I used one of the fantastic days over the Easter weekend to visit New Ash Green, the 'latter 20th century village in Kent' designed by Eric Lyons for Span, a postwar housing developer.
Simultaneously tucked away in the Kent countryside or right next to the M20, it's a modern housing development built around some traditional notions of place and community. I've learned most about Span and New Ash Green in the last few years, but the reason it caught my interest initially was that it was where my parents lived with me and my sister until I was 5, before moving to Wales. I haven't been back since my gran left there in the early 90s.
Span went bust in the process of building the place, and my parents eventually moved to get away from the commute. But walking around the village, we discovered new amazing spaces around every corner. With the ideas I've formed in this century about sustainable, enjoyable communal living, I was amazed at what was achieved.
Span built around existing trees and woodland, and pushed cars to the perhiphery of the housing areas. In the central spaces, small crofts and landscaped communcal gardens are linked by pathways designed just narrow enough to force an interaction between passing residents.
I've been revisiting my copy of Eric Lyons and Span by Barbara Simms: There are so many great insights from Lyons and the peope who surrounded him, on everything about his practice and methodology. I especially enjoyed some of the structural approaches to encouraging community spirit and sense of place.
Here's an excerpt from the foreword of the book, by Graham Morrisson from also much respected Allies and Morrison Architects:
"In low-cost housing, the two of them were masters of the value of systematic repetition. This was never celebrated in the manner of some of their well-regarded (if over-heroic) contrmporaries, but was used carefully to form elements incomplete in themselves but which, when placed together, would form a whole in which much more might be possible than by the simple sum of individual parts. They knew the value of a well-planted landscape and were unafraid of bringing buildings and lanscape together in deliverately picturesque compositions to the benefit of both."
It's encouraging to see both major parties move towards policies that may see opportunities for New Ash Green style developments to happen elsewhere – it wasn't developed as an 'eco town' or anything of the sort, they didn't exist then. But I've never felt such a connection between building and landscape, and the variety of plant and animal life we saw was amazing. It's a beautiful and peaceful environment, seperated but connected reasonably enough to major places of work.
My only suggestion of criticism would be that it is still too isolated, and it was sad to see the village centre so empty on a public holiday. If we could learn anything it would probably be that we need to go further when we plan spaces like this – Span were groundbreaking in designing a whole village, from positioning of kitchen sinks (so people could wave out of their windows) to the paths through village orchards and meadows, but they were limited in the wider ecosystem. Our New Towns of the future need fast, functioning and frequent public transport links, and enough local interest to draw surrounding people into the town centres for leisure time, so that over time people feel less need to leave at all as the economy develops.
We don't just need New Towns, we need new train stations, new roads, new broadband connections, and new means of generating power for them. I'm starting to wonder if some of the money that's been suggested for HS2 might be better spent doing this kind of thing.