Current Affairs

The Need for a New Garden City Movement

In the early 1900s, a strange and wonderful planning fad caught on. It can still help us think about building livable places.

Imagine a small city, built from scratch, overflowing with parks and green space, dense enough to be walkable but not so much to feel crowded. A place where the land is collectively owned, houses are quirkily individualized rather than cookie-cutter, and rents from the land support the creation of luxurious public spaces—like a farmers market housed in a crystal palace, with waterfalls throughout. Rent is low, jobs pay well, there is little inequality, and there are good public transit networks. This is the sort of place envisaged by the Garden City movement, an ambitious and eccentric school of thought about urban planning that popped up in early 20th century Britain and actually produced several complete cities as well as inspired planners across the world for decades. 

What is remarkable about the Garden City movement is that something so odd and utopian could become so successful and have a lasting impact. Most of the utopian experiments of prior centuries were carried out by bands of fringe idealists and went belly-up relatively quickly. The Garden City movement, while it too disappeared, still left a lasting legacy in urban planning (traces can be found in New Urbanism). But while physical vestiges of the Garden Cities do remain, many of the values that animated the movement have been lost. And that’s a shame, because the building of a sustainable and humane 21st century could use a revived appreciation of the Garden City. 

The Garden City movement began in 1898, when British urban planner Ebenezer Howard published To-morrow: A peaceful path to real reform, later republished under the better-known title Garden Cities of To-morrow. He was inspired partly by the writer Edward Bellamy, whose utopian novel Looking Backward enjoyed huge popularity in the late 19th century (hundreds of “Bellamy clubs” sprang up across the United States). In Looking Backward, Bellamy had envisioned Boston, Massachusetts in the year 2000, where—as he described—people would work a few hours a day in nationalized industries, receive equal incomes, and retire at 45. Howard’s ambitions, on the other hand, were more modest. He focused on the specific problem of the Victorian city, which was crowded, fetid, and offered little of the natural beauty to be found in the English countryside. It was through the rebuilt city that Howard thought to bring about utopia: he “became captivated with the thought of creating new cities to build a new world.” Having met the anarchist Peter Kropotkin and the socialist designer William Morris, he became fascinated with their ideas, and particularly by “William Morris’s desire to transform the grimy cities into a garden where a just society thrived…” 

Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow proposed a new kind of town that would contain the best of both city and country. It would be dense and walkable like a city, but surrounded by natural green belts. It would contain a balance of all that is good in different types of places. Howard’s book is full of charmingly weird diagrams explaining both the problems and his proposed solutions. Here, for instance, are his “three magnets” showing what draws people to towns and the countryside, and what a “town-country” hybrid needed:

To sum up: in cities there are higher wages, opportunities, places of amusement, and “palatial edifices,” but there are also high rents, foul air, the isolation of crowds, etc. In the country there is the beauty of nature, but “no public spirit” and low wages. The magnet that would surely draw the most people would combine the advantages of each. (Yes, the magnet image is stupid.) Howard was concerned with “how to restore the people to the land—that beautiful land of ours, with its canopy of sky, the air that blows upon it, the sun that warms it, the rain and dew that moisten it.” Philip Ross and Yves Cabannes, in 21st Century Garden Cities of To-morrow: A manifesto, write that in the original vision of the garden city, “the citizen would be King, and ills of the time—landlords, squalor, pollution, and poverty, would be tackled and beaten.” Certainly, when one reads of the grimy, smoggy slums in Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, one can see how Howard could have become so preoccupied with the idea of bringing working people the best that nature had to offer. 

Some early utopians drew up their plans with an eye to the layout of specific buildings, such as Charles Fourier’s plans for the phalanstery. Howard was a little different, focused more on the different elements that made up a good city than the particular visual look of that city. Have a gander at some of his more delightful diagrams: 

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As you can see, much of this is needlessly specific, and some of it seems to come from Howard’s belief that circles are orderly and pleasing. (That principle certainly seems to have guided Howard’s proposal for the city’s governance structure.) Howard did not in fact intend for his cities to actually be perfect circles, believing that each garden city would follow its own unique plan, but wanted to show in an idealized form the elements that a garden city would contain. Brett Clark of the University of Oregon describes the model garden city: 

At the center of town, covering 5 to 6 acres, a large, well-watered garden was located. The public could enjoy their days in this peaceful social setting. Beginning at the edge of this garden, six wide boulevards radiated out from the center to the circumference of the city, dividing the city into six sections. Larger public buildings, such as city hall, libraries, museums, hospitals, concert halls, and theatres, encircled the garden at the center of town, providing a central point for the public to come together. A large public park was reserved for the space following the public buildings, providing grounds for recreation. Immediately bordering the park, the Crystal Palace, a glass-covered, open-air market and exhibition space, was to be constructed for the trading of manufactured wares and agricultural goods. Moving further outwards, a series of roads in concentric rings provided avenues for several blocks of residential housing. The streets were to be lined with trees and bushes. Each home had ample space for privacy—but not so much that it was a detriment to social interaction—and ample amounts of sunlight and fresh air. Garden space was available at each home for personal enjoyment and the production of food. The architecture and design of the homes were varied, allowing for personal expression and satisfaction, rather than enforcing a lifeless uniformity in structure… The hope was to integrate the homes into the natural setting of the garden city. Surrounding the series of residential rings, a wide Grand Avenue circled the city, providing an additional zone for gardens, schools, and parks. The outer ring of the city consisted of factories, warehouses, dairies, markets, and timber yards. A railroad circled the outskirts of town operating to transport goods between industries and warehouses as well as reducing traffic through the city. Outside of the city, an extensive agricultural belt existed. On this land, small landholdings, allotments, pastures, large farms, forests, orchards, open space for recreation, and charitable institutions existed. No extensions of the city could be developed in the country-side. This agricultural belt had to be maintained for the health of the land and the people.

It was also a city that had a rich commons. Clark notes that in the original vision “people held control over the means of production through public ownership of the land and the internalization of social wealth.” For Howard, “fundamental to the plan was that the value would be retained in the community: every citizen was to be a shareholder, with the “unearned increment” ploughed back into civic facilities, rather than to absent landlords or speculative investors.” The essential elements of the city were:

  • Strong community engagement
  • Community ownership of land [Howard was also inspired by progressive economist Henry George, who famously argued that land should be collectively owned]
  • Mixed-tenure homes and housing types that are genuinely affordable
  • A wide range of local jobs within easy commuting distance of homes
  • Well designed homes with gardens, combining the best of town and country
  • Green infrastructure that enhances the natural environment
  • Strong cultural, recreational and shopping facilities
  • Integrated and accessible transport

In our own time, someone who started drawing elaborate plans for new cities, unless they were well-connected with a Saudi prince, would end up a lonely crank. But Howard was taken seriously in his time, and he managed to actually get a few garden cities built, Letchworth and Welwyn. I happen to have spent the first years of my life near Welwyn Garden City, a place whose city center looks like this:

Welwyn Garden City is a triumph as a piece of urban planning, pulling off exactly what Howard wanted in his bizarre magnet diagram: the seamless integration of city and country. Planning Tank says of the city that it “has outgrown the expectation of Sir Ebenezer Howard when he first initiated the idea. For many years, it has still survived and is a booming town still attracting residents of all kinds. It reminds people of a city that has the charm of a countryside. Its amenities are very good and provide a convenient location in England for people to travel, known to provide ‘a taste of utopia.’” As Richard Morrison of the Times says, “at a time when millions of twentysomethings are cooped up in their parents’ homes or dismal multi-occupancy flats because of stratospheric rents and house prices, the existence of places such as Welwyn is a reminder that it need not be like this.” That is to say, it need not be like this if human settlements were allowed to expand in the form of sustainable, beautiful new garden cities, rather than the bleak wasteland of the sprawling suburb. A 2012 Guardian profile of Welwyn commented:

Who’d have thought utopia was alive and well and living in Hertfordshire?… [B]eauty and delight Welwyn does have. It was founded in the ’20s when the very Victorian Howard was an old man and the rest of Europe was erupting in modernist fervour. Not Welwyn. With its pretty neo-Georgian cottages, roses round frilly porches, avenues of trees bursting with spring buds, the town (“city” is a little de trop) is a most English, arcadian vision of the future…

The difficulty in building garden cities is that they take a lot of central planning, patience, and an eye for beauty. When private developers build new communities, the result often looks something like this Mexican suburban development: 

This is in part because aesthetic variation, green space, and mixed uses are complicated and cost money, and it is far easier to just throw up a bunch of identical-looking “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” Private interests will never create places that serve the public interest, by definition. 

For Howard, the garden city did not just mean planning with lots of green space. He believed, according to geographer Sir Peter Hall, that the “‘garden city’ was far more than just a town: it was a third socio-economic system, superior both to Victorian capitalism and to bureaucratic, centralised socialism.” When the British Conservative government announced in 2012 that it wanted to use garden cities as a development model, supporters of Howard’s original vision warned that it was easy to overlook the economic part of the model, which was focused on providing urban areas with full employment, affordable housing, adequate leisure time, “freedom,” “cooperation,” and “no sweating” (to quote the third magnet.) The head of the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation said that it was “actually about creating places where people are genuinely happy… open spaces, where people were comfortable and had jobs.” Katy Lock of Britain’s Town and Country Planning Association told the Guardian that “the design and architecture was underpinned by a financial model and system of participative democracy, which meant residents had a real stake in what was built… It really was about a new society.” 

It is certainly possible to ignore Howard’s intentions and take parts of the garden city idea in reactionary directions. While Howard may have been inspired by the socialist and anarchist thinkers of his time, and wanted an egalitarian city that gave workers health and leisure, some later planners retained his idea of open spaces while embodying what James Scott famously called “high modernism,” the confidence that rational planners can reshape society without regard for context and history. Extreme forms of “remaking society,” such as Le Corbusier’s failed plan to knock down much of historic Paris and put up high-rises, can be demented and authoritarian. Jane Jacobs famously critiqued the megalomaniacal urban planning tendencies of the mid-20th century in her magisterial book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, arguing that “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” projects ignored and destroyed the spontaneity that made life in cities thrive. Planners who saw city-dwellers as abstractions were destined to create places people did not want to live in. Howard did not escape Jacobs’ criticism; she said that he “attacked the problem of town planning much as if he were a nineteenth century physical scientist analyzing a two-variable problem of simplicity,” the variables in question being housing and jobs. The critique is in part fair (although the complexity of Howard’s diagrams reveals he had a few more variables in mind). But Jacobs’ own approach virtually precluded building beautiful places. “A city cannot be a work of art,” she declared. 

Urban planning theorist Lewis Mumford criticized Jacobs for offering the equivalent of “a homemade poultice for the cure of cancer,” arguing that in response to the tyrannical overreach of some mid-20th century planning, she had retreated into a philosophy that opposed “rebuilding [civilization] from the ground up,” which he saw as necessary to making it humane. The danger in seeing utopians as megalomaniacs is that in doing so, we may swing too far in the other direction, and develop a suspicion toward big projects altogether, leaving the market rather than planners (whether high modernist or not) to decide what cities ought to look like. (One thing we do know is that the capitalistic city cannot be a work of art.

The fact remains that while Howard’s diagrams were grand and strange, the actual cities that he managed to build are widely considered successful and are well-beloved by their inhabitants. George Bernard Shaw described Howard as “one of those heroic simpletons who do big things whilst our prominent wordlings are explaining why they are Utopian and impossible.” Howard’s book inspired urban planners around the world. Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, based on Howard’s principles and which grew out of a project both Mumford and Eleanor Roosevelt participated in, is regarded as one of the most successful planned communities. (And I am reliably informed by Current Affairs editor Lyta Gold, who lives nearby, that it is indeed quite lovely.) Planning eventually began to drift from Howard’s original ideas (such as in the much less successful British “New Towns” of the postwar period), and abandoned the social aspects of the garden city vision (i.e., the city should exist to facilitate working people’s quality of life, not just be a leafy luxury for the rich). Katy Lock says that by mid-century “everywhere seemed to be calling itself a garden suburb… They were leafy green places inspired by its art and architecture that… had nothing to do with Howard’s ideas.” The term eventually became associated with the “cosy middle England ideal of privet hedges and twitching net curtains, but it began as a radical campaign for co-operative development.” For Howard, planning “was to be a harmonious reconciliation of environmental and social needs,” and “concern for nature could not involve any rejection of humanity.” Lewis Mumford responded harshly to those who believed suburbs with lots of trees could be “garden cities,” saying that the garden city: “is not a suburb but the antithesis of a suburb: not a rural retreat, but a more integrated foundation for an effective urban life.”

Brett Clark writes that Howard eventually “slipped into historical obscurity, and the heart of his garden city proposal has been bypassed in urban planning. The promise of a sustainable future has been sacrificed for the pursuit of profit and urban sprawl.” This is a shame, because those places that were produced by the utopian garden city vision are unique and delightful (not to mention practical). But even Welwyn Garden City, while a visual pleasure, did not manage to maintain the new economic model based originally envisioned. While Howard’s “insistence that profits from the land be repaid into the community continues to exist in Letchworth [Garden City, the other successful Garden City project], this is no longer the case in Welwyn” while “all of those assets that had been generated through the garden city model which originally would have been reinvested in the community were just sold off.”

Several aspects of the garden city movement are worth reviving. The first is the idea of integrating nature and the city more closely. “Elsewhere, the town is invading the country: here, the country must invade the town,” Howard said. Many of our cities are lacking in basic shade cover, and as climate change worsens, treeless places become less and less bearable. (The problem is, of course, far worse for working-class people than for rich people.) But the more important lesson to take from the garden city movement is that we shouldn’t be afraid to dream of new possibilities for the kinds of places people should live. Instead of just having arguments over whether market development should be controlled or left to flourish, we need to go further and think deeply about what kind of cities we would design if we could build places that were ideally fit for human life. New cities are popping up all over the world, but many of them are driven by the greed of developers and the monument-building mentality of rulers rather than by a humane socialistic vision of what the next phase of life on Earth ought to look like. We shouldn’t hesitate to draw diagrams, even somewhat loopy ones, that can stimulate thought and offer inspiration to planners, and planners in turn ought to listen to their communities rather than commanding them from a high modernist perch. (Ross and Cabannes, in their 21st century garden city manifesto, lay out more specifics for the principles that can guide a modern adaptation of the movement’s principles.)

When it comes to the built environment around us, we have become accustomed to accepting what we are given, but in the late 19th century, people dared to believe that radically different modes of living were possible, experimenting with utopian communities and different kinds of cities. Howard tried to imagine something that was neither city nor country, but without being the kind of bleak, unplanned sprawl of the contemporary suburb. If his ideas had been built upon, rather than largely forgotten, it is possible that instead of suburbs we would have lush garden cities. Clark says that in summation, Howard’s work “remains a model for a sustainable relationship with nature, as garden cities offer a possible direction on the route to creating a future in which human society and nature can successfully coevolve.” It is time to envision what the next generation of such places might look like. 

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