Saturday 30 October 2010
Ebenezer Howard: Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902)
Reviewed by Luke Butcher
Perhaps one of the most influential books in the field of urban planning in the past 150 years, Garden Cities of To-morrow was the second edition title (1902) of Ebenezer Howard’s book To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Reform (1898). Within its pages Howard put forth designs for a “social city” that attempted to bridge between the individualist (capitalist) system of the time and the ideals of socialism that were gaining political impetus, with Trade Unions, Co-operatives and ideas of communal land protection (central to Howard’s argument).
Dreamt up during a time when countries were beginning to urbanize (15% of the world’s population were urban, a rapidly growing figure), there were squalid living and working environments and the working class were unable to afford a decent home. Howard’s response was just one of numerous utopian visions that spoke of a better future, with the key difference being that he aimed to produce a scheme that was both realistic and achievable.
The model of a “Garden City” set out in the first chapter of the book is ultimately the greatest legacy of the book, rightly or wrongly, with the subsequent formation of the Garden City Association in 1899 (that 42 years later would become the Town and Country Planning Association) leading to the “Garden City Movement.” The construction of two garden cities – at Letchworth (1903) and Welwyn (1919) – would act as further catalysts for change, that culminated, but was not way limited to, the post-Second World War New Towns Act.
Born the son of a shopkeeper in the City of London, on the 29th of January 1850, Howard, after schooling, took on a number of clerical posts. In 1871, aged 21, he emigrated to the ‘frontier country’ of America to become a farmer. This would prove unsuccessful and he subsequently spent four years living in Chicago, witnessing its’ rebuilding following the great fire. It was during this time he began to contemplate ways to improve cities. He eventually returned to London, in 1876, to a job producing the official verbatim record of Parliament. This would become the primary occupation for the rest of his life and meant he was constantly exposed to the political elite of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Howard began to move in certain social circles, originally through various religious groups, that saw him become involved in late-19th century English social reformism, without ever entering into the socialist mainstream. His political ideologies were more closely aligned to that of the co-operative movement, as opposed to trade union movement.
In addition to these socialist ideologies Howard was heavily influenced by the utopian visions of Edward Bellamy and his publication Looking Backway (1888). According to the ‘great admirer’ of Howard, Frederick J. Osborn, “under the impact of the book the conception of an ideal town came to him as essentially a socialist community.” Howard, in the book itself, highlights three major influences: the proposals for an organized migratory movement of population by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Professor Alfred Marshall; the system of land tenure proposed by Thos. Spence; and the model city of James Buckingham. The ideas put forth in To-morrow were a synthesis of his personal experiences and the works of others.
The Evil of the City
“We are becoming a land of great cities. Villages are stationary or receding; cities are enormously increasing. And if it be true that the great cities tend more and more to become the graves of the physique of our race, can we wonder at it when we see the houses so foul, so squalid, so ill-drained, so vitiated by neglect and dirt?”
It is important to understand the context to which Howard’s work was a reaction. London (and other cities) in the 19th century were in the throws of industrialization, and the cities were exerting massive forces on the labour markets of the time. Massive immigration from the countryside to the cities was taking place with London compared to “a tumour, an elephantiasis sucking into a gorged system[s] half the life and blood and the bone of the rural districts” (Lord Rosebery). This situation was unsustainable and political commentators of all parties sought “how best to provide the proper antidote against the greatest danger of modern existence” (St. Jame’s Gazette, 1892) – the importance of the Boer Wall call up and the realization that the health of the English fighting man had greatly deteriorated can not be forgotten either.
The Three Magnets
To Howard the cure was simple – to reintegrate people with the countryside. In trying to understand and represent the attraction of the city he compared each city to a magnet, with individuals represented as needles drawn to the city. He set about comparing the ‘town and country magnets’ but decided that neither were suitable attractors for his utopian vision. Instead he believed that “Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together” – his solution “the two magnets must be made one.”
The Town-Country Magnet
Building on the principles of the Three Magnets, Howard begins to establish a hypothetical scenario for the testing of his proposals for social reform. To do this the reader is asked to imagine a 6,000-acre estate, purchased for £240,000 and vested in trust to four honourable gentlemen. The Garden City itself was to cover 1,000 acres and be home to 30,000 people. Taking a circular form the city would be divided into six equal Wards, by six main Boulevards (named for pioneers of Human thought) that radiated from a central garden. Around the centre garden would be placed the civic institutions (Town Hall, Library, etc) and then a ‘Central Park,’ which in turn is enclosed by a ‘Crystal Palace’ – an arcade of indoor shops and winter garden. A series of concentric ringed tree-lined Avenues provide the major streets for houses, with a ‘Grand Avenue’ 420-feet wide that is both a 3-mile continuous public park and home to schools and churches. At the edge of the city Howard placed the ‘heavy’ industry of factories and warehouses, with direct access to a Municipal railway that aimed to alleviate pressure on the cities street network and connect the Garden City to the rest of the nation. Surrounding the city the remaining 5,000 acres are a designated Agricultural Belt, home to 2,000 people, with cow pastures, farmland and welfare services including an asylum.
Despite being incredibly descriptive in his proposal Howard repeats on a number of occasions that the design and ideas on planning he puts forth should not be taken verbatim, instead any design should be entirely dependent on the context. The principles, which Howard wanted to emphasise, were not morphological – with the exception of an agricultural belt to limit city growth and concentrate social life within the city (Robert Fishman) – but sociological.
Revenue and Expenditure
Central to Howard’s argument was that the Garden City could operate economically and allow the community to have ownership of the land. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the revenue derived simply from rents could be used to:
- Pay the interest with which the estate was purchased (providing a 4% return for the initial investors
- Provide a sinking fund for the purpose of paying off the principal
- Construct and maintain all the works typically undertaken by municipalities (including a detailed breakdown of associated costs)
- Provide a large surplus for other purposes including old age pensions, medical services and insurance
In dealing with the administration of the Garden City the first question to be dealt with is the extent to which municipal enterprise is carried out and to what extent it should supersede private enterprise. Howard does not advocate the complete municipalisation of industry or the elimination of private enterprise, instead he proposes a cautious and limited municipality that doesn’t attempt “too much.” The activities are to be closely related to the rate-rent of the tenants and would “grow in proportion as municipal work is done efficiently and honestly.”
With this in mind the structure of the municipality and its administration is proposed with a Board of Management composed of The Central Council and The Departments (Public Control, Engineering, Social and Education).
A Welfare Municipality
The Garden City proposal could be read as being in a state of tension between individual and social ideals. This is particularly evident in the explanation of how to create local choice, in terms of goods and services available to citizens, is made by heavily regulated private enterprise. Instead of “an absurd multiplication of shops” providing the same service – a single shop is allowed with the threat of competition (if the community feels the shop keeper is keeping prices to high, paying insufficient wages to his employees, etc) designed to keep prices low and service high. These local tradesmen are in essence municipal servants in all but title; not being bound in what Howard calls the “red tape of officialism.”
Howard hopes that, as opposed to other socialist (including communist) reform experiments of the day, that his proposal would appeal to not only individuals but to co-operators, manufacturers, philanthropic societies, and others experienced in organisation.
Assuming the Garden City model was implemented and found to be successful Howard begins to describe how the City could grow and become part of an integrated network of Garden Cities. The principle of “always preserving a belt of country” around cities should always be maintained, argues Howard, so once a city has reached capacity a new one must be founded outside the agricultural belt (the influence of colonial-models prominent). The off-shoot city would grow organically, a ward at a time. Eventually there a central city (of perhaps 58,000 inhabitants) would be surrounded by a number of smaller off-shoot cities, connected by railroad and canal infrastructure.
Howard ultimately turns his attention back to London, as an example of the “largest and most unwieldy” of 19th century cities, predicting that Garden Cities had the potential to dramatically change London: reducing population, clearing sums and ultimately turning it into a Garden City.
“The time for the complete reconstruction of London – which will eventually take place on a far more comprehensive scale than that now exhibited in Paris, Berlin, Glasgow, Birmingham or Vienna – has however, not yet come. A simpler problem must first be solved. One small Garden City must be built as a working model…”
These predictions are the most utopian of the book and perhaps would have come to fruition if not for a number of external factors that Howard either couldn’t have foreseen or failed to realise the importance of – notably the rise of the automobile.
Legacy of Howard and the Garden City
When To-morrow was first published the world was very different to the media-rich urban environment we currently inhabit. Despite this Ebenezer Howard is still regarded as one of the most important figures in the international development of urban planning. His simple diagrams of the model city have been taken up and reinterpreted a hundred times over across the globe but Howard’s most cherished ideas of social reform had very little impact – his social reformist message was lost.
“Very quickly, the Garden City came to be understood in a more limited sense, as an urban planning model to reform the spatial arrangement of social and economic life. It is through this understanding that Howard’s legacy has largely been experienced.” (Stephen V. Ward).
He set in motion new ideas about hierarchy of services within the city, the essential components of community, being planned with clear zoning principles. Whilst the ideas about hierarchy and zoning were not original in themselves, it was the holistic approach that Howard adopted that helped lend them legitimacy. The idea of the agricultural belt, the ‘bounded’ city, is directly responsible for policies of ‘Green Belt’ in the UK (and other parts of the world) that has since evolved and changed but essentially remains about constricting and controlling urban growth.
Additionally, the debate about the future of American Cities in the 1950s, with the infamous arguments between Jacobs and Mumford, can be traced back to the Garden City Movement. It will forever be associated with the ideas of suburbia and, increasingly, new urbanism.
If there was one enduring legacy though, beyond the physical make-up of the city, it is the importance Howard gave to creating a sense of community and harbouring relationships between human beings, enhancing them through good planning and design that promoted sociability.
Garden Cities of To-morrow Micro Site