Ebenezer Howard – planning for paradise

Ebenezer Howard / Public Domain
The apostle for a new way of life, Ebenezer Howard dreamt of a new world of 'garden cities'.
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With his bald head, bushy moustache and spectacles, Ebenezer Howard looked an unlikely visionary: photographs suggest that Nature intended him to be a provincial bank manager rather than an apostle of a new way of living. Yet it was Howard who, in 1898, announced a reforming project to the world: the garden city, published in a book underwritten from his own scant earnings called To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform. In 1902, this was republished as Garden Cities of To-morrow.

Howard, born in 1850, grew up in the City of London, where his father had some confectionery shops. He left school at fifteen, working first as a clerk, then as a stenographer, for some time in the employ of an inspirational Congregationalist minister. At the age of twenty-one, he impulsively left for Nebraska. He failed as a farmer but was impressed by the rebuilding of Chicago after the 1871 Great Fire and the town planning of Frederick Law Olmsted. Chicago’s motto, as it happens, is Urbs in Horto – the City in a Garden. Coincidence? He said it was, but one wonders.

After five years, he came back to England, working as a short-hand writer, marrying and applying himself to an invention to improve the spacing of typewriters, which never took off. His interest in social issues emerged from his membership of the Zetetical Society, a forerunner of the Fabian Society, where he met the Socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw. After reading the American Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which imagines the United States transformed into an ideal community in the year 2000, he was fired by ‘the splendid possibilities of a new civilisation, based on service to the community, and not on self-interest.’ Tomorrow was the result. It was only published when £50 was put towards the cost and Howard never received any royalties: the contract contained no provision for them, since none was expected.

The condition of Victorian England was the reverse of today. Cities were slum-ridden, smoke-blackened and riddled with disease and prostitution. Country areas suffered depopulation. Howard proposed killing both evils with one stone. A ‘new life, a new civilisation’ would arise from the garden cities, planned by ‘scientific methods,’ that set homes and workplaces amid fresh, healthful countryside. They would be latticed with green paths for walking and bicycling, with protected farmland around the edge, and all needs would be met from their own resources.

Land would be owned in common, so that the community would take advantage of the uplift in prices as the garden city developed. Howard’s ideas did not stay merely on paper. A limited company was formed, capital raised, a landed estate purchased, an architectural competition held (it was won by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin) and, in 1904, Letchworth Garden City was ushered into the world. This was followed by Hampstead Garden Suburb, formed, without Howard’s involvement though planned by Unwin, to prevent an extension of the Northern Line bringing unplanned development that would despoil Hampstead Heath. Welwyn Garden City was begun after the First World War. The direct successor of Letchworth and Welwyn were the New Towns built after 1946: Stevenage, Harlow, Runcorn, etc… and eventually Milton Keynes.

Well, it would be wrong to blame Howard for the New Towns, which became a byword for the evils of planning – although some of early phases of Milton Keynes, when planned centrally rather than thrown on the less than tender mercies of the free market under Margaret Thatcher, were admirable. Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb provide excellent models of domestic architecture, built at a time when such architecture in Britain was going through a Golden Age. The garden city idea remains seductive. Admittedly the notion of having a factory as the central place of work is now outdated: the twenty-first century equivalent would be a high street full of coffee shops in which young people could sit at their laptops. Gardens, with which the homes of the garden city were amply provided, are not universally popular with double income families, who have little time to tend them. As built, Letchworth had fewer houses per acre than Howard intended. As a result, daily life for many people involves a car ride. This is not a principle on which any new settlement should be planned in the 21st century. 

These days, urban extensions such as Poundbury, on the edge of Dorchester, have proved more popular than free-standing developments of any size: an urban extension can take advantage of the services that already exist in the town to which it is attached. It is difficult to imagine that a scheme on the scale of Letchworth would get through the planning system without the sort of government support given to the New Towns, which required their own Act of Parliament and powers of compulsory purchase. There is no appetite for central planning in government – and yet major new developments, on sites specially chosen for the purpose, might be the only way of reaching government targets for house building. One lesson of Letchworth is that the result could, in the right hands, be beautiful.

There are others. Howard was correct to identify landownership as the key to successful place-making, although not perhaps in the way he envisaged. Today, the land market is distorted by the planning system. The constraints are such that there are few development sites to be had. Since such sites are an essential commodity for developers, who can do nothing without them, they’ll fight tooth and nail to get hold of their share – paying top dollar, perhaps over the odds. This leaves nothing to spend on a good architect, or parks, avenues and public buildings. That need not matter to them because, at a time of undersupply, anything they build will sell. Hence the miserable quality of most new housing estates. However, if most of the budget were not blown on buying the site, and the land was in the long-term ownership of people whose sole object was not simply to build, sell and move on – but who had a commitment to how the place looked and worked for future generations – the quality of architecture and urbanism would be greatly improved. 

At Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb, the site is owned by a central management company, from which individual householders hold leases. This gives a far greater degree of community control than that usually provided by the planning system. It is particularly remarkable in Hampstead Garden Suburb, given the high cost of property; but no matter how rich the householder, he is strictly limited in any alteration he proposes for his dwelling. Indeed, millionaires live in the relatively constricted conditions suffered by families before the First World War – apparently happy in the knowledge that the restraints imposed on them apply equally to their neighbours. What a miracle.

Howard must also be thanked for the principle of the Green Belt: the cordon sanitaire that prevents major towns and cities from spilling without constraint into the countryside or merging with next-door settlements. Green belts have their critics. They are not big enough to match the scale of the modern city or the ease of travel; rather than constricting the city to the area within the green belt, which would indeed be a good thing, urban influences simply jump to the next unprotected stretch of countryside beyond. They are sometimes less green belts than grey belts: not radiant countryside so much as edge-of-town areas that lack identity. Yet for all their inadequacy, they have become one of the few conservationist measures that government would be mad to overturn: in the mind of the public, they are sacrosanct.

To these rather technical inspirations must be added another. Howard – the unlearned City clerk and would-be improver of the typewriter – had a fundamental insight that he shared with the world. It is that people of all kinds need Arcadia. If it is unlikely, in the near future, to be provided in genuine new garden cities (as opposed to less self-sufficient developments that are called garden cities to sell them to the public), it must be found elsewhere. He championed garden cities. Today, we have to garden the city.

Clive Aslet

Clive is an award-winning architectural historian and journalist, acknowledged as a leading authority on Britain and its way of life. Clive’s 'The Real Crown Jewels of England' will be published by Little Brown in September. He spent lockdown working on a book about country houses for Yale University Press.

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