Prince Charles’ Urban Vision at Poundbury: “Attraction, Interest and Character”

By putting the pedestrian first, you create these liveable places, I think, with more attraction and interest and character.

– Prince Charles.

Poundbury, Dorset, UK (Photography by Richard Voss)

Poundbury is a 160-hectare development in the outskirts of Dorchester, Dorset, in Southwest England. The development is the work of The Duchy of Cornwall, which was established in 1337 as a means to finance the heir to the throne. Prince Charles started planning his own urban vision in 1987 with some controversy at the time. However, people are starting to notice that Poundbury has had its successes; they are questioning why it has continued to grow. The architectural critic of The Guardian, Oliver Wainwright, stated in 2017 that Poundbury “has long been mocked as a feudal Disneyland. But a growing and diverse community suggests it’s getting a lot of things right.”

I started my architectural studies around the time of Prince Charles’ A Vision of Britain (1989). This book came along after a TV programme, which set out Prince Charles’s vision for not only buildings but also for towns and cities. Some architectural tutors at the time were dismissive of Prince Charles’s comments. Perhaps they were dismayed at the criticism of modern architecture and his advocacy in traditional materials and building methods. At the time, Prince Charles’ preferred practising architects like the classicalists Quinlan Terry and Robert Adam. In 1992, he went on to establish a school of architecture in London, called the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture; this school offered one year of study to about 30 students.

Having visited the Poundbury development recently, I think there are five key ingredients of its urban realm success. These look beyond the architectural stylistic outcomes. The success of Poundbury is built on the focus of community, high-quality urban realm, mixed-use functions, appropriate scale and controls and finally a long-term sustainable approach.

Building Communities

When the architect Leon Kier started master planning Poundbury in 1987, he explained:

there was no established and professionally-defined discipline of ‘Traditional Urban Masterplanning’ … So my role has consisted of a lot of things.

In a recent TV interview, Prince Charles advocated that developments should be about “building communities rather than just another housing estate”. Since 1995 his long-term view has paid benefits. The population of Poundbury is set to grow to 6,000 people by 2025. In Poundbury, you can detect that this incremental development approach is of use in the long-term. Prince Charles has stated that the social housing component of Poundbury is built to the same standard and appearance as that of the commercial housing.

Statistical data demonstrates that Poundbury has almost exactly the same demographics in age as nearby Dorchester. However, Poundbury has a marginally higher percentage of children under 16. The Duchy of Cornwall maintains that this has been achieved by the fact that 30% of the housing at Poundbury is social housing.

 

High-Quality Urban Realm

The first thing you notice when you arrive at Poundbury is not just free parking, but the durable, high-quality external materials. The Duchy state that “the emphasis is placed on the quality of design and materials, landscaping, and attention to detail – even down to street furniture and signage.”
Poundbury’s high-density urban quarters offer an attractive environment where the aim is to create a place in which people can “live, work, shop and play.”
To avoid constant construction on streets, the service utilities are housed in common utility ducts, which are underneath the town. Poundbury’s car parking is located in landscaped courtyards. These courtyards contain ancillary spaces for playrooms and workshops. Therefore, these spaces will possibly allow for future flexibility in living arrangements and, of course, greater provision for working from home.

The Future is Mixed-Use

Ben Pentreath, one of the Architects of Poundbury, summed up the mixed-use appeal of the development:

My favourite elements are actually some of the businesses – I really love the Brace of Butchers, or Finca Coffee in the Buttermarket, or the Clath menswear shop…

At Poundbury, which was initially on farmland, there is a need for a mix of functionality with “employment generating uses”. Therefore, Poundbury is not solely about housing; there are employers such as Dorset Cereals. This business was established at Poundbury in 2000, and the company now exports food products to over 70 countries.

The town has 80 businesses, which employ 2,000 people. Also, there are retail units, food and beverage outlets, a hotel and also professional service businesses. As Ben Pentreath observes: “Obviously the architecture and master-planning exist to provide a frame for them, but it’s the bits we are not in control of that make the place hum.”II

 

Appropriate Urban Scale

In 1989, the initial Masterplan was exhibited at a local Planning Weekend, which was attended by Prince Charles. After the weekend, the subsequent public comments were incorporated into the design before the town planning consent was lodged. Poundbury is divided into four distinctive quarters – neighbourhoods. The Duchy was able to phase the development with each of the four quarters. In October 1993, the construction of Phase 1 commenced. Social housing is interspersed with private commercial housing. Dwellings have also been provided for retirees and people with special needs. The developers are proud that urban design:
demonstrates that it is possible to build high-quality, traditional housing at affordable prices, and provide new factories and offices on competitive terms within the context of radically different urban design.

Many new town developments globally lack enclosure and street-level activation.
There needs to be a hierarchy in the allocation of urban spaces and a focus on orientation, particularly for pedestrians. In Poundbury, there is a key direction on what is building, what is street, what is square, and what is green space. The scale of Queen Mother Square is relatively large, as it is approximately 60 x 45 metres. Therefore, the enclosure around this large space has meant at times higher buildings, which vary from four to six storeys. Around the square, the buildings have been designed by Quinlan Terry, Francis Terry and Ben Pentreath.

Sustainability

Where possible the materials at Poundbury draw on the vernacular of the county of Dorset, with materials such as stone, slate and render. In some cases, the architecture references the attractive streets of nearby Dorchester. The Duchy has used several architects who are based locally in Dorset. Notably, the quality of building design and craft is controlled by the Duchy of Cornwall through legally-binding contracts with each of the developers.

At Poundbury, eleven Eco-Homes have been built in a joint venture by the Duchy of Cornwall and Zero C. These buildings have a 30% better thermal insulation than standard UK building regulations; they are rated as BREEAM EcoHomes Excellent. The UK has seen improvements to thermal insulation building standards over the last 50 years, in order to achieve better energy use. It has been estimated that a house, built today will use about 16% of the energy compared to a 1970s standard home (Davies, 2016).

At Poundbury, the sustainable strategy focuses on carbon reduction. For example, there is a new Anaerobic Digestion plant situated at the adjacent Rainbarrow Farm. This is a joint venture partnership between the Duchy of Cornwall and local farmers, JV Farming Ltd. The Duchy requires renewable energy to assist the Poundbury development. JV Farming Ltd wanted more sustainable break crops and also fertiliser sources. Therefore, Rainbarrow Farm is the UK’s first commercial biomethane to grid network plant; the plant generates gas for 4,000 homes in mid-winter and for 56,000 dwellings in mid-summer. In June 2013 the partnership (JV Energen) were the winners in the Leadership Category of the British Renewable Energy Awards.

Transportation is a crucial driver for sustainability, and a regular electric bus service operates between Dorchester and Poundbury. There are currently two electric buses in use, and these were the first operational electric buses powered by sustainable electricity in Southwest England. This is a great outcome, as the energy comes from waste at the Anaerobic Digester plant at Rainbarrow Farm.

Summary

Leon Krier claims, that “the whole of Paris is a pre-industrial city which still works, because it is so adaptable, something the creations of the 20th century will never be.” His concern is that a new town “…cannot survive an economic crisis, or any other kind of crisis, because it is planned as a mathematically determined social and economic project. If that model collapses, the city will collapse with it.”

The high-quality materials in Poundbury provide open spaces with a sense of arrival and durability. Prince Charles has often written about his concern for the environment and maintaining traditional ways of life, particularly in a rural context. In Poundbury, over the years he has built on this ethos. It is a belief in the power of the local connection. Princes Charles stated:

I find myself born into this particular position. I’m determined to make the most of it and to do whatever I can to help. And I hope I leave things behind a little bit better than I found them.

Poundbury demonstrates a community-based design approach, rather than a housing estate mentality; this has contributed to the sustainability of Poundbury. This has appeal to some people. Because Poundbury’s development is mixed-used, it is more likely to offer more resilient outcomes. The ultimate aim is for urban communities to have depth and diversity, so they are inherently more self-sufficient when outside shocks or changes occur. If you look beyond the buildings themselves at Poundbury stylistically, then perhaps you find the attraction, interest and character that people crave.

2 thoughts on “Prince Charles’ Urban Vision at Poundbury: “Attraction, Interest and Character””

  1. But if I want to change the colour of my fornt door in POundbury I have to get permissin of the POW….perhaps a bit feudal

  2. Poundbury shows what enlightened land owners can do to create sustainable urban settlements. Land ownership is key because it is the only way in which a long term view can be delivered, together with sympathetic planning policies.
    Whilst nothing is perfect Poundbury has a lot going for it. However, the distinction between it and “ new towns” which crops up several times is misleading. New towns in England demonstrated the possibility and value of mixed use, walkable neighbourhoods, with balanced employment opportunities, long before Poundbury was conceived. Much is owed to the lassons learned in these public sector led, projects, driven by land ownership, but it is not acknowledged. One main difference is the lack of green space in Poundbury compared to new towns. The former follows the late 90s move towards more “urban” developments, but only time will tell whether this was wise. Living in a Milton Keynes, the last 15 months of COVID life has been immensely better for easy access to spacious and well maintained green spaces with a multitude of routes to follow without ever crossing any major roads.
    Progress is important in the realm of urban development, which suffers far too much from short term profit-driven motives together with political and professional amnesia. It would be better to learn from past experience, acknowledge success and failure and incorporate lessons without feeling the need to trash the past.

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