Garden hamlets: a sane response to crazy times

Improving food security and affordable housing supply

 

There’s a widespread view that strengthening local communities will be crucial in the years ahead, to help us all to adapt to increasing levels of disruption, including food supplies, utilities, weather patterns, and more.

Clearly we need to raise the resilience of existing communities: but after three years of trying this, I fear it will be a slow process. Most people are in denial that the climate emergency needs systemic changes at local level, on issues like food security.

Creating new garden hamlets would be a great way to help meet several urgent needs: for more local food production, for affordable housing, and to offer meaning, work and homes to young people who despair about the current situation.

The market garden at a Tiny Home community in Georgia, USA

Imagine a community of 10-30 people, with 10-30 acres of land enabling them to grow much of their food, and also to grow fast-rotation biomass for heating. It could use Tiny Homes, which are a more ecological and comfortable equivalent of mobile homes, and this could make planning permission a lot easier. These communities could use the cohousing approach, meaning that each personal household has their own private dwelling, but there are shared facilities, such as a large room for shared meals, meetings, parties, meditation, etc., along with guest rooms and workspaces.

Such communities would be a lot more resilient and sustainable than the way most of us live, and could share skills with their local area. They could also provide a Community Supported Agriculture supply to people nearby, and increase local resilience. The garden hamlets concept seems a very sensible response to the current alarming state of things, and I am seeing a variety of projects, broadly along these lines, springing up in several locations across England and Wales. At present, there seems to be no umbrella network for these projects, and no single shared name.

However, there are encouraging signs of a number of planning authorities beginning to adopt policies which support this kind of project. Wales already has the One Planet Development policy, see more here, and Cornwall has recently adopted a policy to support Renewable Low-Impact Developments, see here. One of the prime movers behind this progress is James Shorten, a planning professional who is also a big advocate of regenerative settlements, which are very akin to garden hamlets. His website, still in its early stages, could provide a catalyst for planning authorities and forming groups: see www.regenerativesettlement.com.

My five years living in a cohousing community showed me that this can be a congenial way to achieve a low carbon footprint and high resilience. With a typical size being 20 to 50 adults, good levels of emotional and practical support emerge: for example, sharing childcare, cars, food growing, equipment, outings. Whilst no one can fully avoid the upheavals ahead, a cohousing garden hamlet could lower its vulnerability a lot, for example through its own electricity and water supplies, and shared biomass heating. For more about cohousing, click here.

Cohousing is a congenial way to achieve a low carbon footprint

Resource Guide

Let’s unpack the main elements of the garden hamlet idea:

Land: Finding a site will be a major issue, however… because tiny homes are moveable, a project could seek a 20- or 30-year lease, rather than buying outright. Some local authorities still own farms, so this is worth exploring. Or put the word out for a sympathetic landowner in your area.

Planning permission: Another major challenge: ideally you need a local authority willing to encourage innovation. It will help if your project grows from the existing neighbourhood around your site: well-intentioned pioneers parachuting in usually stir up strong resistance! Currently, planning policies in Wales are more supportive in principle of this approach, compared to England.

Tiny Homes: A Tiny Home is a dwelling of around 100 to 300 square feet, usually moveable, and usually hand-built with a high level of insulation. There seems to be no independent network for this sector: most information comes from fabricators, such as www.tinyhouse.co.uk, www.live.offgrid.co.uk, and many others. Various UK projects using Tiny Homes are at an early stage, such as https://www.tinyhousecommunitybristol.org/about-thcb. You can buy a Tiny Home for £20K upwards, or build your own!

Food production: there’s plenty of expertise and benchmark projects. The Landworkers’ Alliance provides training to help young people and others with the skills to start up a market garden. This website is also very relevant: www.communitysupportedagriculture.org.uk.

Cohousing: this approach is now quite well established and supported, in the UK and many other countries. See more at www.cohousing.org.uk, and www.communityledhomes.org.uk. Both of these websites can help you find a project, or recruit people for a new one.

We can see all through the sweep of history, and right now in the climate crisis, that humanity struggles to prepare for major impending challenges. Timing is one problem: a lot more floods, food shortages, power cuts and major storms are all likely in the next few years, but no one can say exactly when. What I am advocating here has nothing to do with escaping to the Hebrides or other extreme forms of prepping: garden hamlets are a practical way to engage with the issues, and one which we can all learn from as problems increase. Because I am relocating soon to Hay-on-Wye, I’m especially keen to hear about and assist garden hamlet projects in Wales, so feel free to contact me.