Do Eco-Towns have a future (in the UK and elsewhere)?

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

“Although currently out-of-favour with the UK government, eco-towns may still offer the best hope for creating sustainable communities”, stated the Economist recently in an article but eco-towns are not the answer. They are not the answer to the UK housing crisis nor the answer to tackling climate change.

BedZED eco-developement (not town) When it comes to the lack of (affordable) homes in the UK we best look first at the millions of empty homes (and other properties that could be converted into homes and squatters can show us the way there) rather than building new.

And when it comes to tackling climate change by have eco-friendly homes then retrofitting existing homes, and greening our cities, towns and villages, as far as homes and buildings are concerned must come before building new eco-towns, as they were planned by the Blair/Brown administration in the UK.

The UK has enough empty homes, let alone other properties that can be converted, capable of housing all of Britain's homeless and those of the Republic of Ireland. We just must bring them back into use.

The proposal of the Blair/Brown clique never had anything to do with new homes and homes that were environmentally friendly but all to do with giving jobs to the boys. The boys in this case the builders that were going to be awarded the contracts such as Barratts and Laing. That is why self-build was taken out of the equation from the very start.

Environmentally conscious people had been asked to be included in the eco-town process but as self-build projects and, to my knowledge, were rejected as the towns were also to be in areas chosen by the government (and the builders).

While eco-towns are a nice concept and the BedZED development in Beddington, Surrey often being citied as an eco-town, and also a certain part of Freiburg in Germany, they are NOT towns but small parts of towns or just, as in the case of BedZED, a “green” building development.

We can only green our towns as they are and, as already said, there are enough buildings available that are empty, including millions of homes, that just need to be refurbished and rejuvenated.

The infrastructure in Britain is indeed in dire straights but that too only needs the right kind of will and, ideally, the enthusiasm of the right kind of people doing things for themselves, and that especially as to “homes" and communities, rather than being done by government appointed builders and contractors. Most people only need to funds to get things done, or the material and tools and things soon would change. But that is not even on the radar of the government. No one can get backhanders from such a scheme now.

Taking a leaf out of the book of Christiania in Copenhagen may be a good idea here too. Those folks, who often were and still are referred to as Hippies and Pot Heads, were and are great visionaries. They took over an abandoned military barracks and turned it into a viable community. And the UK surely has a fair number of empty military bases and military housing complexes. Ah, but they need to be sold, don't they, to make money for the treasury. Prime development land many of those bases are and thus they could not possibly be converted.

There are too many brown envelopes and other favors flying about of which our planners and politicians, local and central, happen to be the recipients for this to be utopian. But it is only utopian if we permit the crony culture to continue.

Christiania is now in existence, though never officially recognized by the Danish state, since the late 1970s or thereabouts and, while the authorities at times have been considering evicting the residents of that area, they have let it be.

More than likely this is also do to the fact that it would cause some international condemnation and, in addition to that, the state would then be responsible to give homes to those they evict. Thus the status quo is much more preferable.

No one, bar those of us in the movement, it would seem, can see that Christiania (and others) could be a great example as to how sustainable intentional communities could be created from old, rather than having to build new complexes.

Yes, brownfield sites and especially former barracks and bases might have some contamination present but that should not create an obstacle and we should make use of existing places before building new, especially in the open countryside.

Making sustainability ‘part of what we do’ is something the Campaign to Protect Rural England was adamant about back in 2008 when the original eco-towns were being considered.

‘Urgent consideration should be given to improving the environmental performance of all development, new and existing,’ they said in a news release back in 2008 and the CPRE is still committed to this notion. It is a notion that we all should support.

Green communities, villages and buildings should have a place in the future but they must come out of the existing cities, towns, and villages, and not be, necessarily, newly created on greenbelt land and in the countryside.

We must bring community back to the places where we live and where we work and we must work again where we live and not live miles, often tens to hundreds of miles, away from where we work.

Community is more important, much more important, than green housing though the latter is also of importance. However, when we can reduce the distance between home and work, between home and school, between home and shops, and make areas walkable and cycleable we will have already won by miles as far as reduction of CO2 emissions and other pollutants are concerned.

At the core of the original eco-town concept was community, and this requires more than a mind for ‘green’ housing and one of the big opportunities with eco-towns is actually around sustainable lifestyle and the idea of creating healthy homes for ordinary working people.

Though much of the focus has been on eco-technology aspects of such developments simple things like being able to grow your own food, walk your children to school and afford heating are what such communities are about.

But this is much better achieved by making the places where we currently live sustainable rather than building new and there are enough homes to go around if we but have the political will to bring them back on stream.

Why is the Ocean Estate in Stepney, in the East End of London, or the Robing Hood Garden one in Polar, also in East London, are going to be demolished? In the case of the Ocean Estate the story is for “redevelopment” but in the end of 2012 nothing had happened as yet. But the people have had all been evicted bar one or two that defied the order and squatters that had moved into the empty flats.

The Ocean Estate was a real community, a vibrant community, and most residents had no intention of leaving. However, the governments decided to break up this community and to claim the place is to be redeveloped.

As for the Robin Hood Estate the people also do not wish to leave but the site is to be sold to be developed for expensive home and offices for the London Docklands. That's what it is all about. Not because of a bit of asbestos in the walls and such.

Both those housing estates would be a great opportunity to convert an area, without moving people from their homes, into a sustainable “green” community. But no, it is far too valuable as development land.

Rather build new eco-towns somewhere in the middle of almost nowhere and hope that people will move there.

Time to bury the eco-town idea and green our existing communities. Period.

© 2012