A Brief Introduction to Garden Cities

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

Ebenezer Howard memorial plaque by James Woodward, Howardsgate, Welwyn Garden City.

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

Aerial view of Port Sunlight on the Wirral, begun in 1888 by William Hesketh Lever to house his workers.

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, such as the two model villages of Port Sunlight on the Wirral (shown above) and Bourneville just outside Birmingham.

Howard’s vision

The Three Magnets, in which Ebenezer Howard brilliantly summarised his concept of a ‘joyous union’ of town and country.

Howard wanted to combine the best aspects (or magnetic pulls) of the town, 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 ideal was that each garden city would be limited to 32,000 residents and as far as possible self-sufficient.

The underlying principles of garden cities

First Garden City Ltd, Estate Office, Broadway, Letchworth, a Lutyens-influenced prototype for later civic buildings

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

Aerial view of Letchworth
The sinews of the Parker and Unwin layout for Letchworth, the first garden city, stand out on this aerial photograph from 2009.

Letchworth was the world’s first Garden City and construction began here in 1903. The architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin were appointed to design the masterplan for the new community and Unwin set out clear standards to which buildings should be designed and constructed. This included: ‘Simple and straightforward building’ with ‘the use of good and harmonious materials.’

Housing in Letchworth

16b.tif
The offices of architects Parker and Unwin on Norton Way South took the form of a thatched vernacular hall house.

Housing in Letchworth reflected many of Howard’s ideals. With just 12 houses to the acre, clearly defined building standards, tree-lined roads and generous open spaces as well as houses grouped into identifiable units, theory and plan were in accord.

Crabby Corner
‘Crabby Corner’ (now ‘Arunside’) in Letchworth Lane, designed in 1904 by Parker and Unwin.

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.

No.s 7-17 Lytton Avenue, prizewinning cottages designed for the 1907 Urban Cottage Exhibition.

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 No.s 7-17 (odd) Lytton Avenue with its tile-hung jettied gables and mansard-roofed ends.

Westholm Green, designed by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin in 1906 for Garden City tenants.

The grouped cottages of Westholm, (1906), Birds Hill / Ridge Road (1906) and Pixmore (1907-9) were developed by Garden City Tenants with their own greens, recreation areas and Institute.

Employment and garden cities

Spirella
Spirella factory, Letchworth with charabancs outside, waiting to take the workers to the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

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 the planning of 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 legacy

Map of Hampstead
The ‘definitive’ Parker and Unwin drawing of the layout of Hampstead Garden Suburb, 1911.

The Garden City was Howard’s ‘big idea’ and it gained worldwide acclaim. After Letchworth came Hampstead Garden Suburb in 1907 (not strictly a garden city but it was strongly influenced by Letchworth) 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 provision in almost every town in the country. His ideas were also to have considerable influence further afield, including in America, Canada, South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as in Europe. Quite an achievement.

Further information

To find out more about the origins and history of garden cities, see English Garden Cities An Introduction by Mervyn Miller, published by English Heritage (now Historic England).

Browse other titles published by Historic England.

See New Towns and Garden Cities – Lessons for Tomorrow. Stage 1: An Introduction to the UK’s New Towns and Garden Cities published by the Town and Country Planning Association (2014)

Visit the First Garden City Heritage Museum in Letchworth.

 

 

5 responses to A Brief Introduction to Garden Cities

  1. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    I have loved the history of garden cities, ever since spouse and I lived in Herts many decades ago. In particular there was a ton to write about Bedford Park, Letchworth, Welwyn and Hampstead Garden Cities. And other countries as well including Sydney and Tel Aviv.

    But your photos are gorgeous, so I thank you for the link.
    Hels

    http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2009/01/garden-cities.html http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/bedford-park-1875-80-first-garden.html
    http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2015/03/haberfield-very-early-garden-city-in.html

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicholas Hudson says:

    We feel very lucky and privileged to have lived in Welwyn Garden City for 24 years.

    Like

  3. Stacy Cosham says:

    Reblogged this on A Girl from Devon and commented:
    Few readers will know that one of my jobs is working in a local authority planning department. I often find it fascinating during the planning process for future development, how our residents in the “urban sprawl” from Norwich and the more rural areas feel that the garden village element is being lost with overcrowding.

    Certainly, populations have increased that in most areas it would be impossible to keep within Ebenezer’s target of only 32,000 people per garden village. But he remains a founding father of planning and his books are still physically referred to as we attempt to update planning policy and design.

    To quote from Heritage Calling:
    “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.”

    Do you believe we are still achieving his aspirations? Do you have green areas and local shops where you live to remain self sufficient?

    I have plenty of park land around my ‘curly-whirly’ estate and one shop. I can’t be self sufficient but the industrial estate with a supermarket is less than 30 minutes walk and a shorter car journey. From that standing point, I believe Ebenezer’s vision remains a reality.

    Like

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