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November 21, 2013 / Leo Hollis

Back to the Garden City

It is with some horror that I heard the news of the Wolfson prize, in collaboration with the right wing think tank the Policy Exchange the Wolfson trust is willing to give a fortune to anyone who can answer the question: “How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?

The prize comes with this brief description:

The case for garden cities is overwhelming with the current housing situation in the UK creating hardship and inequality for millions of people. But finding an innovative way to build communities that truly provide for and support their residents is not simple to achieve. The 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize therefore seeks to develop an answer to the question of how to bring about a new garden city.

If only this were true. The history of the garden city is an interesting one – but what it produced was the very opposite.

At the turn of the twentieth century Ebeneezer Howard was a stenographer at the Houses of Parliament, in Westminster. Having spent his youth traveling through America he was inspired by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Back, which imagined a young Bostonian, Julian West, waking up after 113 year’s sleep in 2000AD and finding a perfect society in which everything was equally distributed.

Howard believed that this ideal could be founded in a new Garden City, planned from the ground-up outside the industrial metropolis, but connected to the centre by the latest rail technology. The new city would have all the urban advantages but also benefit from the qualities of the countryside, as he wrote in Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898): ‘Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together.  . . Town and Country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization.’

The future of the city was to be found by turning one’s back on the city and starting again, breaking new ground in the countryside. Reborn on such bare ground there was no need to take the past into consideration and the city could be planned from the first brick to the final form. In Howard’s vision the city was planned on a concentric grid with a library, town hall, museum, concert hall, and hospital all gathered into the centre and set in parkland; this civic heart was ringed by the main shopping zone, designed as a glass arcade. Moving away from this were rings of housing, based around a 420ft grand avenue, which also enclosed schools; and after that, centrifugal zones of factories, dairies and services. There was to be no smoke in the garden city and every machine was to be driven by electricity. Needless to say, however, there was little discussion of life on the streets within the new Garden City; as Lewis Mumford would later write in his 1946 introduction to ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’, Howard was more interested in physical shapes than social processes.  

Howard’s dream was turned into reality at Letchworth, Hertfordshire, 34 miles to the north of London, and has been recreated around the world ever since. Work began in 1903 at Letchworth, with the purchase of sixteen square kilometres of land outside the town of Hitchen. The first thing to be built was a platform for the railway, and later a station was completed. Under the supervision of the great suburban architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, who had become famous as the leading campaigners for the Arts and Crafts movement, the community grew, if not exactly following Howard’s exact concentric designs. It was said that only one tree was felled in the process of building.

The same philosophy was also tested in laboratories closer to London at Hampstead Garden Suburbs, a scheme sponsored by the philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts, who wanted to develop a harmonious community with housing for all classes. In time, there were Gardenstadtes in Germany, Cite-Jardin in France, Cuidad-Jardin in Spain as well as other communities in Holland, Finland, India and Palestine. Forest Hill Gardens, in Queens, connected to Manhattan by the newly electrified Long Island Railroad, was the first Garden City in America.

Howard’s original dream was obviously utopian but it was also once that was based in justice and equality. However, what the garden city turned out to be was a place that seemed to satisfy the desires of the rich. Walking around Hampstead Garden Suburbs or Forest Hill, these are places for the very well to do where even the former worker’s cottages are too expensive for actual workers. It could be argued that these are not places of inequality because the poor can’t afford to be here.

The plans for a new Garden City is a means to invade the green belt by stealth – it is a way of taking the protected land by claiming a higher urbanism that is not urban at all. The Policy Exchange have already made their arguments clear for the liberation of the Green belt: .

The problem here is that the Garden City delivers none of the advantages of urban living. It will encourage more sprawl when we should be planning for more density.



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