By the middle of the 19th century, over half of Britain’s population lived in towns.
In 1900 that proportion had risen to over three quarters. However, English towns and cities presented social and environmental problems of unprecedented scale, and much of Britain’s history in this period is connected with efforts to ameliorate the frightening conditions in which large numbers of people lived.
Out of these efforts emerged the Garden City Movement, a visionary alternative to the apparent chaos of contemporary towns and perhaps one of England’s most radical contributions to urban planning.
Founder Ebenezer Howard
The founder of the Garden City Movement, Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), saw it as the physical setting for a radically different lifestyle involving a ‘joyous union’ of town and country, from which ‘will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation’.
Better housing, more space and a new relationship between town and country lay at the heart of Howard’s efforts to create a new civilisation in a better environment.
His seminal work ‘Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’ (1898) set out his vision for these new communities, which would ‘transform the entire way we think about cities and the way we should plan them.’
Inspiration for garden cities
Howard’s visionary ideas were drawn from many different sources, including Arts and Crafts values and the various attempts during the latter half of the 19th century to improve housing conditions in Britain’s towns.
Examples included the two model villages of Port Sunlight on the Wirral and Bourneville just outside Birmingham.
Howard wanted to combine the town’s best aspects (or magnetic pulls), including jobs, transport and infrastructure, with the best aspects of the countryside, such as space, fresh air and access to nature.
From this ‘perfect combination’ which would include high-quality, affordable homes in well-planned communities, he believed that a better quality of life could be achieved for all.
His design model for this new type of settlement was based on a circular pattern. At the centre was to be a park with public buildings bordered by a circular ‘crystal palace’ for shopping and commerce.
He envisaged crescents and terraces strung along this broad circular ‘Grand Avenue’ with housing quadrangles elsewhere. The avenue’s central greensward would contain schools and churches.
His idea was that each garden city would be limited to 32,000 residents and self-sufficient as far as possible.
The underlying principles of garden cities
The following principles set out by the Town and Country Planning Association in their document ‘New Towns and Garden Cities – Lessons for Tomorrow’ broadly define the essential elements of a garden city.
These elements are all inter-dependent:
- Strong community engagement
- Community ownership of land
- Mixed-tenure homes and housing types that are genuinely affordable
- A wide range of local jobs within easy commuting distance of homes
- Well-designed homes with gardens combining the best of town and country
- Green infrastructure that enhances the natural environment
- Strong cultural, recreational and shopping facilities
- Integrated and accessible transport
Letchworth: the first Garden City
Letchworth was the world’s first Garden City, and construction began in 1903.
The architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin were appointed to design the master plan for the new community, and Unwin set clear standards for which buildings should be designed and constructed.
This included ‘simple and straightforward building’ with ‘the use of good and harmonious materials.’
Housing in Letchworth
Housing in Letchworth reflected many of Howard’s ideals.
With just 12 houses to the acre, clearly defined building standards, tree-lined roads, generous open spaces, and houses grouped into identifiable units, theory and plan were in accord.
The numerous designs of Parker and Unwin set the architectural agenda for the Garden City Movement. Their semi-detached houses in Letchworth Lane were built in 1904 in the vernacular tradition with picturesque groups of dormer windows and tall chimneys. Parker lived in one of these houses, originally called ‘Crabby Corner’ but renamed ‘Arunside‘, from 1906 to 1935.
Innovation in housing design and construction was promoted through exhibitions in the early years at Letchworth, from the Cheap Cottage exhibition of 1905 to the Urban Cottages Exhibition of 1907.
One of the prize-winning exhibits from 1907, designed by Courtenay Melville Crickmer, was 7-17 Lytton Avenue with its tile-hung jettied gables and mansard-roofed ends.
Employment and garden cities
Employment was a key feature of Ebenezer Howard’s concept if the garden city was to become more than a dormitory town.
The first industrial estate at Trafford Park in Manchester provided the model for planning industrial zones within the garden cities.
The typical Victorian factory was to be replaced by spacious buildings full of light, and the Spirella factory in Letchworth exemplified this with its two glazed workshop wings.
The Garden City was Howard’s ‘big idea’ and gained worldwide acclaim. After Letchworth came Hampstead Garden Suburb in 1907 (not strictly a garden city, but Letchworth strongly influenced it) and Welwyn Garden City in 1920.
The significance of the movement has sometimes been overlooked. Howard’s ideas inspired not just the handful of settlements with the ‘garden city’ tag but also housing provisions in almost every town in the country.
His ideas were also to have considerable influence, including in America, Canada, South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as in Europe. Quite an achievement.