Imagine a place where you can pick free strawberries and tomatoes as you leave the station from your commute home each evening. Where you meet fellow residents to jog along the newly spruced up riverside, and where the local health centre is about well-being and community bonding – rather than dreary waiting rooms set to a soundtrack of wheezing.
It sounds like a utopia of sorts, but it’s happening – albeit in an area of the Garden of England that is rarely described as heavenly. Among the post-industrial landscape of north-west Kent, whose existing communities of Swanscombe and Northfleet respectively have the country’s highest incidences of child obesity and Type 2 diabetes, the government’s first much-heralded garden city in 100 years is taking shape.
Ebbsfleet Garden City is the biggest of the 10 pilot sites in NHS England’s Healthy New Towns programme – others include Barking Riverside in London, Halton Lea in Runcorn and Northstowe in Cambridgeshire. Ebbsfleet will see the creation of 15,000 new homes between Dartford and Gravesend (only about 850 have been built so far), and 30,000 new jobs, over the next 15 years.
Among the many new housing developments that will emerge in Ebbsfleet, which is best known for its station’s high speed links to London and Paris, is Castle Hill in Ebbsfleet Valley, a scheme by Barratt and David Wilson Homes. More than 6,500 homes will be set in a chalk quarry three times the size of the one that houses nearby Bluewater shopping centre. There will be everything from Kentish cottages around village greens, to large detached houses overlooking new parks. Prices start at £275,000 for two-bedroom apartments.
Elsewhere in the garden city, Countryside’s Springhead Park will have homes set around a 22 acre park, which cost from £220,000. Further transformation awaits in an area of old industrial wasteland optimistically rechristened the Swanscombe Peninsula, which is the site for the proposed £3.5 billion London Paramount theme park set to open in 2023.
The local topography poses all sorts of problems, including the division that comes from having existing communities based at the top of the area’s local chalk quarries and the new ones at the bottom, explains Kevin McGeough, director of the healthy new town at Ebbsfleet. “We have to make sure that old and new communities work together. Much of the space is currently inaccessible, pathways are overgrown and isolated, and access to the river is non-existent. We want to break down the social and physical barriers and encourage community activation,” he says.
Sometimes the simplest innovations can have a big effect, such as giving movement-measuring Fitbits to 120 residents. This is in order to get people moving, and also use the data to learn more about how residents use and move around their environment. “It has helped hugely with cohesion,” says McGeough. “People meet up to go on walks or runs together and it’s a collaborative way of informing us how to design this new town. We can see where the physical barriers are and open up new pathways, parks and lakes that have been closed for decades.”
With health at the centre of the design of these new towns, there will naturally be all sorts of new facilities, including a “health innovation centre”. But prevention rather than cure is key, too, which means getting people out of their cars and on to their feet or bikes and encouraging healthy eating.
Inspired by the Incredible Edible Todmorden project in West Yorkshire, in which volunteers grow fruit and veg, run foodie events and cookery demonstrations for the whole community, Edible Ebbsfleet will plant fruit and veg on every street. “It’s free and available to anyone. We’re encouraging developers to continue the idea. Redrow is planting 20 fruit trees in the coming weeks,” says McGeough, referring to Redrow’s new Ebbsfleet Green scheme, where 30 per cent of the development is public open space. Homes start at £379,995 for two bedrooms.
The Government’s 10 pilot “healthy new towns” vary in their location and challenges, but they share common aims. Halton Lea in the industrial port town of Runcorn on the river Mersey received submissions from architects all around the world to design its new healthy town of 800 homes. The winning proposal by Citiesmode includes rewards for residents who walk, and a community kitchen that provides food to schools and hospitals and runs healthy cooking lessons.
The NHS’s new “Healthy by Design” scheme hopes the healthy living lessons learnt from these pilot schemes will be taken on board by developers of up to a million new homes across the country.
“It is more important than ever for developers to be incorporating not just new homes but good quality open space and recreation areas within their master plans as they make for healthier places to live,” says Andrew Carrington, Countryside’s managing director of strategic land.
For the average property developer whose bottom line is profit, land devoted to green spaces and running routes means fewer homes to flog. “They need to see the value,” Ebbsfleet’s Kevin McGeough agrees, “but ‘healthy’ is a strong brand now and developers increasingly want to be on board.” Otterpool Park near Folkestone is another new garden town planned for Kent – one that proposes to include community orchards and allotments, wetlands, meadows and sports fields in its scheme. Andy Jarrett, spokesman for Otterpool Park, says this will reduce food miles and encourage active living; its planning application will be submitted later this year.
Big new developments in London are capitalising on their green spaces, too, such as Berkeley Homes’ Woodberry Down in Finsbury Park, where two-thirds of the 64-acre site is open water (one-bedroom flats in the new phase start at £495,000). Another Berkeley scheme is Kidbrooke Village in south-east London, where the former crime-ridden Ferrier estate has been replaced with a new community set around the lakes and green expanses of Sutcliffe Park.
In Cambridge, where one in four residents cycles to work, the impetus for healthier living comes with two-wheeled innovations funded by the university in the new district of Eddington, to provide affordable housing for staff and students in a sustainable new urban area. They include miles of cycle paths, bike loan schemes, refresher courses for rusty riders and cycle clinics. Athena, the first phase of private housing to be released there, has studio apartments starting at £299,950.
And in Slough, a council-led scheme is tackling the issue of health and well-being by ploughing £60 million into new leisure facilities, including a new 1,950-capacity stadium, an £18 million leisure centre and 10 outdoor gyms in the town’s parks. The scheme is also delivering new residential developments in Slough that will benefit from these initiatives, including Wexham Green, with prices from £495,000 for a three-bedroom house.
The build-to-rent market is similarly looking at alternative ways to promote healthy living among residents beyond simply building a gym in the basement. There is free fresh fruit every Tuesday at be:here Hayes in west London, and Bow Square in Southampton is helping to tackle loneliness among young people and downsizers by organising events for residents in its central landscaped courtyard, and encouraging them to communicate through a Bow Square app.
Whether it’s free fruit or building entire new towns, it’s all helping to get us out of cars, off our sofas and into a far healthier frame of mind.
TAKEN FROM THE DAILY TELEGRAPH MARCH 2018