Azara Blog: Towns built on greenfield sites are allegedly unsustainable

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Date published: 2008/06/28

The Financial Times has a few anti-eco-town articles today and needless to say, one of them is by their architectural critic, Edwin Heathcote:

Eco has become a prefix which, when attached to any other word, imbues it with an automatic moral authority. Yet the idea of an eco-town is spurious.

Lord Rogers, one of the few powerful and persistent advocates of sustainability and good design in the Lords, recently launched a stinging attack on eco-towns, describing them as the "biggest mistake this government could make".

On top of that, residents around the designated sites - each with a potential for 20,000 homes - are protesting loudly. So, too, is the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which believes the loss of agricultural land and beautiful landscapes would be unacceptable.

The problem is that an eco-town, built on a greenfield site, is inherently unsustainable.

A new town demands an enormous outlay of energy in its new infrastructure, the public buildings required to sustain civil life and the homes themselves.

Civil engineering and architecture consume energy, which takes centuries to claw back through energy efficiency savings.

Designed by the architect Bill Dunster, BedZed is sustainable because it is carefully integrated with the city's existing infrastructure, the transport, the shops, the amenities.

The problem for housebuilders is that eco-features are seen as an add-on.

Heathcote at least seems to define "unsustainable". But he makes the bald claim that it takes "centuries to claw back" the "enormous outlay of energy", without providing any justification for this statement. And it is not at all clear that building on "brownfield" sites is any better in this regard. So BedZed also took a whacking great amount of energy to build. Indeed, it would be interesting to see if there is any activity on the planet that is really "sustainable" under this kind of definition (or just about any definition of that dreadful buzz word).

In the Cambridge area there are two proposed eco-towns. One, Northstowe, is north of Cambridge and is already in the pipeline and is supported by the local politicians and bureaucracy. The second, Hanley Grange, is south of Cambridge and is violently opposed by the local politicians and bureaucracy (and local residents). Hanley Grange is a greenfield site. Northstowe is deemed to be a brownfield site because some of it was once an airbase. But most of it is just as greenfield as Hanley Grange. (The Cambridge airport site, which is stupidly supposed to be converted to housing, is another brownfield site which is in fact a greenfield site.)

As Heathcote says, the local residents and the CPRE are hysterical about most of these new proposed eco-towns (not just Hanley Grange). But that is because they are always hysterical about building anything. They think that they should be able to live in a nice (highly subsidised) rural area but that nobody else should be allowed to. They have no serious arguments. Indeed, Hanley Grange is a perfect example of a site which is not by any stretch of the imagination a "beautiful landscape". It is of course currently agricultural land, because pretty much all greenfield sites are such, and this is neither here nor there. Perhaps the houses that these people live in should be demolished, so that more land can be converted to this allegedly wonderful agricultural ideal.

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