Skip to main content

Key learnings from Building Garden Communities 2024


On Tuesday, 66 Portland Place saw local councils, designers, place-makers and community champions come together for the 2024 Building Garden Communities Conference. A meeting of minds to share best practice, air challenges and dream big dreams for this unique type of living.

As we begin to unlock land for development and show the long-term impact on residents of living in nature-rich, well-connected neighbourhoods, we can change the way people view their homes, leisure and working patterns.

Panel discussions covered modern methods of construction (MMC) and the role of build to rent. We discussed the benefits of modular and off-site construction, shedding a light on the fact that 80% of the costs in a typical 100-year home are in the operation and long term maintenance.

From a social impact perspective, the ability to adapt and control your home is shown to have measurable improvements to your quality of life and happiness. Lower household bills, due to improved building fabrics available through MMC will alleviate economic pressures, giving people greater spending freedoms.

When talking about the role of build-to-rent, the panel were keen to highlight the fact that many people living in these homes are not the transient communities we label them as. Most have been in their homes over five years, plenty of time to build connections, become part of clubs and create meaningful impact within the local area.

In the Building Through Change panel, key themes included tackling the politics of the place and not being deterred by multi-regional development. The Gilston and Harlow Garden Town is currently engaging five local authorities under Naisha Polaine’s stewardship. The main battles this particular project is facing is the local plan system.

Many residents don’t engage and share their ideas until they can physically see diggers on the site. By this point the development has been set in stone for five or more years through the local plan. Instead, we need to understand how we can get people talking about development at the early stages of policy, giving them chance to shape masterplans rather than simply objecting to change as a whole.

A firm undercurrent to all discussions was the fact that policy surrounding planning is changing so frequently and rapidly that it’s hard to get anything done. When the planning service is already overstretched, the ever moving goalposts make this an increasingly hard role. Equally we are not tapping into the swathes of young people studying planning and placemaking at university.

In the first of the final two panel sessions, we focused on the environment, neutrality, net gain. The panel explored the potential to make huge steps through the new BNG laws and zero carbon targets. This was a hopeful session, showing that as legislation does shape the industry direction, development will benefit. In a garden community context we can of course see the benefits of communities founded on a network of green spaces, prioritising space for nature and open spaces for people.

As Social Impact Lead at Meeting Place, Ruth Skidmore presented her session focusing on Stewardship and Social Value, an animated, and colourful discussion to end the day. Anna Aldous (Mills & Reeve) and Sally-Ann Logan (Otterpool Park LLP) shared ideas around whether we should have a stewardship ombudsman and how we can ensure long-term community investment in garden communities. Peter Henry and Richard Thomas helped us grapple with the benefits of public spaces and amenities within communities, showing how these can drive sales of homes but more importantly foster a long-term connection to place.

Ruth’s key takeaways focused on finding the community voice and giving it space to be heard through equitable engagement.

When asked what the challenges are in engaging with residents when planning new communities, Ruth said:

  • Looking beyond our unconscious bias to understand local need, driven by the data and conversations. 
  • Allowing for genuine dialogue and hosting events and engagement forums that are equitable and accessible, through understanding the pressures people face surrounding time, money and sense of belonging.
  • Showing action and leaving legacy so that people don’t become fatigued and feel incentivised to talk to you when you want to engage with them again.

Reflecting on the day, the RIBA headquarters felt like the perfect place to discuss what is next in the designing of places for people to live, work and play. In a building that has hosted the dreams and ideas of some of the architectural greats, we were also able to dream big dreams about what placemaking could look like.

While Ebenezer Howard set the blueprints for garden communities, the development industry now has the opportunity to bring new life and adapt these methods for a modern way of living. With that in mind we can create places that improve health and wellbeing, tackle the cost of living and mental health crisis faced by many, and most importantly provide much needed homes that don’t isolate or exclude, but actively bring people together for good.

We’re the Meeting Place of deep knowledge and creative thinking. And we want to hear from you.