The Garden City, Revisited

Sir Ebenezer Howard was a true visionary. In 1898 he wrote ‘To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’ which outlined his vision of towns in the UK. He wanted to create towns that would be truly sustainable, desirable places to live and work, without slums and poverty. He understood human dynamics and our unbreakable relationship with nature. He recognised Man’s desire to be in contact with the natural environment and our rising fondness for suburban dwelling.

His movement, the Garden City Association (later to be called the Town and Country Planning Association) had real results. It can lay claim to creating two entirely new towns, Letchworth Garden City (1903) and Welwyn Garden City (1920’s). Both could be called the ‘home’ of town planning, precursors and arguably basic blue-prints for the Britain’s twenty-one New Towns that were built between 1946 and 1970. These New Towns have subsequently been used as valuable case studies by urban planners when designing new conurbations across the globe.

Of course, Sir Howard’s vision has been distorted and added to along the way. This seems to me to be both fortunate and unfortunate. He envisaged a scenario where the over crowded urban centres ‘over-spill’ to New Towns and Garden Cities created in the countryside. Given the population growth of the UK (since 1946), the average Briton might be glad that this hasn’t happened, at least to the extent Howard proposed. After all, green space in the UK is a prized asset, something that the general public and the likes of the pressure group, Campaign to Protect Rural England, are so adamant to preserve. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that we do not have more green space in our cities. Clean air and water are often lacking and there is a ubiquitous congestion problem.

The future then is where we must look. Mistakes of the past are evident, but the aspirations of the likes of Ebenezer Howard are not forgotten. Eco-Towns may sound like a new concept but fundamentally they are little more than a re-branding by the UK government (and other governments) of Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities. We also need to look at innovative as well as simple ways of bringing nature back to existing cities, ways including those my fellow bloggers have previously proposed, like tree planting and other greenery mechanisms. By looking back, and forward, we can maximise our chances of achieving a sustainable urban environment. Let’s also learn about what is already out there. In some African capitals, such as Accra, there has emerged a potential blue print for a new type of urbanisation. High density tower blocks interspersed with city gardens giving space to grow food and vegetables. Green space with a purpose, unglamorous but effective. An old idea; successfully and perhaps necessarily, revisited.

James Shepherd (Cambridge, UK).

1 comment:

Hels said...

Very interesting post, James. I drew a link from your blog to mine, citing your work fully.

What I don't understand is why it took so long to get going on building the New Towns. Only a couple of Garden Cities were built between a] the time Howard did his writing and organisational work from 1898 on and b] the post WW2 world.

Was the idea not financially viable? Was it considered conceptually flawed? Did local governments not commit themselves to new practices in land utilisation?

Helen Webberley