Lessons from British and French New Towns: Paradise Lost?

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(18 chapters)


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Part I: The New Towns and Policymakers


Many of the challenges experienced by the New Town remain the same 50 years on: funding major infrastructure, land acquisition and planning still requires national political and policy support. In the scramble to deliver the thousands of new homes needed, the British government is revisiting policy levers and programmes of the past. Ebbsfleet, a large new settlement in Kent, two decades into realisation, shows how subsequent government visions overlay the historic New Town principles, the characteristics underpinning Garden Cities or the newly emerging Healthy New Towns (HNT). Rediscovering New Town design principles has prompted a reinvention of the historic planning mechanisms that delivered them. The influence of policy actors is contrasted to Ebbsfleet Development Corporation’s emergent role as the practical delivery agency. Comparing criteria for recent government new settlement programmes reveals the Housing Ministry’s rapid shift from promoting sustainable development to facilitating private-sector investment in exchange for guaranteed housing delivery. A similar dilution is seen in the HNT Network, where the New Towns’ provision of health-giving environments for populations escaping from city slums has been supplanted by a broader (more diffuse) facilitation of healthy wellbeing. In a fluid policy context, Ebbsfleet’s adoption of these principles could cynically be read as market-led place rebranding not reinvention. Will the historic lessons of the early New Towns have been learnt so that the new wave of Garden Cities or Healthy New Towns fare better?


There is a sense of loss among planners, community workers and built environment professionals that the enthusiasm and utopian thinking of the post-war New Towns have largely disappeared. Contemporary planning is struggling with a reality of pro-market ideologies and disempowered local government. The utopian thinking that went into the New Towns was part of a modernist project focused on planning future urban spaces and communities founded not just on new buildings and innovative design but on a social mission – an egalitarian ethos that intended the New Towns to deliver social progress. This essay explores the loss of this ethos using the framework of ‘hauntology’ developed by the cultural critic Mark Fisher.


This chapter exposes the official view that seems to portray New Towns in the UK as unbalanced communities built on the premise of a failed statist policy but it does not accept these views as fact. A principal critique is that the historiography of New Towns has been predominantly written by experts (academics and otherwise), providing a limited interpretation of the legacy of (living in) New Towns. This chapter uses a selection of key experts and helicopter specialists who contribute to its legacy through academic writing, policy reports and professional advice in their role as planners and architects (including the author/myself a chartered British architect). Experts and helicopter specialists were instrumental in writing and disseminating a specific understanding of the New Towns programme to unpack the stereotypes that were constructed around New Towns, which have (as a result) contributed to their so-called decline. This chapter also questions whether certain issues are due to a biased misrepresentation of the New Towns narrative, and if an alternative perspective is available.

The characterisation of New Towns as communities doomed for failure in their ideological pursuit of balance has been thematically classified as belonging to five stereotypes and each is discussed in a separate section: New Towns represent a statist approach to planning; A case of New Town Blues or suburban dystopia? Design driven stereotypes of New Towns as mostly Modernist projects; New Towns are nothing more than large council estates; Land-banking over Compulsory Purchase Orders.

Presenting the data in such a way permits a deconstruction of ‘balance’ as a lofty abstraction into five clear example-based observations that assist the evaluation of the traditional historiography and writings of British New Towns (Fig. 3.1).


David Fée contrasts the revival of the New Towns principles under various forms in the UK over the last 20 years with the absence of debate in France. He first reviews the history of the creation of the New Towns and their iconic status in the new French Fifth Republic born in 1958. Then, he examines the housing situation today which on the face of it would warrant the development of new settlements to meet the housing needs of the country. This paradox is then accounted for by referring to a different demographic context to the 1960s and 1970s and to the transfer of planning powers from the 1980s on from central to local government. These are deemed to be incompatible with a new top-down planning experiment on the size of New Towns. He then moves on to the issue of contemporary official planning principles that emphasise sustainability and densification that are thought to run against the possibility of building on green fields. This is compounded by the decision of many councils to accommodate new housing in the shape of ecoquartiers (eco-neighbourhoods) or environmentally sensitive urban extensions built by private and public developers in keeping with the local development plan. Finally, the question of public opinion and New Towns is raised and he argues that their association in the public’s mind with post-war high-rise urban extensions makes it difficult to repeat the experiment.

Part II: The New Towns and Their Residents


This chapter explores how knowledge of landscape has been produced by different groups of interests in the Mark 3 partnership New Town of Warrington, UK, referring specifically to a neighbourhood called Birchwood. I introduce my on-going research project Days of the New Town and present findings as a point of encounter between knowledge of landscape as professional expertise and as socially lived experience. I place this encounter within the theoretical context of Lefebvre’s writings on social space. Specifically, I use his spatial triad, three overlapping concepts on how space is produced as lived, conceived and perceived (see The Production of Space 1973 translated into English in 1991). Having grown up in Birchwood, I carry with me a knowledge of this space in terms of lived experience. Whilst I do not call upon personal experience in this chapter, the aim of bringing about a greater awareness of the New Town as a space of lived experience has been a motivational factor in researching and writing about the ways we formulate our knowledge of New Towns: knowledge which can co-exist with the official archives of New Town Development Corporations.


This chapter examines the similarities and differences in ways of life and experiences of residents in Milton Keynes and Cergy-Pontoise. Both New Towns resulted from efforts to create a form of urbanity that combines the attractions of urban and suburban life. In the tension between urbanity and suburbanity, many planners emphasised urbanity. To many new residents, their New Town was attractive precisely because of its suburban character. Using empirical material drawn from interviews with middle-class residents, this chapter looks at socio-spatial practices and experiences in the private domain of the home, in neighbourhoods and in public spaces and in the wider urban region. It is suggested that ways of living are conditioned by the structure and design of a city’s spaces, but people do not automatically conform to them. Their practices deviate from the city as planned and designed because residents will add meanings of their own to it. The chapter also reveals that there are differences in ‘suburban urbanity’ between both New Towns. The planning concepts and the daily lives of residents reflect cultural values attributed to suburbanity and urbanity in England and France. If the suburban middle class’s practices in the two cities reveal similar patterns, there are differences as well. In Milton Keynes, the emphasis is more on the private domain, and this causes residents to utilise and experience this city in a strikingly natural fashion. In Cergy-Pontoise, residents have a strong involvement with both the public domain and their own home.


In the space of 50 years, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (SQY) has seen a variety of urban development contexts. In the 1970s, the initial master plan revolved around a hierarchical organisation of hubs, and the priority went to the economic question. It also created a specific public road system, along with housing districts endowed with a wide range of amenities to provide a new ‘way of life’. Fifty years later, a number of points typical of SQY’s specific urban nature can be identified. This chapter mentions three of them: an urban ‘dividing line’, the organisation of urbanisation into small towns (urban units) and the aesthetic and environmental qualities of the town. These urban planning qualities have been addressed by the recent Comprehensive Local Development Plan (2016–2018). However, other points such as public transport, driving conditions, nightlife and quality of the green spaces are the topics discussed by experts and citizens in the local conversation.

Part III: The New Towns in their Wider Regional and International Context


As the 75th anniversary of the British New Towns programme approaches, this chapter assesses the contribution that London New Towns have made to accommodating population growth in south-east England and examines the extent to which the original New Town principles have left a distinctive legacy in terms of social composition and self-containment. According to the evidence presented in this chapter, the London New Towns have tended to become less distinctive compared to their regional context, but at the same time they retain elements of the features that marked them out as different 40 years ago.


Reflecting their extensive domestic programmes, the UK and France became major exporters of New Town planning expertise during the later twentieth century. Yet each country delivered its expertise in markedly different ways. Drawing on the UK’s own New Towns programme begun in 1946, a public-sector international New Town planning agency, the British Urban Development Services Unit, was created in 1975. However, it quickly proved unsuccessful and was abandoned in 1978. Instead, national expertise was exported by UK private planning consultants, with strong government encouragement. By contrast France, whose own Villes Nouvelles programme started in 1969, created a single public-sector planning agency, the Groupement d’intéret économique Villes Nouvelles de France, in 1984 that operated successfully overseas (latterly under a different name) until 2013. The chapter briefly considers the international efforts of the two countries, targeting oil-exporting countries, their respective former colonial empires and elsewhere. It also interprets their different approaches in light of their different political histories. Thus, the UK was much earlier affected by neo-liberal, pro-market political ideologies that instinctively favoured private- rather than public-sector approaches. This was especially so given the already established position of its private planning consultancies both in international work and in preparing the original master plans of many UK New Towns. In France, by contrast, the public sector remained strong and structured the export of planning expertise while private planning consultancies were much less important. The chapter ends by briefly considering the wider impacts of the two countries’ different approaches.


British New Towns represent not a single homogeneous set of experiences, but lessons learned derive as much from their differences as their similarities. The chapter studies two British New Towns– Harlow and Thamesmead – identifying the main features of their master plans and analysing their trajectories and outcomes as actually built.

Harlow could be regarded as a typical British New Town. Designated in 1947, it is one of the first New Towns built around London, following design principles of the first (Mark I) generation. In contrast, Thamesmead was built within the city limits of London, but could be included in the second generation of the New Towns.

The towns’ plans have a number of commonalities, in the provision of green areas, employment, commercial areas and services for their population; but their locations, urban structure, land use and physical relation to their surroundings are quite different as they followed different concepts and evolving planning ideas. Even more striking contrast may be found in the way that these towns have grown and matured in different ways. This chapter therefore scrutinises the two towns’ plans, and what was actually built, drawing lessons for New Towns more generally.

Part IV: The New Towns and Heritage


This chapter analyses the interaction between two important movements in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century, the international contribution to urban planning through the New Towns programme and the particular contribution of British artists to public art and how these two parallel movements intertwine. The chapter begins by considering the definition of public art and the marked changes to the work purchased and commissioned in the immediate post-war period. The chapter then considers how the development of post-war New Towns has created new opportunities for contemporary artists, whose work had previously been confined to the gallery. In some cases the public art is integral to the architecture, and this opportunity has since become a threat to the future of many of these artworks. The optimism that defined post-war planning gave way to more negative perceptions of some New Towns as sites of boredom, monotony and even decay, from a failure to deliver on their initial promises of good jobs; a clean, modern environment; and supportive welfare state. In the second half of the chapter are examples of current public art activity in New Towns, and the challenges to sustain these in a time of public sector austerity. Finally, the chapter looks forward, and at the potential to sustain and reinvigorate public art in New Towns into the future.


The development of public art in French New Towns in the 1970s and 1980s was one of the most spectacular forms of state intervention in urban policy. Along with the new architecture programmes, the hundreds of works of art that adorn the public realm of the French New Towns help to differentiate them from the grands ensembles. This public art, which was highly publicised at the time, represents a heritage intrinsically linked to the urban history of New Towns but also to the history of French cultural policies at the end of the twentieth century. Artistic and town planning innovations underlie many public art projects. Artists and town planners participated, on a city scale, in the cultural developments that sought to respond to the expectations of the May 1968 crisis. In New Towns, the role of art was not simply to provide a backdrop to beautify the city but also to contribute to the success of new urban neighbourhoods. This involved placing visual landmarks in the urban space, confronting the residents with living art (painted walls, sculpted staircases, light paths, etc.).

The appropriation of these works of art by the public and councils was far from unanimous. It was only at the beginning of the twenty-first century that a heritage reflection emerged and led to a list of works of art being drawn up, with a view to protecting them. With the disappearance of state supervision over certain New Towns (1998–2002), damaged works has become a stigma in the public realm. A policy of restoration is being therefore introduced in certain New Towns, with public art participating in the identity of councils that do not hesitate to present themselves as ‘contemporary towns’ and take on the restoration or achievement of certain works that they now consider to be their heritage.


Launched in the 1960s, the nine French New Towns are generally considered as a pragmatic response to the urban growth of the Paris region, before it was extended as a national policy to other regions (Merlin, 1997). If their creation is usually placed in the continuity of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement and of previous New Towns experiments, especially those conducted in England, this historical lineage has never been appreciated in terms of architectural and urban research. Were the French New Towns projects formulated against these early ideas and models or, on the contrary, planned in light of them? Moreover, what are the main characteristics of their projects, their points of resemblance and particularities? These questions, often raised by observers, cannot be answered without a comprehensive knowledge of each New Town’s story, which is not yet available. But a renewed comprehension of their common history can be proposed by analysing their creation in light of the French urban debate of the twentieth century, and by giving special attention to two housing projects which, in Évry and Le Vaudreuil, were presented as ‘landmark operations of contemporary urban planning’ (New Towns Program, 1971).


New Towns were exemplars of Utopian social and economic visions allied to Modernist ideas of design and architecture. Initially hailed as the answer to the ailments of the historic European city and the urgent need for housing after the War, they came under considerable scrutiny when the ideas of New Urbanism on design, density and community became one of the most vocal critics on Modernist town planning.

The UK Arts and Humanities Research Council recently funded a New Town Heritage Research Network Project. Drawing on case studies from the network, this chapter will refer to the original questions posed by the above-mentioned network project: How are the Utopian social and economic visions which accompanied the New Town Movement embodied in the masterplanning, urban design and architecture of the New Towns? How can the New Town architectural and urban design heritage be evaluated? How can future planning for these towns accommodate and build on this heritage in a meaningful way, and be integrated into regeneration and growth? How can key stakeholders in New Towns create an identity and pride for their town as well as a sense of belonging, by building cultural capital through their heritage, including architecture, public art and cultural activities?

This chapter will analyse how New Towns and their associated Modernist Heritage have been perceived by different audiences and are positioned in the overall heritage discourse including the question of a shared European Heritage.


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