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Those ol’ new town blues

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Tucked away in Kent there’s a new town being built, but will it become a place people can call home?

When you first see Ebbsfleet International railway station in the distance, something doesn’t appear quite right. It is one of the best-connected stations in the country. Four trains an hour will have you in London St Pancras in just 17 minutes on the high-speed line. There are even Eurostar trains that serve the station to take passengers directly to France and Belgium.

However, it is surrounded mostly by fields and empty car parks. Even in non-pandemic times, it is far from a hive of activity.

Why? Because the town and population it was built to serve does not yet exist. But as the surrounding mud-coated roads and background hum of cement mixer lorries makes clear, this is slowly beginning to change.

Since 2010, Ebbsfleet has been slowly rising from the site of a former chalk quarry. Nestled between Swanscombe, Gravesend and the A2, the area is the government’s flagship attempt at diffusing the housing crisis by building an entirely new town that will - eventually - have 15,000 new homes and tens of thousands of new residents.

In 2014, then-chancellor George Osborne rechristened the project 'Ebbsfleet Garden City', evoking 20th-century new towns Letchworth and Welwyn, and the ideas of pioneering urban planner Ebenezer Howard, whose principles led him to advocate developments that included more green space and were more liveable than what at the time were squalid and crowded inner cities.

However, as we know now, the 20th century new towns were not universally beloved. The second generation built long after Howard’s time, in the 1960s, have a much more mixed reputation. Towns like Milton Keynes and Hemel Hempstead have become bywords for drab and soulless. Unfairly or not, they became associated with a sense of placelessness and of dislocation. In fact, sociologists have coined the term ‘new town blues’ that captures this phenomenon, and the effect it has on residents of the new towns.

This then creates an intriguing challenge for the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, the body charged with shepherding the quarry into a new, bustling city. How can they avoid the pitfalls of the past and create not just new buildings and structures, but give Ebbsfleet meaning, and make it somewhere that people actually want to live?

Now that Ebbsfleet Garden City is emerging from the ground, perhaps it is time to check in and ask: is Ebbsfleet successfully creating a sense of place?

Aerial shot of the Ebbsfleet development - inline

Image credit: Alamy

“Normally, places exist. Villages, towns and cities exist for very good reasons,” says John Letherland, an urban designer and master planner who has worked on the wider Thames Gateway region, “but the reason Ebbsfleet was chosen was because curiously it was in an area very close to London that was developable – and wasn’t being developed at the time.”

How can developers imbue a new development with meaning? “When you start a big master plan you look for the essence of the place. What could or what does go into making this place a cohesive whole?”

The reality then, is that even for new towns there is rarely a true blank slate as a starting point. “New towns were designed to be a town in a landscape and not a town on a landscape,” says Professor Alan Simson, who worked on another 20th-century new town, Telford. He says that even in what was a mostly ex-industrial area, planners were able to find a starting point by retaining the pit mounds that were created by mining. Instead of levelling them off, as some in government argued for, planners instead embraced them as they added definition to the landscape, and a seed from which the town could be planned.

Simson also points to Milton Keynes, which in its centre has a main road called Midsummer Boulevard, so-called because of a conscious decision by developers to lay it so that on the summer solstice, the sun would shine directly down the road to illuminate a huge oak tree that pre-dated the city.

Looking at the existing landscape can provide that jumping off point for planners. And while this is true for Ebbsfleet too, with development working with an existing lake and the chalk cliffs formed for the quarry, the Development Corporation also faces a much more prosaic challenge: before the body was created, planning permission was already granted to a number of ‘volume’ house builders – the likes of Taylor Wimpey and Bovis Homes – to build out 12,000 homes without the overarching plan the development corporation provides.

Geography, however, is just one part of the puzzle. “Really a sense of place is about people, and activity and what’s happening somewhere,” says Katy Lock, a chartered town planner and communications director of the Town & Country Planning Association, a charity that was originally founded by Howard in 1899 to promote his ideas.

“Creating a sense of place in a new development is a mixture of physical design cues that make a place look unique, but more importantly, the activities and creating that sense of community, right from the beginning with the earliest population,” she explains.

Ian Piper, CEO of Ebbsfleet Development Corporation agrees, saying: “placemaking is this very undefined thing. It is about the quality. It is about the physical but it’s also about people coming together and that sense of community emerging.”

In other words, “if people just go there just to eat and sleep then they never truly take off,” says Letherland, putting it more bluntly.

This means that it should be a goal of planners to knit together a new community from the new residents. And this is exactly > < what the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation has been doing. It operates a Community Investment Fund, which gives grants to new residents to, for example, buy equipment for a new running club, or for helping the local scout group recruit members from the new community.

“We’re just trying to do a small amount to help that community come together initially. And then they will take all that over,” Piper explains.

This desire to create community is also clear in the various master plans for the Garden City. For example, the Eastern Quarry area, which will one day become the site of 6,200 new homes, has been broken up into different ‘villages’, each of which will have its own school and shops.

“The quality of what we call the public realm: the streets, and cycleways, we pay lots of attention to that in particular,” says Piper, “Because these are the shared spaces that people are using, it is often the thing that creates that sense of quality of the place.

“Providing opportunities for people to walk and cycle in attractive environments is really, really important,” he explains. “So everybody has got a small local centre that they can walk to, to buy your pint of milk or your loaf of bread and not be reliant on the car to do that.”

Piper’s focus away from cars is in line with broader modern thinking among planners over what makes for more liveable cities, avoiding the mistakes made by earlier new towns like, perhaps most infamously, Milton Keynes, where the car reigns supreme in a city that is both sprawling and dominated by dual-carriageways and roundabouts (as pictured at the top of the article).

A 2006 report from what was then the Department of Communities and Local Government, on the lessons learned from the earlier generation of New Towns, reached similar conclusions, noting that “denser development, with all facilities within walking distance of residential neighbourhoods, may provide the best conditions in terms of liveability as it is currently understood.”

This reprioritisation has implications for how a 21st-century new town should be laid out, which as the DCLG report points out, is important to get right because once a road is in place, it is the most difficult part of a city to tear up and redirect later on.

A clear example of this is in terms of public transport provision, where roads laid out around a central, higher density ‘finger’ route are more amenable to running buses than housing estates laid out in, for example, radial patterns, because they force residents to walk further or buses to travel further, both of which deter use of public transport.

Is it all just about community activities, public realm and transport? The same DCLG report recognises the complex alchemy of creating a sense of belonging and place, saying: “it should, however, be acknowledged that psychological responses to places are not dependent merely on the physical setting, but are also the product of social, community and economic factors and conditions.”

As a result, it recommends giving attention to something else that Ebbsfleet is taking seriously: art. “Public art could have a major role in creating memorable and legible environments, and thus enhancing community ownership of and individual affiliation to place,” the report concludes.

This is why as you approach the Castle Hill development in Ebbsfleet, you’ll see a large sculpture of an elephant made from bronze wire guarding the entrance. Why an elephant? It’s modelled on one of the area’s residents 400,000 years ago, who was found during an archaeological dig in 2004.

Unsurprisingly though, as with anything that involves intangible benefits like public art, there is the ever-looming question of money. “You become very acutely aware of that,” says Piper. “Is it a good investment of public money in community building, for a piece of art or some high-quality landscaping, where the return you’re going to get is much harder to quantify?”

‘Beautiful is not a term that has generally been used in the built environment.’

Ian Piper, Ebbsfleet Development Corporation

Perhaps surprisingly, he believes that the government may not be as hard-nosed about this as you might expect. Why so? He points to what he sees as an unusual phrase that the government now uses when talking about development: “Building beautiful”.

“Beautiful is not a term that has generally been used in the built environment. We’ll often talk about quality and great placemaking, but they deliberately chose to use the word beautiful,” says Piper. “You don’t create beautiful places if you don’t create places where people want to live.”

In fact, the government’s commitment may go even further. Under Theresa May’s premiership, a ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission was created, and chaired by the late philosopher Roger Scruton. In its final report, published earlier this year, it recommended that ‘beautiful’ placemaking be enshrined in the planning system, and that local authorities take a more strategic view of planning.

In the view of the TCPA’s Katy Lock, there is still a strategic disconnect between these stated intentions and current government policy, which could make delivering a garden city with a real sense of place more challenging.

“The current development model we have is focused on delivering housing units as fast as possible without the long-term investment and long-term perspective needed to create the high-quality places that the nation needs,” she says.

“Ebbsfleet is doing great things in terms of green infrastructure management, and healthy placemaking. But there are also parts of Ebbsfleet which are just being built out by volume house builders without the facilities that are necessary and will end up being completely uninspiring places.”

Ultimately, by 2035, if current plans are put into practice, the quiet environs around Ebbsfleet International station will have been transformed into a bustling town centre. Shops, restaurants, libraries and gyms will fill out the new downtown area, which will be built with dense, walkable apartments for St Pancras commuters.

Further out, much of the rest of the former quarry will have been built out and will be home to tens of thousands of new residents.

This is no doubt an exciting vision, the ambition of the development corporation is clear, and the experience of previous generations of new towns point a path towards creating a real sense of community and place among the new population. But will they have done enough to beat the new town blues? 

You can read more about the Ebbsfleet development online. A PDF of the vision of the area's future is also available.

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