The history of Garden Cities

The Garden City story is one of radicalism, hope and practical idealism. You can read a detailed history in the TCPA’s books, available here and here. And in free publications here and here.  

The Garden City idea emerged from over half a millennium of thinking about how we might live. The final element in the vibrant mix of utopian thinking that characterised the end of the 19th century was Ebenezer Howard. Howard was a  parliamentary clerk, who spent his time recording political debates at Westminster.  

He had tried his hand as a farmer in the US before he returned to write his seminal work, To-morrow: a peaceful path to real reform. Howard’s book, like Thomas More’s Utopia, is one of the landmarks of the utopian tradition.

To-morrow was, above all, a synthesis of many of the key ideas of the time. Howard was influenced by Ruskin, Kropotkin,  Morris and Henry George, but managed to  combine a visionary sense of how people  could live with a key financial measure that  would make that vision a reality. The heart  of his vision was the idea of the garden  city. These new self-contained towns  would replace slums with high-quality  housing for working people; each house  would have a decent garden and generous  play space for children. The garden cities  would provide for the best blend of town  and country, not just allowing access to  the natural environment but bringing that  environment into the heart of the city.  

These communities would be surrounded by a belt of agricultural land, which would  provide local food for the population  as well as access to the countryside.  

This union of town and country would  encourage healthy communities, not just  through physical activity and fresh air but  via a healthy social life (as well as sufficient  personal space). The  garden cities would also have integrated  transport systems and a strong emphasis  on democratic, community governance.  

Each would provide its own employment,  in order to limit commuting. They would be  towns ‘designed for industry and healthy  living; of a size that makes possible a  full measure of social life, but not larger;  surrounded by a permanent belt of rural land; the whole of the land being in  public ownership or held in trust for the  community’.

The Social City 

Howard did not envisage isolated communities. He set out a vision for a garden city that would  reach an ideal population of around 32,000 people. Once this planned limit had been reached,  a new city would be started a short distance away, followed by another, and another, until a  network of such places was created, with each city providing a range of jobs and services, but  each connected to the others through excellent public transport, providing all the benefits of a  much larger city but with each resident having easy access to the countryside. Howard called  this network of connected settlements the ‘Social City’. 

The garden city financial model  

Under Ebenezer Howard’s garden city model, the land ownership (in today’s terms, the freehold) of the entire development would be retained by a limited-profit, semiphilanthropic body similar to a community interest company or trust: income earned from capitalising on the increasing land values which result from development – known as ‘betterment’ – and from residential and commercial leaseholders (with uplift on reversion at the end of lease periods) would be used to repay the original development finance debts. As these debts were gradually paid off, and as land values rose, the money could be increasingly invested in community assets and services, building up what we might think of as the garden city ‘mini-welfare state’.

The garden city idea progressed at an astonishing speed; a year after publishing To-morrow, Howard and his supporters formed the Garden Cities Association (which became the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association in 1909 and the Town and Country Planning Association in 1941). By 1903, the Association’s Garden City Pioneer Company was set up to find a site, and First Garden City Limited was formed to build the first garden city at Letchworth, Hertfordshire, designed by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin. But it was not a straight trajectory. Letchworth Garden City struggled to assemble enough low-interest loans for the start-up phase of capital works, and although the outbreak of war in 1914 gave a boost to the local economy (the dust-cart building company, for example, switched over to making armoured vehicles), building materials and labour were in short supply. Even so, Letchworth inspired countless developments around the world, and its cooperative spirit and socialist ideals attracted ‘every sandal-wearing, vegetarian, teetotaller’, an association which later the new towns tried their best to shrug. Another key pre-war moment came in 1912, when Raymond Unwin, who had left Letchworth to work on Hampstead Garden Suburb, published Nothing Gained by Overcrowding!, an influential pamphlet which set out how an alternative to bylaw terraces – the housing standard at the time – could improve the way people live. Nothing Gained by Overcrowding! was influential in the design and layout of new homes but its publication was also to mark Unwin’s second transformation, from campaigning outsider to the UK’s most influential chief planner. The year 1912 was also notable as the time when Frederic James Osborn, a former clerk, aged just 27, joined the Howard Cottage Society at Letchworth as secretary and manager. Osborn went on to be the driving force behind the postwar New Towns programme that followed.

To be continued…

The TCPA and Garden Cities

The TCPA’s values are built on a powerful history of utopian and progressive ideas which shaped the Garden City movement and which continue to provide a rich and creative springboard for shaping the future. Founded by Sir Ebenezer Howard in 1899 the TCPA represented a fusion of ideas about social justice, beauty in design, health and wellbeing and economic efficiency advocated by those such as John Ruskin, William Morris and Henry George. The pioneers of the movement, including Raymond Unwin, transformed the way society thought about and built places. They saw planning as being concerned with all aspects of human behaviour, from art and culture to education and the nature of work.   They recognised the intrinsic value of beauty in design and in the natural environment to people’s health and wellbeing. For the TCPA planning was, and remains, a creative artistic activity as well as technical and analytical.

The TCPA founded the first Garden Cities in Letchworth and Welwyn and successfully secured the first planning legislation in 1909. The association campaigned through the inter-war period for new settlements and a transformation in housing standards sparking a worldwide interest in town planning. 

Find out more about the TCPA and its history at 

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