Poundbury, the Prince of Wales’ model urban development on the edge of Dorchester, is as stimulating as it is controversial. Go there with a group, and everybody will comment differently about the place. I was there recently as part of a team led by Willie Miller Urban Design for the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. It was a fascinating experience.
Poundbury is an extension to the small county town of Dorchester. It is being built on farmland by the Prince of Wales and his team of designers – planning began in the late 1980s, with construction starting in 1993. Building is still going on, and is planned to continue until 2025.
part of a distinguished tradition
The Prince’s representatives themselves describe the development as an exemplar. It is in fact the latest in a distinguished tradition of planned model settlements across the UK. From the late eighteenth century New Lanark on the River Clyde, nineteenth century Saltaire near Bradford, through early twentieth century Port Sunlight, Letchworth and Gretna – and others besides – these settlements represent attempts by their developers and designers to create a utopian model of urban development. Each is a physical design response to particular social concerns at the time – such as education, better housing for workers, and access to open space and a green environment.
In the case of Poundbury, the concerns could be described as reducing our reliance on the private car, better placemaking, and creating ‘mixed use’ urban development. In other words not just housing, or offices, or industry – but providing homes, jobs and community facilities all in one neighbourhood which is small enough to get around on foot.
Poundbury also seeks to promote a specific architectural look or style, based on neo-vernacular, traditional building design from pre-Modern days. (It is around this Vision of Britain that much of Poundbury’s controversy is centred – controversy that is amply covered elsewhere on the web. Just google Poundbury architecture and you’ll soon see some heated debate.)
I don’t want to get involved in a debate about the architecture. But in terms of urban design, Poundbury is a fascinating case study at a number of levels – the creation of pedestrian-friendly streets, the relationship between parking, gardens and density, and the sheer attention to detail that is apparent wherever you look. Take a look at the slideshow below and you’ll get a flavour of what I mean.
mixed use and employment
Another aspect of Poundbury which is less commented on is its success at creating not only homes but also jobs. In other words, something more akin to a community rather than simply a housing estate.
There are currently around 1,500 residents and 1,000 people working there. When complete in 2025, there will be 5,000 residents and 2,000 jobs. Employment is varied: shops, offices, a pub, B&B, workshops, light industry, an old people’s home… Some businesses, like the cereal factory and some offices, are in dedicated buildings. Other smaller businesses occupy ground floors with residential above, often flats.
This is an impressive feat – integrating business and employment uses into new urban areas is one of planning’s most difficult challenges. It is relatively easy to building housing estates (certainly bad ones), but building communities with employment is rather more difficult. For this reason alone, Poundbury’s success in delivering mixed use deserves to be studied in greater detail – it’s certainly something I would like to find out more about.
This begs the question of how replicable the Poundbury model is elsewhere in the UK. Being part of a team led by Willie Miller Urban Design who are working for the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment on their urban extension at Cumnock in Ayrshire, this issue of replicability is one that I am particularly interested in. Cumnock is very different from Dorchester: one is a former mining town which has been economically depressed for decades, the other is a small county town which has more jobs than residents to fill them.
There is no doubt that new development at Cumnock can be a design exemplar for Scotland, employing similar principles to Poundbury but adapted for a Scottish context. The close working relationship with Council officers that has already emerged through the Prince’s Foundation’s Enquiry by Design workshops is a very positive start to the design process.
More challenging – but not impossible – is the Foundation’s commitment to incorporate sustainable economic uses into the Cumnock proposals. Fortunately, the Foundation has a mechanism to help in this process – engaging the local community and businesses. Using this engagement to understand the aspirations and constraints of local people will help us start to identify what needs to be done to build sustainable businesses. Watch this space as the project develops over the coming years.
For more information on Poundbury, look at these links:
wikipedia provides general background
the Prince’s Foundation website describes the development of the settlement
Poundbury.org.uk is the official online guide to living and working in Poundbury, with information on local businesses