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Taunton Garden Town | Build it Beautifully

11 November 2019

Juliet Bidgood and Mark Raby, Co-chairs of RIBA Somerset, summarise the branch's Design Charette for Taunton Garden Town (supported by the RIBA Local Initiative Fund).

“Taunton will deliver an outstanding built environment focused on places and spaces with high quality neighbourhoods, green streets and public spaces and with homes and buildings that are distinctly local in appearance. Our houses, offices, employment areas, public services and road infrastructure will embrace innovation, will be energy efficient and will exploit the latest sustainable technologies.”: Taunton: The Vision for our Garden Town, July 2019

On 9 October, RIBA Somerset hosted a Design Charette for Taunton Garden Town to facilitate conversations about the role of design in shaping of the garden town. The event was organised in collaboration with Arts Taunton, Hydrock and Somerset West and Taunton District Council. Held at the Albemarle Centre, it brought together 100 stakeholders for an afternoon to discuss how to expand upon The Vision for the Garden Town.

Taunton was one of the first Garden Towns to be established in 2017 and the designation is described by the council as "a once in a generation opportunity" to improve the lives of the town’s communities. Planned growth is 40%, the largest of any major settlement in the South West. It'll bring the town’s population to 85,000 people, providing new homes and employment and an opportunity to improve the landscape of the town as a whole.

RIBA Somerset invited Arts Taunton to open the event. Donald Rice told the delegates how architecture was important to the town because “of all the arts, architecture is the one that nobody can turn their back on”. Richard Guise from Design Action Devon and Cornwall gave summary of work in progress on the District’s emerging Design Guide, Design Charter and Checklist. Identifying the Garden Town designation as a great opportunity to raise the game and define what a contemporary garden town should be like. "How could the early 20th century Garden Town concepts about sociability, innovation and relating to nature be interpreted for today? How do we get the big stuff right?" The need to understand character was underscored, since to consider how a town can change and grow it's necessary to describe what it feels like to be part of one town or another: especially as shaping how a town’s character can evolve can be subtle, delicate and difficult.

Another aim of the event was to start identifying exemplary development in the town and region. Jo Funnell, the client for the RIBA South West Award winning UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton, explained how their new building was designed to promote a sociable work culture and how this had led them to make all spaces with a view into breakout spaces. They now could enjoy a high quality workplace that is helping to retain staff and attract new clients. Metropolitan Workshop talked about their design for 239 homes at Oakfield in Swindon for Nationwide and the process of developing a site specific approach to landscape, public realm and character, while working inclusively with existing communities. The project draws on their research into the important role of shared gardens and public spaces in new housing described in A New Kind of Suburbia. Create Streets presented their current research on street design demonstrating how people respond positively to well designed higher density, greener, enclosed places with room to socialise and play.

© Joel James Devlin

The charrette was devised to lend momentum to the vision and facilitate conversations, giving delegates the opportunity to influence how the Garden Town designation could frame meaningful, distinctive and inclusive development. It was structured around ten themes related to the Vision for the Garden Town. Each delegate contributed to discussions on two themes hosted by facilitators. The facilitators were multidisciplinary and included architects, landscape architects, engineers, curators and expert local stakeholders. Two themes explored the role of landscape infrastructure and sustainable movement across the town. One explored how the town centre could evolve while two looked at how town centre and town edge sites could be developed. Other themes discussed were: the need to develop the town’s economies and respond to the declared climate emergency, the potential for distinct garden town homes, the means of requiring and protecting suitable design standards and the creative opportunity of the Garden Town. Delegates included Councillors, Parish Councillors, officers, designers, agents, developers, environmental activists, as well as arts, health and education experts.

Outputs from charrette sessions were carefully documented by an illustrator and key points from the two sessions were summarised for all to hear. Then, a talk was given by Julian Glover, the leader of the recently published National Parks and AONB review which highlights Taunton’s special place in a vale between the Quantocks, the Blackdown and Mendip Hills. The report also examines the potential for the Garden Town to support active engagement with nature and contribute to the biodiversity of the wider landscape.

The event was supported by the local MP and by Cllr Frederica Smith, the leader of the District Council, who closed the event setting out their next steps. RIBA Somerset are developing a local Design Circle to continue to engage with a wider network of people interested in design.

Illustration by www.laurasorvala.com
Photography by © Joel James Devlin

© Joel James Devlin

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