Although I live a few miles away from one of Ebenezer Howards's garden cities, Welwyn Garden City, I confess to knowing very little about the garden cities movement. I've heard the term crop up from time to time, even at the beginning of this year as a re-visited housing strategy, but I haven't taken the time to find out more. That's why I've been doing some research on it for this post. In light of some of the recent subjects we've been discussing on the podcast, it's also made me wonder whether garden cities eventually just become cities!
First, let's look at some of the fundamentals of garden cities and consider Ebenezer Howard's vision.
Ebenezer Howard's Self-Contained Cities
Ebenezer Howard was a reformist who sought to provide an alternative to the overcrowded cities (where standards were deteriorating) by creating self-contained communities, each surrounded by green belt land. He wanted a place that balanced housing, industry and agriculture, finding a middle ground between town and country, and enjoying the benefits of each without the disadvantages. Community was at the heart of this, with a co-operative approach envisaged for land ownership and food grown on the surrounding fields. Howard also proposed that satellite cities would surround a larger city (as in the plan below).
It's interesting to note that Howard had limited practical experience but nonetheless managed to plan and realise two cities in Hertfordshire, UK. His ideas were documented in the publication ‘To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform' in 1898 and were later revised for ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow'. Making it a reality on the ground was a massive challenge. In 1899, with backing from wealthy investors, construction of Letchworth Garden City began. Some of Howard's ideals had to be comprised, as investors sought to profit from the new town whereas Howard had proposed a much more egalitarian society.
For his second garden city, about 20 years later, Howard bought the land himself. Welwyn Garden City would benefit from the experienced gained in Letchworth.
Garden Cities Are Still Great Places to Live
Creating a city from scratch is quite a responsibility. As I think about Welwyn Garden City nearly 100 years after it was conceived, there is no doubt it is desirable. A magnificent boulevard is still a striking feature. Trees line the roads. The grass verges are wider than perhaps they needed to be and there is space. I personally feel this ‘connection with something green‘ is vital in all our lives but I can see the flip side of the coin. Critics of garden cities suggest that low density housing wastes land and invariably forces us into our cars. In an energy-constrained future, we need sustainable urban spaces. Striking that balance is difficult.
Maintaining The Population of a Town is a Challenge
I have questions about whether you can maintain the size of a town or city in this current cycle of growth. Yes, we cannot keep on multiplying as a species indefinitely, as the planet does not have the resources, but where does that leave us with creating great places to live? If there is an optimum amount of people for a town or city – as Howard proposed in his garden cities with 32,000 per satellite city – there will come a time when the city is full. The only way to maintain this population would be to police it. Construction would have to stop or only replace like for like (in terms of capacity). As far as I'm aware we're not doing that.
Part of Howard's vision was to start the next city at this point anyway. As these new cities are not on the cards, what happens to the population of existing garden city? Is a green belt only a protected area until more land is needed? My experience is that towns keeping growing. If the green belt is respected then old houses get removed in favour of new higher density housing. Gardens get split in half and have a new house at the other end. Over time this must have an impact.
Where Does That Leave us Today?
We have to set our targets high, like Howard did with his Utopian dream, when we are planning places to live. In an energy-constrained future, the vision of our cities – particularly if starting from scratch – is more important than ever. Sustainable urban systems are essential as the greatest impact on the natural environment is made, ironically, in our cities. Although this self sufficiency did not happen in Howard's two garden cities, perhaps it's becoming a much more relevant idea once again. If travel becomes a luxury, working where we live or remotely via the Internet would increase. We'd also need to cater for the products that we used to import from the other side of the world.
Could Self Build Communities be The Modern Garden Cities?
The more I consider the self build market, the more I like it. Self build communities seem to encapsulate the passion that Ebenezer Howard had for planning better places to live, the only difference being that everyone has an input once the master planning has been done. Not only are houses likely to be built to a better overall standard, but they are bespoke to the individual's needs and this whole construction process creates bonds in the community. It seems possible that this is the natural progression of the garden city model.
Is the garden city movement something that is still relevant today? How do we create sustainable urban areas?