Speaking to anyone in the landscape, urban design, or planning world, a question I’m always asked is:
What’s it like living on Poundbury, is it true you can’t paint your front door?
And my answer inevitably starts “Well, it’s a bit weird…”. And to be honest, it is. But that’s not entirely fair. It’s also a fabulous experiment in “sustainable” living, however you care to define that. And yes, it is true that you can’t paint your front door; unless it’s in an approved colour of course.
As a concept and set of principles, Poundbury is based on Prince Charles’ book “A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture“. Some 4,500 people will live on Poundbury when its completed, due to be in 2025. The Duchy of Cornwall set out the basic ideas behind Poundbury: a high-density urban quarter of Dorchester giving priority to people, rather than cars, and mixing commercial buildings with residential areas, shops and leisure facilities to create a walkable community.
And, to a greater extent, I feel that’s been successful.
When I first arrived, I worked 9-5 and was usually away at the weekend. Experienced in this way, Poundbury was often vacant – a “film set” (my mum’s description). But, step outside at 10am or at the weekend, and chances are it will be bustling. For me now it has the air of childhood camping holidays – where everyone walks to the campsite shop in the morning to buy the bacon. Now it’s the paper (and sometimes bacon), but the warm and relaxed feeling is the same. The garden centre and Queen Mother Square are always busy – go on a market day they’re positively heaving. And it is friendly. Even though I don’t go to the Residents Association Meetings, or the Wine Tasting or Line Dancing clubs (no, really), there is a small enough and active enough population to get to know your neighbours.
I can (and do) walk to work, the corner shop, the butchers, doctors, dentists, swimming pool, my allotment and one of many natty little gift shops should I feel the need. There’ll also be a school soon; not that the local primary or secondary schools aren’t already walkable.
Driving around, it’s immediately apparent which roads you can drive faster on, and which you can’t. You don’t need the signs which are normally there to tell you; you’re simply made to drive more carefully by trees, parked cars, or pedestrians confidently walking in the road (if only to avoid the gravel – more on this later). The quality of materials is second to none – bricks are handmade, the stone is real, and the roof slates are natural. Of all things, my doorstep is a beautiful slab of Purbeck marble.
The architecture is… quirky … but undeniably beautiful in parts; if utterly lost in rural Dorset. Dutch gables sit cheek by jowl with traditional Dorset cottages. In the new Queen Mother Square, one of the new buildings is described by the Duchy like this:
The architectural language of the building is derived from early nineteenth century buildings by Soane and Nash. It makes restrained use of Greek orders: Doric ground floor, Ionic first floor, and Corinthian at the lantern surmounting the dome. This elment is derived from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, near the Acropolis in Athens, which is a structure widely referred to in 19th century Greek Revival architecture.
It just screams Dorset at you, doesn’t it? I’d love to see the perplexed faces of future archaeologists when they discover Poundbury.
Of course, there are bad points, and some things just don’t work.
– The gravel that tops most of the footways is one of the main reasons pedestrians walk in the road. It gets everywhere. I’m forever sweeping it out of the flat and my car, and picking it out of my bike tyres and shoes. Walking around in flip-flops is impossible.
– The gardens are, for the most part, tiny. It stems from the high density which was planned from the start. I’m lucky enough to have an allotment, but I couldn’t cope here without that personal outdoor space.
– I get lost. A lot. Still, after nearly five years! The cut-throughs and alleyways are handy, and I make a determined effort to use them – but lose sight of a landmark building you know and its very easy to lose your bearings.
– The famous “Rules” (a set of covenants which you’re required to sign up to when moving here) whilst undoubtedly keeping things tidy, have prevented the “lived in” feel that would otherwise have naturally developed.
But, it’s a pleasant living environment. The maintenance (including regular gravel sweeping) is carried out by a resident-controlled management company, and will continue in perpetuity. The landscaping is high quality, with large tree stock and advanced planting already creating a green environment in the earlier phases.
Frankly, there’s nothing new here. Shared surfaces and natural traffic calming have been around for many years – I don’t believe Poundbury can have been the first. Road sign and line painting reduction is now commonplace certainly across Dorset, and presumably elsewhere. There are numerous developments, I know of several by local developers in Dorset, which produce exceptional design quality and are rightly proud of it. So, why all the fuss?
I think it must be because of the unique land-owner interest. The Duchy will care about Poundbury in perpetuity, and want to invest long-term. That just doesn’t happen elsewhere. The norm seems to be that even where outline permission is granted on a perfectly good set of design principles, the original “vision” is watered down by the volume house builders; who will make their profit and then move on. There is certainly profit on Poundbury; living here comes at a premium. But there is a sense of continuity and vision to the place – and I can’t see that changing.
So, what is it like living on Poundbury? Well, it’s a bit weird…