Forest Village #3: The Concept

When the Forest Village concept was set out on paper, the accepted ideal minimum size for a new settlement or urban extension was around 2,000-3,000 homes – large enough to sustain a useful hub of local services, including a primary school and some local shops. The Labour government’s ‘Eco-Towns’ programme which followed a year or so later raised the bar to a minimum of 5,000 homes – enough to support a secondary school and some employment space – but for Forest Village the target size remained around 2,000 new homes.

As in Mischa Balen’s piece the idea was that these homes could be ‘hidden’ inside some woodland, so as to reduce their impact on open countryside, but the aim was that development should take place within the woodland, losing as few trees as possible, rather than instead of some of it; houses and trees. And if the woodland was initially of low habitat-quality – such as single-species commercial plantation – then the act of repairing and enhancing the forest with new planting as part of the development process, and its improved management going forward (as a recreational asset for the new settlement), might actually improve its biodiversity and habitat value. For this to be achieved, the new homes and their associated roads and landscaping should occupy as small a footprint in the forest as possible. Perhaps the forest as a community open space could obviate the need for land-hungry private gardens, allowing the forest canopy to maintain its almost continuous cover across the new village.

This would also allow the density of the new settlement to be kept reasonably high, which was important. The main test of sustainability would be whether the new homes could be laid out within easy reach of the central hub of services, so residents wouldn’t default to their cars to reach the village centre. A maximum distance of around 400-500m (5 minutes’ walk) has become a standard test of the ‘walkability’ of new settlements, and squeezing 2,500 homes into a 500m radius gives a gross density of 32 dwellings per hectare – whence the usual target of 30-50dpha for new settlements enshrined in many local plans in the UK.

Forest Village would have to have much lower density that this, to allow the continuity of the forest throughout the new settlement. So we relaxed the walkability criteria to a 10-minute walking radius, on the grounds that walking to the village through the trees would be a pleasurable experience its own right, and also that the circulation network of the development would be planned from the outset to prioritise cycles over motor vehicles. Bikes would win over cars for those living at the lowest density periphery of the Forest Village.

So we had imagined a low-density self-contained new settlement, planned for pedestrians and bicycles, in which residents could live surrounded by the trees, plants and wildlife of their own forest, which the process of development had not only retained but actually improved. Could a place like that really exist?

Well, it already does…

Next post: Forest Village #4 – The Reality

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