Ebenezer Howard — the Garden Cities

7295314Ebenezer Howard’s vision  of garden cities has had an enormous impact upon urban planning and the development of cities around the world. Arguably, a rather disastrous one being used as a validation of endless expansion into suburbs of cul-de-sacs and meanders and the resulting sprawl. Rarely is Howard’s actual vision for garden cities remembered:

The whole of the experiment which this book describes…represents pioneer work, which will be carried out by those who have not a merely pious opinion, but an effective belief in the economic, sanitary, and social advantages of common ownership of land, and who, therefore, are not satisfied merely to advocate that those advantages should be secured on the largest scale at the national expense, but are impelled to give their views shape and form as soon as they can see their way to join with a sufficient number of kindred spirits. (58)

This is a reaction to the terrible conditions of the city, and the crisis there provoked by people streaming in from the countryside:

There is, however, a question in regard to which one can scarcely find any difference of opinion. It is wellnigh universally agreed by men of all parties, not only in England, but all over Europe and America and our colonies, that it is deeply to be deplored that the people should continue to stream into the already over-crowded cities, and should thus further deplete the country districts.

The results of this are in fact widely agreed — Howard quotes Lord Roseberry as chairman of the London County Council (ah, the old LCC):

‘There is no thought of pride associated in my mind with the idea of London. I am always haunted by the awfulness of London: by the great appalling fact of these millions cast down, as it would appear by hazard, on the banks of this noble stream, working each in their own groove and their own cell, without regard or knowledge of each other, without heeding each other, without having the slightest idea how the other lives–the heedless casualty of unnumbered thousands of men.’

Dean Farrar says:

‘We are becoming a land of great cities. Villages are stationary or receding; cities are enormously increasing. And if it be true that great cities tend more and more to become the graves of the physique of our race, can we wonder at it when we see the houses so foul, so squalid, so ill-drained, so vitiated by neglect and dirt?’

He quotes labour leaders Ben Tillet and Tom Mann as well, which is nice to see.

Howard argues that to keep people from moving to the city, country towns have to provide three things — wages that allow people a certain standard of comfort, equal possibilities of social intercourse, and opportunities for advancement…and I love this diagram and it’s central question ‘THE PEOPLE: where will they go?’:

Ebenezer Howard - Garden City

If we no longer wish for THE PEOPLE to come to London, what is to be done? The building of garden cities, capturing the best of all possible worlds:

a third alternative…the magnet which will produce the effect for which we are all striving–the spontaneous movement of the people from our crowded cities to the bosom of our kindly mother earth, at once the source of life, of happiness, of wealth, and of power.

But neither the Town magnet nor the Country magnet represents the full plan and purpose of nature. Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together. The two magnets must be made one. As man and woman by their varied gifts and faculties supplement each other, so should town and country. The town is symbol of society–of mutual help and friendly ‘co-operation, of fatherhood, motherhood, brotherhood, sisterhood, of wide relations between man and man–of broad, expanding sympathies–of science, art, culture, religion. And the country! The country is the symbol of God’s love and care for man.

Thus the Garden City must be brought to birth. He has worked out just what it should look like:

Howard - Garden Cities of Tomorrow
“A ground plan of the whole municipal area, showing the town in the centre…”

Howard - Garden Cities of Tomorrow

My favourite part of this plan, I think, is this:

Running all round the Central Park (except where it is intersected by the boulevards) is a wide glass arcade called the ‘Crystal Palace’, opening on to the park. This building is in wet weather one of the favourite resorts of the people, whilst the knowledge that its bright shelter is ever close at hand tempts people into Central Park, even in the most doubtful of weathers. (4)

It does sound rather nice, I love arcades though I don’t much care for shopping. What a beautiful structure that could be though. I also love the elements of sustainability built in, as this was written in a time of nowhere near so much plenty as today — a time to which we are soon returning:

the smoke fiend is kept well within bounds in Garden City; for all machinery is driven by electric energy, with the result that the cost of electricity for lighting and other purposes is greatly reduced.

The refuse of the town is utilized on the agricultural portions of the estate, which are held by various individuals in large farms, small holdings, allotments, cow pastures, etc…. (6)

So the question arises, how are the garden cities to be built, how financed? He embarks on rents, working hard to show that building this city is a viable investment — from a Marxist perspective it is interesting that he notes:

Perhaps no difference between town and country is more noticeable than the difference in the rent charged for the use of the soil. (9)

He mentions that this is often called the ‘unearned increment’ (which it is), as that is the rent increase due to the existence of more people and more amenity in its surroundings rather than anything to do with the actual land itself or what is built upon it.  Howard prefers to call it the ‘collectively earned increment’ which I quite love and think might be a useful concept to bring back again. It reflects the fact that higher city rents are due to all of us. This collectively generated income on land is what is captured and used to the benefit of all who move to garden cities as a way to finance them.

So who shall live there? He quotes Professor Marshall’s study on the “Housing of the London Poor’ from Contemporary Review, 1884:

Whatever reforms be introduced into the dwellings of the London poor, it will still remain true that the whole are of London is insufficient to supply its population with fresh air and the free space that is wanted for whole some recreation. A remedy for the overcrowding of London will still be wanted….There are large classes of the population of London whose removal into the country would be in the long run economically advantageous; it would benefit alike those who moved and those who remained behind…Of the 150,000 or more hired workers in the clothes-making trades, by far the greater part are very poorly paid, and do work which it is against all economic reason to have done where ground-rent is high.’ (17)

Howard follows up this insight — if these workers ought not to be in London at all given the low value of their labour on very high-rent land, then of course these factories should move and the workers paying exorbitant rents for slum houses should move with them, along with all those who exist to support their existence such a s shopkeepers, schools and etc. But key to this move to the new garden cities is that:

it is essential, as we have said, that there should be unity of design and purpose–that the town should be planned as a whole, and not left to grow up in a chaotic manner as has been the case with all English towns, and more or less so with the towns of all countries. A town, like a flower, or a tree, or an animal, should, at each stage of its growth, possess unity, symmetry, completeness, and the effect of growth should never be to destroy that unity, but to give it greater purpose, nor to mar that symmetry , but to make it more symmetrical; while the completeness of the early structure should be merged in the yet greater completeness of the later development (27)

Howard was not alone in believing all of this possible. Another quote heading chapter six is of Albert Shaw, from Municipal Government in Great Britain, 1895:

The present evils of city life are temporary and remediable. The abolition of the slums, and the destruction of their virus, are as feasible as the drainage of a swamp, and the total dissipation of its miasmas. The conditions and circumstances that surround the lives of the masses of the people in modern cities can be so adjusted to their needs as to result in the highest development of the race, in body, in mind and in moral character. The so-called problems of the modern city are but the various phases of the one main question: How can the environment be most perfectly adapted to the welfare of urban populations? And science can meet and answer every one of these problems. The science of the modern city–of the ordering and the common concerns in dense population groups–draws upon many branches of theoretical and practical knowledge… (42)

So this is the vision — I almost have nostalgia for such ability to believe in such grand sweeping solutions.

Howard didn’t just think of new plan for garden cities, however, he worked very hard to show exactly how they could be paid for. ‘To make this chapter interesting to the general reader would be difficult, perhaps impossible,’ he writes, and he is not wrong. It is a worthy effort though. And there is so much I like in the idea.

Most of all that the garden cities should be as cooperative as possible — the more the citizens wish to participate the less the municipality will do and vice versa. I also quite love that he sees this on a continuum that is flexible depending on people’s wants and needs.

It is distressing, though, that this is such an early model for how the language of business can shape social ideals. This is a very early model for the privatisation of the municipality, the strange mishmash of public and private we are coming to know so well to our cost:

The constitution is modeled upon that of a large and well-appointed business, which is divided into various departments, each department being expected to justify its own continued existence–its officers being selected, not so much for their knowledge of the business generally as for their special fitness for the work of their department. (45)

and then, there is this structure that he calls ‘semi-municipal’:

But Garden City is in a greatly superior position, for by stepping as a quasi public body into the rights of a private landlord, it becomes at once clothed with far larger powers for carrying out the will of the people than are possessed by other local bodies, and thus solves to a large extent the problem of local self-government. (46)

His three main departments of such a constitution? Public Control (assessment, law, inspection), Engineering (roads and etc), and Social Purposes (education, baths and wash-houses, music, libraries, recreation).

Other benefits will come:

Here in Garden City, however, there will be a splendid opportunity for the public conscience to express itself in this regard, and no shopkeeper will, I hope, venture to sell ‘sweated goods’. (55)

It is a revealing comment on what Howard believes is at the base of sweating, his belief that consumer demands will be enough to end it. He writes:

If labour leaders spent half the energy in co-operative organization that they now waste in co-operative disorganization, the end of our present unjust system would be at hand. In Garden City such leaders will have a fair field for the exercise of pro-municipal functions… (60-61)

He quotes Tolstoy and a number of others about the need to honestly proclaim and live your own beliefs, to be the change you want to see — a well-known adage. He is building on thinkers I have not yet heard of (except Herbert Spencer, but I know him not):

Shortly stated, my scheme is a combination of three distinct projects which have, I think, never been united before. There are: (1) The proposals for an organized migratory movement of population of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and of Professor Alfred Marshall; (2) the system of land tenure first proposed by Thos. Spence and afterwards (though with an important modification) by Mr. Herbert Spencer; and (3) the model city of James Silk Buckingham.  (72)

Wakefield wrote the Art of Colonization, so I expect I’d have a lot to say about that and a lot of fury to expend. But it also shows the currents into which the garden city idea was tied into – a small group of intellectuals and professionals able to design utopia, able to orchestrate for the masses — whether the working and criminal classes or the natives — a system and a space that will civilize and tame. In the very beginning there is the oddest reference to Opium as he discusses issues of the day over which there is wide disagreement — liquor and prohibition is one and the other?

Discuss the opium traffic and, on the one hand, you will hear that opium is rapidly destroying the morale of the people of China, and, on the other,  that this is quite a delusion, and that the Chinese are capable, thanks to opium, of doing work which to a European is quite impossible, and that on food at which the least squeamish of English people would turn up their noses in disgust.

The acceptance that this should even be argument offers a glimpse into a mind that still ranks and categorises people by race, class and gender. My insides revolt at such a casual description of the horror of the opium trade and the criminal nature of Britain’s opium wars fought to open Chinese markets to the drug as they tried to seal it off. A man of his times in this way, it just shows how structured the times were by racism and imperialism.

And at the same time, there is this:

Surely a project, which thus brings what Mr Herbert Spencer still terms ‘the dictum of absolute ethics’–that all men are equally entitled to the use of the earth–into the field of practical life, and makes it a thing immediately realizable by those who believe in it, must be one of greatest public importance. (77)

Can’t argue with that, though per the above, I have my suspicions about what he means by ‘all men’ and there’s a lot of women about as well.

Interesting that he recognizes on our current lands ‘men have laid an immoral foundation for us in the past’ but on ‘territory not yet individually portioned out’ a new equality can be brought into being. This is the dream of colonization, no? A dream that never seems to recognise it has laid a new immoral foundation that will in turn destroy what comes after. But it is also the dream of garden cities here in Britain, where new towns can be founded on empty lands.

Howard argues for one example, well founded, well built and functioning, to show what is possible. Only after this achievement is well established and growing will it be time to think of a national movement. It is social change accomplished through the force of example.

And notice how such a successful experiment as Garden City may easily become will drive into the very bed-rock of vested interests a great wedge, which will split them asunder with irresistible force, and permit the current of legislation to set strongly in a new direction. (100)

The patronising side of me thinks this is very sweet.

After the success of one, clusters of garden cities would grow up. As the first founded reached its optimal size, another would be founded. Each would contain housing, gardens, factories and shopping. Each would sit within a green belt so all its citizens might have access to countryside, linked to each other by a fast railway system allowing freedom of movement.

Howard - Garden Cities of Tomorrow

Howard writes:

These crowded cities have done their work; they were the best which a society largely based on selfishness and rapacity could construct, but they are in the nature of things entirely unadapted for a society in which the social side of our nature is demanding a larger share of recognition — a society where even the very love of self leads us to insist upon a greater regard for the well-being of our fellows. (98)

Out of this he hopes for a change, a new kind of society giving birth to a new city (or is it the city giving birth to a new society? Or both coming together?). Stripped of its critique and utopian elements of collective ownership of land, single elements of Howard’s dream were reworked to become part of what lies in the rush to the suburbs, and a widespread use of sentences such as this:

in proving this it will open wide the doors of migration from the old crowded cities with their inflated and artificial rents, back to the land which can now be secured so cheaply. (100)

Only elements of garden cities were ever built, only elements of it incorporated into suburbs in a way to eradicate their radical content. Yet even taken as an utopian vision which in part I agree with, I am so wary of so much of this, hate top-down planning though I know I have all the benefit of hind-sight. I can see how Le Corbusier emerges as naturally from this line of thought as Bertrand Goldberg or even perhaps a planner working along permaculture principles. But I will end on the sentence I most loved:

…homes are being erected for those who have long lived in slums; work is found for the workless, land for the landless, and opportunities for the expenditure of long pent-up energy are presenting themselves at every turn. A new sense of freedom and joy is pervading the hearts of the people as their individual faculties are awakened, and they discover, in a social life which permits alike of the completest concerted action and of the fullest individual liberty, the long-sought-for means of reconciliation between order and freedom–between the wellbeing of the individual and of society. (104)

For more on planning and utopia…


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