A planned English town reveals King Charles’ recipe for an ideal future

During his time as Crown Prince, King Charles III was known for his strong and controversial anti-modernist views on architecture and land use.

But Prince Charles wasn’t just a talker, he was an actor. And in the small town of Poundbury, in the west of England, he founded and built a community that expresses his vision of how Britain could emerge from a housing shortage.

Why we wrote this

Thirty years ago, King Charles began to build a city that corresponded to his vision of urban planning. Today, although Poundbury’s architecture is traditional, its sense of community meets modern aspirations.

Its 3,800 inhabitants live in an unusual place. It’s an eclectic mix of low-rise houses and apartments of varying styles, mostly built to traditional designs, lining streets that are rarely straight and mostly free of litter and red lights. Many small businesses are scattered around the city.

The new king appears to have achieved one of his main aims – to create a sense of community in Poundbury – and he has ensured that 35% of houses are affordable housing. But is the city a model for how Britain could develop its housing stock?

Reviewers say it’s too expensive and bulky. Boosters, and there are plenty of them in Poundbury, say it’s worth spending a bit more to provide user-friendly environments.

During his time as Crown Prince, King Charles III expressed strong and controversial views on many topics. But he reserved his strongest and most controversial words for architecture and land use planning.

He once compared Britain’s post-war town planners, unfavorably, with the German bombers who reduced neighborhoods to rubble during World War II. Even more famously, he called a proposed modernist extension to the National Gallery in London “a monstrous anthrax on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. (The project was killed.)

But Prince Charles was not just a talker. He was a doer. Here, on a green, sloping plain in southwest England, stands the fruit of his passion: an experimental city that the future king built.

Why we wrote this

Thirty years ago, King Charles began to build a city that corresponded to his vision of urban planning. Today, although Poundbury’s architecture is traditional, its sense of community meets modern aspirations.

Founded in the 1990s, Poundbury has grown into a community of around 3,800 people who live in an eclectic mix of low-rise houses and apartments built mostly to traditional designs, from Georgian townhouses to Italianate squares , although a few modern structures dot the cityscape. The streets, few of which are straight, are free of litter and stop signs. There are no billboards or power lines. Ignore the cars and you can easily imagine Sherlock Holmes arriving at a foggy crime scene.

It’s an ambitious project that expresses the new king’s vision of how Britain should emerge from a housing shortage, a vision that is deeply personal and not universally shared, given his anti-modernist zeal. “It’s her baby,” says Pru Wintrip, who has lived in Poundbury since 2003.

Today, however, the experimental town is owned by Charles’s son and heir, Prince William, who inherited the Duchy of Cornwall, first established in 1337, and its £1.4 billion portfolio of assets. dollars, including the land on which Poundbury is built.

“It’s something that everyone has been thinking about for a long time,” says Blake Holt, who chairs the residents’ association. “Our assumption is that William will be just as engaged as his father was, and perhaps in a different way.”

Unusual mix and match

The project’s lead urban planner is Leon Krier, a Luxembourg-born architect and theorist of New Urbanism, a movement very much in line with Charles’s thinking that abhors car-centric suburbs and favors walkable towns that mix housing , trade, commerce and green space.

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor

Blake Holt, who chairs the Poundbury Residents Association, stands outside his townhouse on September 14, 2022. He and his neighbors are ‘buying into the ethos of building differently’, he says.

In a 2014 essay in The Architectural Review, Charles said his goal was to create “resilient, truly sustainable, human-scale urban environments that are land efficient, use low-carbon materials and are not so completely dependent on the car”. He complained that UK cities “have been systematically zoned with commercial and commercial areas separate from the residential areas they serve, many of which look exactly alike”.

The architects of Poundbury have done everything possible to avoid such repetitiveness. The project mixes and matches the architectural designs and the colors and trim of the houses, which the owners are required to maintain in order to preserve the appearance of the city.

It’s a quirky place. Neoclassical plazas sit alongside pseudo-warehouse conversions; lanes lead to mews houses, a style that originated as stables for horses and carriages. Hundreds of small businesses are scattered everywhere – bike shops and wedding dress seamstresses, beauty clinics and salons, cafes and a funeral home.

The accretion of traditional building styles seems to date back centuries rather than decades, though builders aren’t so picky: some of what appears to be exterior ironwork is actually painted fiberglass , for example. Ben Pentreath, one of the principal architects, told the Guardian in 2016 that “we are engaged in creating a compelling fake”.

But it fostered a real community, which was one of Charles’ priorities. He argued that purely functional, car-focused built environments lead to social isolation. In Poundbury, civic life thrives, from choirs and drama clubs to children’s playgroups and a garden club. Two community gardens provide plots for residents, the town square, Queen Mother Square, (named after Charles’ grandmother) hosts a food and arts festival in August, and a non-denominational Christian church has moved to town in 2018.

“There’s a strong community here,” says Holt.

A model for elsewhere?

About 35% of housing in Poundbury is affordable housing, either sold at below market prices or rented to low-income families. But these units are not grouped together, as they are in most UK towns, and it is not clear which houses in a block in Poundbury are social housing.

An aerial view of the planned community of Poundbury, a personal project of King Charles III, which he hopes will serve as a model for further urban development.

Still, most owners are fairly well-off and include retirees like Mr. Holt, a former human resources manager, who moved from a large rural property to a three-story townhouse. A two-bedroom house in Poundbury can cost up to $500,000, and luxury apartments in Queen Mother Square run into the millions.

David West, sales manager at an estate agency, says buyers are comparing Poundbury to other well-maintained towns around Dorset, a county popular with retirees, and ‘either love it here or think: ‘This n is not for me”. he says.

Those who like it do it for the city style, an expression of Charles’ version of city life, says Mr. Holt. “People who choose to buy here…are buying into the philosophy of building differently [and] build an attractive and welcoming community,” he says.

The big question for planners is whether these cities offer any model for how Britain should develop its housing stock amid growing concerns about affordability.

Land use restrictions have driven up housing costs to the point that home ownership is an impossible dream for many young people. In 2004, some 59% of 25 to 34 year olds owned their home. By 2016, this proportion had fallen to 34%, according to a 2019 research paper.

The same study found that the high prices reflected a sharp drop in new home construction, particularly in the south of England. Between 1959 and 1988, England built around 7.5 million houses. Over the next 30 years, it only added 3.3 million.

More than a “city of toys”

For critics, Poundbury is a prince’s pet project, an anti-modernist statement that is too expensive and too cumbersome to solve an urgent housing crisis. But Mr Holt says that misses the point he heard Charles make – that Poundbury’s advantage over cookie-cutter subdivisions is that it supports civic life.

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor

Poundbury resident Pru Wintrip talks to a postal worker at the front door of her home. Ms. Wintrip, a retiree, moved to the experimental town in 2003.

“I would say…it doesn’t have to be more expensive,” says Holt. “Not necessarily with all the architectural flourishes and grand plazas, but to build in a more user-friendly and attractive way,” he says.

Even if it costs “a little more,” he adds, “isn’t it worth a little more to give people a better living environment?

Clare Rowlands, a healthcare worker who grew up in nearby Dorchester, thinks so.

At first, she says, locals dismissed Charles’ project as a “toy town” and his father remembered the open fields it replaced. But in 2012 Ms Rowlands moved to Poundbury so her son could attend a primary school nearby. She loves her three-bedroom house, even though she complains about the rules that prevent her from replacing the original wooden windows with plastic frames, and she loves living in a walkable town.

When Ms Wintrip and her husband moved here in 2003, their first home overlooked fields where they could walk their dogs. The couple later moved to a smaller townhouse; their son also bought his own house nearby.

But after two decades of watching Poundbury grow and realize Charles’ vision, Ms Wintrip almost looks sorry. “It’s too big,” she said. It’s a city now.