London’s secret sprawl

The Green Belt is not the verdant sward it pretends to be

Jun 13, 2014 · 6 min read

The rise of the Green Belt

Interwar planning dogma in the UK threw up the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938, designed to stop the untramelled growth of London into the country, to protect against urban sprawl. It arose after vigorous campaigning from the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and carried with it the overtones of protecting the wealthy country folk, the landed gentry, from the great unwashed lumpenproletariat. The Green Belt became a politicised landscape, the buffer zone between the haves and have nots. It was a concept that was soon adopted by other metropolitan areas of Britain and then exported to the world. Iain Sinclair’s wonderful London Orbital describes a walk around the orbital M25 motorway that cuts through the green belt around London:

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Greater London Plan of 1944

Garden Cities of Yesterday and Tomorrow

New Towns, heavily inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement, were conceived as places that would not be allowed to grow too big, and maintain a healthy relationship between Town and Country. Certainly Howard thought that Garden Cities could be self-sustaining communities, with just enough people to support a range of amenities, industry and employment. The Garden City concept is a powerful one, it allows anyone to visualise their own ideal blend of urban and rural life. So it’s no surprise to see it wheeled out regularly, from the flawed ecotowns boondoggle of the late 2000s in the UK, and more recently in the current Garden City competition (the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014)— sponsored by Next retail boss Simon Wolfson, and with the support of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to build up to three, but with no sites identified. Smaller urban centres surrounded by unspoilt countryside sounds attractive, but inevitably, any town is plugged into an infrastructure larger than itself, and so there is a network of transport links, water and sewage systems, power lines and telecoms links that has grown up to meet the needs of these towns, and that carves the countryside up. Piecemeal development then creeps along this infrastructural armature.

The infrastructural city

This infrastructural life support system criss-crosses the green-belt, connecting the towns of Hertfordshire together and plugging them into the beating heart of London. Physically it also carves the landscape into a number of small, leftover spaces.

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The Green Belt, today — London Colney. (image ©Nigel Cox, used under Creative Commons licence)

Augmented landscapes

Infrastructure networks, city visions, urban/rural futures.

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