Poundbury and adaptable communities

Doug Sanders writes on Poundbury, the New Urbanist community begun in 1993 by King Charles III:

Poundbury offers a window into the mind of the new King. It was the controversial test bed for his outspoken ideas about architecture and urban planning, ecology and community. It has been a highly lucrative part of the portfolio of property-development and retail ventures that made up his business empire, now passed on to his son William.

And, you realize after spending a day or two here, Poundbury is meant to be a statement—about the importance of tradition and its place in a modern high-tech world, about the relationship between community and authority, and, by extension, about how Charles envisions institutions such as the monarchy, and imagines them functioning during his time on the throne. …

“Personally, I like living here because you can live in a nice Victorian house that doesn’t have all the thermal and energy problems of a real Victorian house,” says architect Duncan Jagger as he picks up his two small kids from the Prince of Wales school. He’s not an anti-modernist, but, as he notes, neoclassical house designs and rural-village streetscapes have been a popular fashion in housing developments for decades, and master-planned towns are certainly nothing new in Britain. …

But Poundbury is bound to be judged differently, because it was meant to be a proof of one man’s values.

On one hand, it is a very progressive place by urban-planning standards. It is built to be very walkable, with a high population density, no yards surrounding houses, and streets designed to deter fast driving – there are no lines on the roads or signs beside them, so drivers have to concentrate. It is a mixed-use town, with retail and residential sharing the same space, including urban-style flats on top of shops. It is very ecological, with, for example, a regeneration plant that generates electricity from waste. And it’s theoretically “tenure agnostic,” so you can’t visually tell the social-housing flats from million-pound luxury homes. …

Charles did believe that the wedding of aesthetic and organizational tradition with social progress would create a tight-knit place, on a human scale, that would foster a more harmonious community. And in the view of many of the people who live here, it has.

Leon Krier, Poundbury’s lead architect and planner, wrote ten years prior to Poundbury’s opening that communities should be built to human-scale and to be adaptable rather than premised on a single model of human/economic behavior. Krier wrote in Architectural Design, in a piece titled Urban Components, that:

“[T]he whole of Paris is a pre-industrial city which still works, because it is so adaptable, something the creations of the 20th century will never be. A city like Milton Keynes cannot survive an economic crisis, or any other kind of crisis, because it is planned as a mathematically determined social and economic project. If that model collapses, the city will collapse with it.”

Krier descries the drift in the 20th century to single-use zoning, where certain parts of a community become strictly residential, other strictly commercial, others strictly industrial, etc. When communities are built this way, you end up with places that become dead or dangerous at certain times of day—think of corporate office parks with their desolate parking lots, or residential subdivisions whose codes can even prohibit gardening or clothes lines, and whose life drains away during the day when children are at school and parents have left for corporate or commercial activity zones.

Contrast this with the city or town core of our best cities—places like New York, Old City Philadelphia, Rome, etc. where homes, restaurants, art studios, schools, etc. are all naturally layered together, resulting in communities that are always alive.


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