The garden city idea was conceived in late-nineteenth-century Britain by London-born stenographer and inventor Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928). A garden city movement emerged, inspired by his seminal text Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), revised as Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902), and by the example of on-the-ground models. The movement supported Howard’s objectives of improved residential environments and social opportunity. It made an enduring contribution to international planning thought by fostering the growth of planned residential communities and shaping ideas about the form and size of cities and towns.
The process of industrialization placed immense pressure on the physical resources of cities while at the same time depleting the agrarian workforce. Manufacturing processes and products took precedence over workers’ needs. Employees toiled long hours and lived in overcrowded, often degraded, accommodations close to their workplace. Parks and gardens—green spaces—were rare, so there was little escape from industrial din and pollution. Social communication waned; crime and immorality increased.
For much of the nineteenth century, the social condition and the issue of land reform occupied reformers, economists, and intellectuals in Britain and elsewhere. In an earnest attempt to find a way forward, societies, organizations, and ameliorative action groups were formed; meetings and debates held; publications released; and theories and schemes advanced. Industrialists made practical efforts to improve employees’ working and living conditions. Well-known ventures in England included Lever Brothers’ soap factory at Port Sunlight, Liverpool (1888), and the Cadbury chocolate-making enterprise at Bournville, Birmingham (1879). Elsewhere there was Agneta Park near Delft, Holland, and industrial villages outside Noisiel, France, Essen, Germany, and in the United States at Lowell, Massachusetts.
Ebenezer Howard drew from a full larder of antecedents in devising his unique solution to urban disorder and misery. The answer was “Garden City,” a town located in a rural setting but presenting all urban functions and services, thus combining the advantages of both town and country life. His scheme affirmed the role of the individual and the home in the urban landscape and the importance of satisfaction with home and place in the building of community. It would provide decent housing, ample opportunity for social interaction, and contact with nature to help keep mind and body healthy.
Garden City was envisioned as a preplanned, self-contained community of about 32,000 people. Its notional circular layout was enveloped and restricted by a greenbelt that offered clean air and space for agricultural and recreational pursuits. The city was divided into six equal segments or wards, separated by boulevards with a public park at the center and designated sites for municipal buildings, dwellings, churches, schools, and playgrounds. Shops were housed in a glass arcade encircling the central park. Facilities were within easy walking distance of all the houses. The industrial sector was placed at the perimeter and segregated from the residential to isolate noise and pollution. The garden city’s self-governing community was to own and administer the land on which it was built; revenue would be derived from ground rents and profits returned for the communal benefit. Howard envisaged that once the population reached its limit, a new garden city would be established nearby, eventually creating a cluster of satellite communities—“Social City”—interconnected by a rapid-transit system.
The Garden City Association (1899) and its successor, the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association (1909), supported Howard’s idea and promoted the construction of a model. The first was Letchworth Garden City, begun in 1904 in Hertfordshire, England, to a design by British architect-planner Raymond Unwin (1863–1940) and architect Barry Parker (1867–1941). A second garden city was built at Welwyn (1921). As its chief practitioner, Unwin played a vital role in disseminating the goals and principles of garden city planning.
Letchworth demonstrated that Howard’s holistic vision was difficult to implement, but it was lauded nonetheless for its exposition of the physical, environmental aspects of the idea (rather than its economic, political, and social themes). It featured low-density development; land-use zoning; separate industrial and residential areas; existing natural features; variation in road width; harmony in building scale, form, colors, and materials; public open space; private and public gardens; and tree-lined streets. These components became popularly accepted as standard for planning “on garden city lines” and informed the design of residential offspring of the garden city—garden suburbs, towns, and villages. The most renowned of these, Unwin’s Hampstead Garden Suburb (1907), northwest of London, was the model for subsequent and numerous developments in England, continental Europe, the United States, Australasia, Asia, and Africa. In accord with garden city wisdom, each was adapted to suit local topographical, social, economic, and cultural conditions. However, the theory underpinning the form was the same.
At the metropolitan level, Howard’s argument for forward-looking, comprehensive planning and his vision of decentralized satellite cities surrounded by greenbelts offered a new planning approach and paradigm. It demonstrated how the city could be kept in touch with nature and introduced the concept of the master plan for metropolitan and regional development that was taken up as the century progressed. The garden city idea endured and came to the fore in the post–World War II new towns program developed in England to accommodate population overflow in London (“Mark I” towns) and later in provincial cities like Liverpool (“Mark II”). Stevenage (1946) in Hertfordshire was the first of the twenty-eight new towns established in Britain. New towns became an international phenomenon, and present-day planning movements such as New Urbanism acknowledge their debt to the garden city idea.
Letchworth, Welwyn, Hampstead Garden Suburb, and many of their international offspring survive. Some have been designated as heritage conservation areas. These now mature examples of planning “on garden city lines” continue to be attractive and desirable residential environments, proving the soundness of the philosophy that underpinned their plan.