Smarter growth and the English country town

In an elegy for the country town in 'The Legacy of England', which Batsford republished during the last war, EH Mottram showed how battles for power over the centuries had forged the character of a typical town. Yet, as Clive Rouse pointed out in a companion volume 'The Old Towns of England' "Their beauty, built up over all these years, can be destroyed in a few weeks by a clearance order printed on a half-sheet of newspaper: and our own apathy and lack of appreciation are contributory causes."

Paradoxically, after the war ended, continental towns such as Freiburg in South West Germany set about restoring their battered centres to look as if nothing had ever changed, while in Britain we embraced the forces of change, and sought to accommodate the car and modern forms of retailing. The profit to be gained from redevelopment tended to win out, and even the best of our historic towns usually contain some ugly 60s shopping precincts and ungainly blocks of flats. The price of saving the villages, was in many cases to sacrifice the character of the country town in the name of progress.

Now the search for sites for housing growth will inevitably focus attention on the potential of many smaller towns. Matthew Taylor MP, in his 'Review of the Rural Economy and Affordable Housing' talks about creating "a generation of new communities, similar to Poundbury, the Prince of Wales's model village". He rightly argues for focusing development in places where there is already a sufficiency of public transport (and hence avoids the controversy that has surrounded the location of possible Eco-towns).

Most historic towns and cities are either on railway lines, or not far from stations with regular services to other cities. Some, like Street in Somerset, have large redundant industrial sites, and interestingly Crest Nicholson are currently building a development of highly insulated 'eco homes'. Others, like Ely, have areas of marginal farmland close to rivers and railway stations, that could provide a much better choice of housing, and in the process help strengthen the local economy. There are also many, like St Albans or Cirencester, with central surface level car parks that are crying out for mixed use higher density schemes that would attract households without children to live in the heart of the town.

But what should the character be? Is it enough, as in Cotswold towns like Witney, to ensure every house is clad in stone (real or reconstituted), and fits in with a Design Guide based on the traditional vernacular. Or should the model be Poundbury, where there is a virtual zoo of architectural styles, tamed by a network of traditional looking streets and closes? In my view neither model will succeed in enabling historic towns to absorb growth in ways that strengthen both their appeal and the local economy, and that also anticipate future demands. Something radically different is called for.

The Cambridgeshire Quality Growth Charter is trying to show a different way forward. In the section covering Character, one of four Cs, the idea is to create 'Places with distinctive neighbourhoods and where people create a pride of place'. Inspired by new urban extensions like Rieselfeld and Vauban in Freiburg or Vathorst and Nieuwland in Amersfoort in the Netherlands, the organisations that are signing up to the charter are aiming to create something quite different (and more in line with the tradition of innovation exemplified by Letchworth or the post-war Span estates). The models we have examined, to establish their DNA so to speak, are essentially forward looking and climate-proofed. They create environments in which children learn to socialise and grow up well, with communal areas that encourage interaction. While they may not have the tidiness of Poundbury or a volume house-builders' estate, they do have that organic or timeless quality that characterises the medieval hearts of our historic towns.

In the HTF's timely conference on Growth in Historic Towns, we will be debating how to secure 'smarter growth' in which development encourages and supports the changes in behaviour required to live a much better and more sustainable life. To do this we need plenty more examples of places that could provide the models for 21st Century Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods.

Dr Nicholas Falk founder director of URBED (Urban and Economic Development), co-author with David Rudlin of Building the 21st Century Home (new edition 2009), and one of the authors of the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth, which Cambridgeshire Horizons is promoting