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10th December 2007
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Modern residential projects are offering ample green spaces and robust facilities alongside homes to satisfy customers' cravings for urban living in an rural setting. But, despite much ballyhoo about modern garden cities, today's developments bear only a passing resemblance to the original idea

The convenience of life in an urban milieu combined with the quality of life found in a rural environment - that has been a dream for frustrated city dwellers. The idea has been gaining popularity in Poland for some time and, unsurprisingly, many developers are trying to meet that untapped demand. They present the concept of a residential complex on the edge of a large city, with good transport links to the center, ample green space and extensive local amenities. In other words, a city within a city.

Not a new idea

This is by no means a new concept. The idea of building self-contained towns nestled within metropolises dates to the end of the 19th century, when visionary Ebenezer Howard sparked the "garden city" movement. This, however, was not only an architectural or urban planning suggestion, but it also offered organizational and economical concepts.

"The idea behind [the garden city] was in a way a reaction to what was happening in architecture or, more specifically, urban development in the 19th century. It was a reaction to the negative social situation in 19th-century industrial cities," said Krzysztof Domaradzki, director of the urban planning department at Warsaw University of Technology and author of numerous urban plans for Warsaw.

"The form of living suggested by those behind the garden city movement, which combined the advantages of town and countryside, was supposed to offer better living conditions as well as counteract the pathology of industrial cities of the 19th and 20th centuries," said Maria Sołtys, an architect at the Association of Polish Architects (SARP).

The first place to be developed following Howard's ideas was the English city of Letchworth. Contrary to common belief, it was not just a collection of houses with private gardens, but functioned as an independent and sustainable town. Hampstead in London was another place where the concept was implemented, however, there was less emphasis on self-sustainability and the place was developed more as a garden suburb.

The Polish vision

The garden city concept made its way to Poland as early as the beginning of the 20th century, but it was more of a theoretical than practical approach. As in Hampstead, the idea was more of a garden suburb. Nonetheless, one place that many urban planners are proud to point to as a prime example of a Polish garden city is Podkowa Leśna, a cozy suburban village approximately 20 km south of Warsaw, which is popular among affluent Poles.

"Podkowa is an independent administrative town. It has its own center, church and cafés, as well as beautiful green spaces - given its proximity to the woods - and it all functions rather well," said Domaradzki.

Some aspects of the garden city concept are still reffered to in the residential market today and are often used by developers as selling points for their projects. They make repeated reference to green spaces and the proximity of the countryside, together with easy access to the city center. The expressions "city within a city" and "garden city" are often bandied about. However, these terms are generally employed tangentially, or as marketing tools, rather than as actual allusions to Howard's original ideas.

Garden city as marketing tool

"I feel that at the moment the term [garden city] has more of a marketing meaning," said Domaradzki. Sołtys went as far as saying, "It's difficult to imagine garden city rules being implemented in a modern residential development."

These claims are mostly due to the fact that many modern developments are composed of multi-family dwellings, rather than detached houses. The buildings are also built closer together than in Howard's original vision. "This idea wasn't meant to have areas built up as densely [as today's developments are]," said Anna Wróbel, an architect at Gareth Hoskins Architects in Glasgow, commenting on modern residential projects in Warsaw.

In addition, despite attempting to offer local amenities and functional infrastructure, most developments will never be as independent and self-sustaining as called for in the original garden city proposal. "[Currently,] there are only attempts to refer to the garden city as a model when shaping the landscape. But the scale of the buildings, which are often four- or five-storeys tall, does not correspond with the idea and [these sorts of developments] will never be an independent administrative unit," said Domaradzki.

Glimmers of green

That is not to say, however, that some references to garden city characteristics are completely lacking in substance. Giving the example of Prokom Investments' Miasteczko Wilanów, Wróbel explained that "the idea of a garden city was certainly emphasized at the planning stage." Nevertheless she expressed skepticism about the possibility of such a large development, being worked on by a number of different companies, working as a cohesive garden city. "It is more likely to be several garden cities connected together," she said.

Urban planners also point to the idea of implementing green spaces in residential projects as capturing an element of Howard's idea. "Investors try to incorporate green areas into their developments as they [also] increase the value of the project," said Ewa Widera from architectural studio Archiplan. "There is certainly an emphasis on greenery," she added, but stressed that despite this the term "garden city" is often overused. 

The "city within a city," another facet of the garden city concept, is also being pursued by some developers. From an urban-planning perspective, this is positive, experts say.

"The city-within-a-city idea is good because it brings balance to developments. It makes a lot of sense provided the development is freely accessible and not fenced off. Such projects don't bring anything to the city," said Domaradzki.

Wróbel also sees the facilities associated with city-within-a-city developments positively. "I believe the infrastructure will be adequate and there are likely to be good schools and kindergartens in the area along with communal green areas. This may all work well," said Wróbel, referring specifically to Miasteczko Wilanów.

While the modern successors of Howard's garden city may stray far from the original, pure form, those ideas which have been passed on retain merit. If nothing else, the concept serves as an ideal and an inspiration for contemporary developers to draw upon.

"The garden city idea should offer an archetype of quintessential human values, without which proper urban planning cannot exist," said Domaradzki.

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