages Forum (ed) - Urban Villages, a concept for creating mixed-use urban developments on a sustainable scale. London, U.V.F., 1998.



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