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Urban Villages: the best of both worlds?

Andrew Rossiter, Université de Franche Comté
From a paper presented at the International Symposium on Urban and Rural Britain at the University of Valenciennes, France, 2002.

    It was in June 1992  that an unusual architectural manifesto was launched in Great Britain.  For the next ten years or more, the manifesto  entitled "Urban Villages, a concept for creating mixed-use urban developments on a sustainable scale" continued to make waves, and was  much commented and criticised - often unfavourably - in the specialist and general media.

View of Poundbury in 2001, during phase 1 of the project
    In the language of contemporary British town planning, the expression "urban village" has for many people come to be synonymous with the name "Poundbury", the neo-traditionalist suburban development on the fringes of the rural town of Dorchester, piloted and largely masterminded by the Prince of Wales. Yet although Poundbury is certainly the most extensively developed of Britain's urban village projects, there are many others throughout Britain, and the expression "urban villages" is also used in other English speaking countries to describe modern suburban developments - and in some cases rural developments - that conform (or more or les conform) to certain holistic principles of planning that run against the grain of accepted modern practices in suburban development.
    This article takes a concise look at the origins  of the "urban village" concept, and its definition, before studying the situation of urban village development in the UK today, looking at Poundbury and the other projects throughout the country that were in 2001  affiliated to the Urban Villages Forum, the think tank set up under the patronage of the Prince of Wales.

    Indeed, no discussion of "urban villages" in a British context can begin without reference to the role of the Prince of Wales who, long dissatisfied by much of the dreary suburban development that has occurred in Britain during his lifetime, has used his position to spearhead the development of socially and architecturally successful sustainable communities designed to avoid the failures of the recent past.

    The much-used expression "neo-traditionalist", imported from the United States, clearly establishes the conceptual framework that underlies the urban village movement; urban villages are seen as not just an architectural or planning concept, but one predicated on a form of social organisation that has its roots in a long-established model that has stood the test of time. In Britain, as in the United States, the aim of the proponents of urban villages is not just to design modern living environments that reflect those of a previous and supposedly more stable rural society, but to rediscover the forms of living environment that engendered the stability of such traditional rural communities. In this respect, the "urban village" is a concept that takes its place in a historic British - and notably English - paradigm that has previously been illustrated in the model towns of Lever, Cadbury and others, the garden cities of the first half of the twentieth century, and, in community terms at least, in late twentieth century developments such as Newcastle's Byker village.
    The expression "urban village" seems however to be an American invention. The earliest bibliographical reference to the phrase would seem to be a book entitled Urban Village: Population, Community, and Family Structure in Germantown, Pennsylvania, 1683-1800, by Stephanie Grauman, published in 1980. Yet early usages of the expression do not refer to any specific planning concept, but are a more a convenient pairing of words used to describe certain types of close-knit urban communities whose structures reflected traditional rural models. The phrase was even used as a rendering of the Spanish expression "barrio". It was in the early eighties, however, that the first references to the "urban village" as a planning concept began to appear, in the writings of Christopher Leinberger, a Los Angeles based urban affairs consultant (Urban Villages: The Locational Lessons. Wall Street Journal. New York. November 13, 1984) and Charles Lockwood (The Arrival of the Urban Village in Princeton Alumni Weekly November 1986). Leinberger used the phrase "urban villages" to describe what he saw as a new tendency towards mixed-use development in suburban America, resulting from the fact that in post-industrial America, there was no longer any need to separate business and residential areas for environmental reasons (pollution, noise, etc.).
   More recently, and notably in the 1990's, the phrase has been used sporadically  in discussions of the American "new urbanism" movement, often by and with reference to neotraditionalist planners Leon Krier and the Andres Duany / Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk partnership; yet generally speaking, American writers and planners - until recently - have made considerably more use of the expression "new urbanism", rather than "urban village". The idea of the "village", with its notions of "community", seems to be particularly English, and it was only in the late 1990's, following the international interest aroused by the first of England's "urban villages", Poundbury, that the expression really began to become popular in the United States and Australia.

    It was the Prince of Wales who introduced the concept of the "urban village" into the vocabulary of British planning; the expression is used briefly in his 1989 book A Vision of Britain (the follow up to a 1988 television documentary), though not at the time directly in conjunction with the Poundbury project, which is mentioned. It was also this book that clearly established the dual parentage of the urban village concept in the English acceptance of the phrase; on the one hand, the historic English village tradition, on the other hand the American neotraditionalist architectural planners, notably Krier and Duany. In the final pages of A Vision of Britain, a presentation of Krier's archetypal neotraditionalist development in Florida, the town of Seaside, covers a full five pages, compared to just two covering the development of "model villages" in the U.K. from Saltaire to the garden cities.
    Yet clearly, however great the influence of Krier on Prince Charles has been, it is the historic English concept of the village, and the idealised view of village life, that form the theoretical models that the British proponents of the "urban village" have sought to translate into a modern idiom.
    One may speculate as to whether Prince Charles, while thinking over the possibility of creating a planned modern urban village at Poundbury, on the outskirts of Dorchester, had read P.H.Ditchfield's 1908 book The Charm of the English Village, which had recently been reprinted (1985);  there is a lot in this book, most notably perhaps its preoccupation with the small details, the use of materials, and the stylistic and functional variety that characterise traditional English villages, that prefigures the Prince's view of the model community. Along with many other publications, both Prince Charles's and Ditchfield's books are also woven on the loom of nostalgia for a supposed almost utopian past, common to the proponents of New Urbanism, and anathema to many modernists. In an article in Harvard Design Magazine in 1997, marxist geographer David Harvey, professor at Johns Hopkins university wrote :
    "The New Urbanism in fact connects to a facile contemporary attempt to transform large and teeming cities, so seemingly out of control, into an interlinked series of 'urban villages', where, it is believed, everyone can relate in a civil and urbane fashion to everyone else."
    Harvey, however was looking on new urbanism in the fundamentally North American idiom; and although, historically, many earlier settlers in the United States - notably in New England - transposed onto north American soil social models imitated from those of the English village, on the whole the American model was, by definition, different. Early American villages may not have been subject to the rectilinear grid planning of 19th century American towns and villages, but neither did they evolve slowly over time in the manner of the historic English village. In addition, America's "New Urbanism", as exemplified by Seaside, is rather different from the English "urban village" as first exemplified at Poundbury.

    Ditchfield (1908) more than once stresses the particular nature of English villages, even as opposed to villages in other parts of Europe, referring to the particular social structure of the English village as the "village commonwealth", a structure that would more normally be referred to in modern terms as the "village community". It should be noted that the notion of "community" is a fundamental building block in the societies of modern English speaking countries, and is considerably more deeply rooted in the English tradition (and more broadly speaking the Germanic traditions) than in that of any newer country, or even of other European countries in which the structures of pre-industrial society had evolved out of Roman law.
    Since the departure of the Romans, the village has been the core community unit in the British Isles. Though England long boasted, in London, Europe's largest city, and though Britain was the first European nation to undergo major population drift to the towns, the village has always survived - in thought, literature or art - as the ideal, and often idealised, social unit. In Roman times, cities became the nuclei of life in Britain; but after the Romans left, most of their great cities, with the exception of London, were largely abandoned, the British populations moving out to occupy new village sites outside the city walls or further afield; and whilst in continental western Europe the great cities of Roman times remained great cities after the Romans left, and in many cases remain so to this day, the same was not true in the British Isles.
    In mediaeval Britain, the extensive devolution of power and authority under the Anglo-Norman feudal system - inherited from the Anglo Saxon period - and the territorial representation that existed in English parliaments from the late thirteenth century onwards, played their role in formulating, in the national psyche, an image of England as being a nation represented emblematically by its villages, rather than by its capital city. In the English mind, London has never been the nexus of national identity in the way that Paris has long been the symbol of France and French life. In Shakespeare, the quintessential images of English life are not those of Henry IV and Bolingbroke at court or on the battle field; they are those of Justice Shallow in his orchard in rural Gloucestershire.
    The Industrial Revolution completed, by the mid nineteenth century, a process that had been set in motion by the Enclosures Acts of the eighteenth, precipitating Europe's first massive rural exodus, and with it a further pauperisation of the former rural labourers. It was during this period that poets, artists and novelists, from Blake to Constable to William Morris or Thomas Hardy, began to place rural England at the heart of English art and writing, often in an idealised manner that helped give a new impetus to the longstanding perception of the superiority of English rural society over urban society. The apparent immortality of the BBC's classic radio soap opera, the Archers, set in its fictitious village of Ambridge, is just another more modern illustration of the same point.
    It is perhaps significant that Trevor Osborne, chairman of the Urban Villages Group, notes, in the introduction to Urban Villages, that "the term 'urban village' will not be readily understood in mainland Europe; when exported to other EC member states, it will need a different label."  One might even add : "or to the USA".

    It is clearly by another quirk of coincidence that the first English "Urban Village", Poundbury, should have been located on the outskirts of Dorchester, the town immortalised under the name of Casterbridge, in the novels of Thomas Hardy.
    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.
    Prince Charles was involved in the project from the start; the greenfield site on the outskirts of Dorchester was in effect his land, agricultural leasehold land belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. When the Dorchester council applied to the Duchy to purchase the land for development, the answer they received was more favourable than they had imagined possible. Not only would the Duchy make the land available for development, but Prince Charles himself would oversee the operation, with the aim of establishing an attractive mixed-use and socially mixed suburban development; Britain's first "urban village".
    For many in the UK architectural and planning establishment, news that the Prince of Wales was to take charge of a major suburban development project was like a red rag to a bull. Relations between the Prince and many of Britain's leading architects and planners had been, to say the least, tense ever since the Prince had begun airing in public his none-too-complimentary opinions on the architecture and planning of the sixties and seventies. His famous description of Birmingham's new library as looking more like an incinerator than a place of learning, or his much quoted speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects, in 1984, when he described the proposed extension to London's National Gallery as being like a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend", had done little to endear him to the modernists in British architecture.
    Consequently, and unsurprisingly, reactions to the initial proposals for Poundbury were not favourable, neither in the specialised reviews nor in the architectural columns of the British broadsheets. The project was decried variously as an exercise in retrophilia, a pastiche, an irrelevance, or worse.
    That was in 1989; and it is true that Leon Krier's bird's-eye sketch of what Poundbury might look like, published at the time in A Vision of Britain (p138), does look more like a heteroclite exercise in nostalgia than a serious plan for a late twentieth century suburban development.
    The reality of Poundbury has been somewhat different: with the first phase of building now complete, the earliest streets have already had time to mellow, and as an urban environment, the general consensus among both residents and the press is that this new "urban village" is a success. After its early hostile coverage, 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.
    Among the common complaints voiced by residents now is that Poundbury is a victim of its success, with large numbers of tourists and visiting architects and town planners who invade their space, sometimes in coachloads, turning their residential quarter into an unintended tourist attraction.
    So why do they come? What is it that has established Poundbury as a stopping point on the architect's and town planner's tour of Britain in the early twenty-first century? Firstly, of course, there is its curiosity value - an unusual - some would still say eccentric - act of royal patronage, an experiment in suburban architecture and planning, masterminded by an amateur planner who is due to become the next King of England. Secondly they come to see how the ten point theory of the "urban village", laid out in the Vision of Britain, transforms into reality.
    Over 22 pages, the book sets out a list of "ten principles we can build upon" in order to create a successful modern urban living environment. These are as follows:
    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.

    While points 1 - 9 can be - and in the case of Poundbury, are being - ensured through the masterplan, point 10 cannot. A successful community can only be brought about by the people who live in it; and so far, in spite of the fact that Poundbury is still very much an ongoing project, those who live there are happy with their environment and, on the whole, consider it to be a successful community.
    Besides the above ten points, which essentially concern the architectural and visual aspects of the environment in urban villages, there are other fundamental aspects that distinguish the urban village from other suburban or rural housing projects, aspects that are perhaps rather more fundamental than aesthetics. These are social mixity, and mixed use - together seen as preconditions for the creation of new sustainable communities.
    As well as reflecting the ten principles, the masterplan for Poundbury was for a housing development that would include a seamless and indistinguishable mixture of owner-occupied dwellings and social housing. The mixed-use plan also called for the inclusion, within easy walking distance of the residential streets, of shops, workshops and factories, enabling residents to live and work in the community without the need for commuting.
    In many details, the masterplan for Poundbury went against conventional planning orthodoxy. Its fundamental tenet, mixed use,  ran counter to accepted zoning theory, which prefers to concentrate business in business parks, housing in housing estates, and shops in shopping centers.
    As for social diversity, critics of the Poundbury plan 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 wrap-around 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".
    So far at least, this has not been the case - which is exactly what its planners expected. Having conceived Poundbury as a carefully planned (or, in its critics' opinions, contrived) recreation of a traditional organically developed village, they did not expect to encounter the problems facing many other suburban developments.
    Like the village, the urban village is conceived as a community of mixed housing, catering for all ages and income groups. At Poundbury, the first phase of housing consisted 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. 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 accounting for about 20% of the total, in line with the national average.

    The question that remains, however, is whether the model of Poundbury can be transposed into other settings, or whether the success of this rather middle-class development on the edge of a rather trouble-free county town in the heart of the Westcountry, can be replicated in other areas?
    Following the media coverage - both positive and negative - given to the Poundbury project when it was first mooted in the late 1980's, a forum known as the Urban Villages Group was founded in 1989, at the Prince of Wales's behest, under the wing of Business in the Community, an organisation whose purpose is "to tackle economic, social and environmental issues affecting local communities" (Aldous, p8).
    Among the founder members of the Group were Leon Krier, plus the chief executives of a number of property development companies, housing corporations, and the Managing Director of the Cooperative Bank. The aim of the Group was to encourage councils and property developers to take the urban village concept nationwide, as a viable - if slightly more costly - alternative to the monotonous standardized run-of-the-mill developments, the "edge cities" that have mushroomed, and will continue to mushroom, on the outskirts of most British urban areas.

    As of January 2002, eighteen development projects across England are being carried out in partnership with the Prince's Foundation, according to "urban village" principles; none however is as advanced as Poundbury, and some, such as the Westoe Colliery project at South Shields and the Northwich city centre project, are still on the drawing board. Yet as the location of these two projects shows - one in the heart of the depressed northeast, and the other in the rundown centre of a Cheshire town - the "urban village" concept can be, and is being, applied in areas that are very different from semi-rural Dorset.
    Only two other projects are listed, like Poundbury, as "urban extensions" on greenfield sites, one in Basdildon Essex, the other in Northampton; by far the majority of projects are "urban regeneration" projects on brownfield sites.
    Some of these are in fact far removed from the "urban village" concept as illustrated by Poundbury. In particular, the Ancoats project in Manchester, the Jewellery quarter in Birmingham and the Little Germany redevelopment in the centre of Bradford appear more like classic industrial heritage preservation programmes, along the lines of the Albert Dock regeneration scheme in Liverpool, or the redevelopment of Butler's Wharf on the South Bank in London.
    They are, however, different, inasmuch as these three projects, though they will never become villages in the sense that Poundbury can call itself a large village, have been conceived with the ethos of the urban village concept in mind, and not as just three more chic urban residential areas for the upwardly mobile.
    Little Germany and the Jewelry Quarter are interesting cases, both being central urban areas which, in the past, had a clear spatial and social identity, the former as the fiefdom of Bradford's German cloth merchants, the latter as the densely populated network of small streets which housed both the homes and the workshops of Birmingham's hundreds of jewelers and watchmakers - a classic historic example of both mixed usage and a clearly defined urban quarter.
    A hundred years ago, Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter provided employment for some 70,000 people – many of whom lived and worked in the quarter. Since then, the number of jobs in the sector has fallen by over 90%, and the residential population has all but disappeared. In 2000, the quarter harboured some 1,200 business, but only about 700 residents. The aim of the project is to redress this imbalance, and rekindle the vibrant community that existed at the start of the twentieth century.
    The Ancoats Urban Village, in Manchester, is different - so different indeed that although Ancoats announces itself as an "urban village", the project's development manager herself is not convinced that it really is one.
    "I feel uneasy about offering Ancoats as representative of the Urban Villages movement, as it does not conform to many of the criteria that the Urban Villages movement sets out, and although we are still members of the Prince's Foundation, I don't think they would suggest Ancoats as an example of their philosophy; we seem to spend most time disagreeing!" (Lyn Fenton, private letter of 02/01/02).
    Ancoats prides itself for its place in urban history, as the world's first industrial suburb – an area in which 13,000 people once lived and worked; the targets of the Urban Village project are to bring people back to live in this historic industrial site, close to the centre of Manchester, through a programme of mixed use residential and business development. Classed as a conservation area in 1989, it is on the UK's short list for designation as a UNESCO world heritage site. In spite of the reservations of the developers, the targets set out in the Ancoats Supplementary Planning Guidance reflect the same principles as those adopted for Poundbury; the fact that this, as some other urban village sites, are not totally new-build areas, does not fundamentally change the perspective.
    Naturally perhaps, it is not in Britain's great urban centres that other urban village projects closer to the Poundbury model can be found, but on the edges of Britain's smaller towns and cities, as the following two examples illustrate. The Westoe site in South Shields is being developed by Wimpey on the 17 hectare site of a disused colliery, as a high-density mixed-use and socially mixed suburb with up to 800 homes, its own school, shops and office premises. In Lancashire, the Luneside development at Lancaster, albeit smaller - 6 hectares -  is being developed along similar lines.

    Finally, although only 18 projects are affiliated to the Prince's Trust as recognised "urban village" developments, neither the Prince nor the trust has exclusive rights to the expression, and other new housing development projects elsewhere in Britain, are taking up the label in order to give themselves a certain cachet.
    Indeed, the "urban village" approach to the design and planning of residential areas has now found its way into official UK government guidelines, a new guide from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions showing among its primary inspirations:
 " the 'Urban Villages' movement in the UK and neo-traditional design generally. Indeed, the design philosophy promoted is essentially one of working with context, promoting pedestrian friendly environments, returning to traditional perimeter block systems, and - where possible - mixing uses." (DETR Website 2002)
    The current popularity of the notion of the "urban village" in contemporary UK planning would tend to indicate that a sea change in planning theory has taken place in the UK since Prince Charles first launched his vision of Britain in 1989. Whether or not this will result in the recreation of something resembling the types of close-knit communities that existed in nineteenth century, or pre-Enclosures English villages, or even in twentieth century industrial villages, and whether "mixed usage" will really have any serious impact on the social habits of the British in the 21st century, other than reducing car usage, are different matters.
    And in the end, it is perhaps of little matter in the context of this paper, in which I have set out to show the peculiarly high value attached to the word village in England, and the particularly strong belief that runs through English thought and culture, that the village - and notably the idealised village with its green spaces, flowered gardens, and friendly folk, is the finest possible form of spatial and social organisation - even in the resolutely urban society of the start of the third millennium. In this respect, the phrase "urban village" has readily come to be seen not as a contradiction in terms, but as a means of having one's cake and eating it, or at least getting the best of both worlds.


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Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions:

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