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Article written by Ivan Tennant  for the magazine of the Academy of Urbanism, Summer 2011 edition. 

The demise of those eco towns that were conceived as ‘new towns’ located in greenfield sites away from established settlements in favour of ‘urban extensions’ has been broadly welcomed by the urban design community as a move consistent with sustainability because such settlements can make use of existing infrastructure, rather than building new. However, while such developments may exploit the physical infrastructure, there is evidence that many do little to exploit  the cultural assets present within the site and in the surrounding area. 

This finding has come to light as a result of recent work Plan Projects has been doing at large sites such as Trumpington Meadows on the southern fringe of Cambridge and Great Western Park outside Didcot where we were asked to assess what role cultural planning could play in the delivery of these new communities.

It is worth considering what we mean by cultural planning. Briefly, Plan works with an ‘anthropological’, rather than the ‘arts plus’ notion of culture. That is to say, our staring point is not how can the arts and related activities can contribute to the conception of new settlements, but rather, how a given place defines culture – through the values of its people and the embedded character of the place as revealed in landscape, architecture and settlement patterns  -  and how may this definition be used as a starting point for developing programmes of activity on site that will support the development of the new community across a ‘triple bottom line’ of economic, social and environmental measures.

It has been commented that one hallmark of successful development is one in which the character of the new settlement rests on allowing intelligent contextual linkages and relationships to form, providing a sound basis for identity, civic self-respect and social and economic opportunities to emerge. Many schemes trumpet these values without delivering them on the ground; volume house-builders struggle with it because their business model, based on short term realisation of profit, does not allow the long term stewardship that cultural planning often demands. Development in a cultural vacuum produces the unimaginative schemes that typify too much residential development in the UK.  I have set out below some ideas that, if followed, will result in urban extension schemes to benefit not only from the physical advantages of a close proximity to an established place, but also the cultural advantages

- Encouraging local authorities to take seriously their role as stewards of the urban realm over the longer term, starting with establishing clear and enforceable principles for how an urban extension project should be designed and delivered
 

- Celebrating the subtle and the small scale; there should be a recognition that each element of the built environment carries with it a cultural implication that serves to either enrich, or erode, the social and economic wealth for the people who live there
 

-Be daring and bold in the use of new and original ideas for community engagement – a cultural programme that animates public open space and keeps people engaged with the places where they live.

-The local authority should facilitate this process, for example setting up a mechanism that allows for ‘participatory budgeting’


-Building in a sense of heterogeneity by breaking up larger schemes into smaller areas to allow development by different developers and space for self-build on the part of the community
 

-Seeking to optimising the cultural value of public space by developing programmes of cultural activity that keep green spaces, for example, in active use during as much of the day as possible
 

-Fostering a local ‘civic economy’ to provide public services, such as maintenance of the public realm, and integrate the new settlement into local social and economic networks

Many of these ideas foresee a different approach to development, one that does not sit easily with established practice, but it is high time the knowledge poor activity of the delivery of ‘units of housing’ is replaced with the knowledge intensive activity of founding new communities.
  

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