The foundations of the Garden City movement

The best way to get know Ebenezer Howard is to read his book but this is our simple (ish) guide to the heart of Garden City idea. 

When people hear the words ‘Garden City’, they usually think about tree-lined streets or Howard's beautiful diagrams illustrating how a new Garden City might be laid out and organise itself. You can read more about that in the Garden City museum. These spatial representations of the Garden City idea are important and useful, but in many ways mask the powerful roots of the Garden City idea. The two Garden Cities and Letchworth and Welwyn were experiments in making Howard's vision a reality.  Our work on modern Garden City Principles has sought to articulate the core aspects of the Garden City idea in a way which would work in policy and practice in our current development and planning system, to improve the places we plan for and delivery today. We need to go beyond this to see the holistic and real changes necessary for a fairer and more sustainable future. In this section, we have sought to reveal the foundations of the Garden City idea, to understand what it is Howard was really trying to achieve - the ‘engine’ (or Power Station!) behind his powerful diagrams. 

What was the Garden City idea really all about?

Howard was a magpie for good ideas and so you won't find any purist ideology in his writing. This is a generous, inclusive and peaceful agenda which does not seek to control human behaviours but does hope to enable what's best in humanity. The Garden City idea was and remains the least authoritarian suggestion for social organisation depending on the triumph of goodwill and cooperation over greed and bad faith. The Garden City idea is humane and adaptable which is which is why it is both endured and been subject to such spectacular distortion. For the sake of promoting our conversation we suggest you can see the Garden City idea as having 3 broad foundations:  

1 For People and Planet: Human well-being should be our point of departure in thinking about the future  

Howard never claimed to be a great philosopher, but he started from a broad moral assumption that human beings were capable of kindness and cooperation.   The core task was to construct the conditions of a life which enables human beings to thrive. So, we began with the welfare of the human condition as the first test of the Garden City. There was nothing religious or dogmatic in this view, although it was informed by the moral fashions of the time and Howard’s nonconformist background. It accepted people as diverse and complex but also creative and cooperative and sought to organise communities to meet those complex needs. This is partly why the Edwardian media sneered at the early residents of Letchworth Garden City.  Too many artistic, vegetarian, sandal wearing cranks reading poetry in the trees! All of these ideas and behaviours have become unremarkable now, but they were indicators both of the ambition and inclusiveness of the Garden Cities. It also stands in stark contrast with all the 20th century experiments in social organisation of the far right and the far left, which were defined by a staggering level of authoritarianism.  

If the starting point of the Garden City is to meet human needs, then we can see why Howard became interested in the marriage of the very best of town and country. From John Ruskin and William Morris, he takes the assumption that human beings are part of nature and not separate from it. We are dependent on nature for all aspects of our lives so to prioritise human well-being is to prioritise a sustainable planet.  The two ideas are indivisible.  He accepted both the spiritual value of nature and laid across that the data that was emerging on the value of fresh air, exercise, sunlight, wholesome food and clean air to human health and well-being. But Howard’s vision is more sophisticated than simplistic ideas of ‘back to the land’ because it recognised the value of many aspects of city life. The vibrant and creative culture, the availability of art and entertainment, the institutions of learning and, above all, the human need for sociability. In colliding the best of town and country he hoped to create the ideal human environment avoiding the poverty and isolation of the countryside and the overcrowding, pollution and shocking housing conditions of the industrial city.  

2 For a Fairer Society: Democracy and self-organisation are essential to make change happen    

Howard took as read the need for democracy in the Garden City and wrote in detail about how that would work in practice based on equality in voting rights. But here the influence of the anarchist Kropotkin gives the Garden Cities an added depth and spice. Howard assumed that many more aspects of daily life would be subject to the democratic control of the community through municipal organisation. Because the assets of a Garden City were in the hands of the community, local democracy was to be meaningful in shaping the decisions that mattered to people.  Howard was also famously suspicious of the central state partly because of its obvious inactivity in solving the problems that Howard was interested in. Again, this isn't Howard being ideologically anti state so much as recognising that it was mostly useless in actually making things happen.    

But the question of how far community self-organisation can go became a critical argument in the Garden City movement. The lessons from Letchworth about undercapitalisation and, as a result, slower than hoped for development, and the real disagreements amongst the personalities involved in the Garden City, led Frederic Osborn to see the state as having a central enabling role in new communities. It was that assumption that shaped the New Towns programme. In the process, and despite his best efforts, post war New Towns lost a crucial element of community ownership. Colin Ward pushed back in the 1970s with his do-it-yourself new town and championed, along with people like Tony Gibson, the power of cooperative self-build. Significantly the question about what role the state should play in enabling community development of any kind remains unanswered but the prospect of a helpful and enabling government supporting communities is a tantalizing one.  

3 Land, Finance and Practical Idealism: A cooperative economy and sharing development values provide the machinery of hope  

The greater part of Howard’s book sets out the complex economic machinery which proved to be so persuasive in the Garden City idea. Anyone can dream about a new society, but very few find ways of making it a practical reality. And that practical test is the enduring challenge Howard has left us. Dreaming of utopia is easy but how do we pay for it?      

There are two levels to Howard’s economic approach. In the broadest terms, Howard wanted to flip the economy so the profits from those activities core to community development would not be extracted for private gain and instead reinvested for the benefit of the whole community. In that sense it was a classic mutualised approach based on what might now be called ‘control of the foundational economy’. It clearly built upon the values of the cooperative movement, but his ideas gave a coherent framework to apply cooperative principles to a wide slice of local economic activity.  In that sense Howard’s ideas prefigured all the contemporary debates about the creation of social value.  

It is important to be clear that for Howard the Garden City was not ‘anti’ the private sector in any ideological or dogmatic way. The Garden City idea is based on a mixed economy, with space for private enterprise, but also where the core activities necessary to secure the objectives of human thriving are conducted on a social rather than anti-social basis. The administration of the financial heart of Howard’s Garden City was to be carried out by a limited dividend company, a private sector vehicle but with charitable commitments. The private investment required to finance a Garden City project would provide a return for investors, but in addition, a share to lead the development process as well as reinvest in a form of Garden City welfare state.  

The early development of Letchworth Garden City in which all key retail, utilities, leisure activities along with land and housing were mutualised gives a glimpse of the ambition. The Spirella corset factory which played a key part in the development of the town’s economy was, however, in private hands. This overall economic approach appears extraordinarily radical now but at the time municipal enterprises controlled all the key functions upon which many cities like Birmingham and Liverpool depended.  In some industrial town’s cooperatives dominated service delivery from the baby’s cradle to milk and bread to an affordable burial.    

If the headlines of Howard’s model lie in this cooperative, municipal and mutualised approach then it's important to recognise that his detailed proposals represented a sophisticated way of capturing values and providing long term income streams to pay, without the need for local taxation, for all the necessities of the good life up to and including old age pensions. The values were created through the process of community development they were founded on; the increasing land values which arise from the development of agricultural land and crucially from the mutualised profits of the enterprises core to the support of urban life like utilities. The detailed sources included commercial rents from property, the agricultural estate, rental incomes from leasehold homes and from municipal enterprises and other commercial activities. The periodic revaluation of rental incomes allowed for the fair distribution of increasing asset values. All of this was to be managed by a central committee. In essence Howard offers a detailed viability assessment for the delivery of a large-scale cooperative community and demonstrated how, over time, it could be financially self-sustaining.  

The Garden City weave  

Even in 1898 the ideas contained within each of these three strands were not new. What was unique was the way Howard wove them together to create a powerful place-based vision of a better future for ordinary people and the enabling structures to deliver it. It was genuinely a unique combination of proposals which offered an enabling framework for human society. Howard sold these ideas in a humane and nondoctrinaire way, making them attractive to a wide segment of late Victorian society who he needed to get the Garden Cities built.  Everyone from philanthropic industrialists to aristocratic landowners were in the Garden City tent.    

The Chapter 13: the bit no one reads  

Going back to Howard’s original Garden City idea is a reminder of just how many myths have built up about his proposals. And the final part of that mythology is that Howard was only interested in the creation of new communities. His ideas are often dismissed as utopian because people argued they ignored Britain's existing urban fabric. And it's true that after the powerful language and detailed economics which dominates Howard’s work, chapter 13 feels like a bit of a postscript. But the ideas contained within it, although brief, are significant. In essence, Howard is arguing for the redevelopment of the existing industrial cities of Britain at much higher standards, and in some cases at lower densities to enable a measure of the same quality of life that he hoped to achieve in the new Garden Cities. Admittedly, the economic assumptions are not as sure footed and depend on declining land prices that resulted from population shifts.    

The contemporary challenge for us is how a current trend for densification of places like London can be made compatible with decent lives and the climate crisis. It's also clear that the general principles which underpinned the Garden Cities, of human well-being, democracy, mutualised and local economic activity, present just as powerful answer to the regeneration of existing places as they do for the construction of new ones.  

Further thoughts on the foundation of the Garden City idea are set out in the TCPA's background paper, available in the resources section below. 

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