Garden city

An ambitious new book is a thorough attempt both to tell the history of the garden city movement in Britain and to provide guidance on planning and creating such a city now.

While it is extremely useful, it does largely overlook the crucial issue of food provision. Although mostly about England, the principles can be adopted anywhere. The following is part one of this story

 The Art of Building a Garden City: Designing new communities for the 21st Century is a new manual published by the Royal Institute of British Architecture and written by Kate Henderson, Katy Lock and Hugh Ellis, for the Town and Country Planning Asssociation (TCPA).

Let’s look at its strong points first. The TCPA has long campaigned for more garden towns and villages. This book, written by three of its officials, represents this campaign.

Garden cities have in recent years been championed by the British government as a sustainable means of building houses, but there has been concern that the idea has been appropriated by certain developers who would not necessarily develop the most sustainable plans.

The origin of garden cities

Ebenezer Howard, was a socialist reformer and the founder of the Garden City movement, and his idea was to provide “a web of solutions as to how we could live, from energy and local food to access to green space and health care”. Letchworth, the first Garden City, was created in 1903, and Welwyn in 1920. They were an antidote to unhealthy, smoke-choked, sewer-less Victorian slums.

Howard founded the Garden City Association, which became the Town and Country Planning Association. Finance for the cities came from rich investors who received interest from rents. He tried to get financial support from working class cooperative organisations but didn’t succeed. As a result he had to ditch his plans for a cooperative ownership scheme with no landlords, and introduce short-term rent increases.

George Cadbury

This lack of control over ownership meant that later these lovely homes in desirable places became priced out of the reach of the working class. This book, in a chapter on financing, goes some way to addressing this problem, advocating the creation of Community Land Trusts, which are able to take advantage of the rise in land value caused by the development, while being able, in principle at least, to attach conditions that mean that the homes they rent out cannot be sold later at a vast profit.

Howard, and other reformers such as George Cadbury, who created the model village of Bournville in 1893, provided gardens and allotments for each home so that residents could grow their own healthy food. This they did, for the Enclosure Acts, enacted between 1604 and 1914, had robbed the majority poor of common land for grazing and cultivation, and slums in industrial cities had no gardens.

Bournville village

The provision of large gardens for this purpose was continued in the creation of municipal social housing after the second world war in many English cities such as Nottingham and Birmingham. Many working-class people, for the first time, had private indoor toilets, bathrooms, hot running water, electric lighting and private garden space. Their quality was much higher than social housing being built at the same time in mainland Europe.

Human fertiliser and food

Until the 1940s, most homes had one outhouse each, known as “earth closets” (not water closets i.e. WCs) and so depended on the “night soil men” or “nightmen”, who would remove the human dung every day to fetilise agricultural land outside the town.

It’s important to remember that up to this time most food had been grown near to the place of its consumption, around the towns and cities. This was true not just in Britain but almost everywhere. Paris, for example, was self-sufficient in food in the 19th century.

In the early 1800s Paris recycled and composted all of its human and animal waste feeding and irrigating 860 hectares of market gardens around the city with heated beds and glasshouses to feed its two million inhabitants. Around 5000 workers were employed on this task, and any excess food produce was sold to London. Until just 10-15 years ago, many Chinese cities operated in a similar way. But rapid industrial expansion in Shanghai and other cities destroyed this sustainable way of life.

The loss of the link between human sewage and soil fertility has only recently begun to be restored with the use of composting toilets and reed bed treatment systems, though, of course, on a wide enough scale. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says restoring soil fertility is an urgent problem to avoid global starvation as our world’s human population soars to 11.1 billion by 2100 AD.

Welwyn Garden City

Welwyn Gardens

A really novel aspect of Welwyn Garden City founded in 1920 by Howard was that its residents, via a community fund, would share in the profits of the development process, rather than just the developers. This meant that there would always be finance available to look after the town forever.

Residents also shared in the governance and development process, and could join workers’ co-operatives (like a general store and a building and joinery firm) which gave them employment, and cultural, artistic and health-supporting activities. With a huge amount of effort these were made an intrinsic part of the development process so that the city would be a rewarding place to live, on all levels.

Welwyn Garden City ended up quite different from Howard’s original ideal for many reasons. Nevertheless the photograph shows that the central concept still held. Now a city of over 100,000 people, it is a Garden City in form but not practice – unfortunately its agricultural belt never happened.

Howard’s ideas still have great influence today. He thought that the Garden City should be socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. For example, land should be bought at low, agricultural values and all houses and factories should be leaseholds. Investors would be paid back from the rent, and any increase in land values would benefit the whole community. Extra money from the rent could then finance pension funds and community services.

Examples of other towns influenced by Howard’s work include:

Margarethenhohe, near Essen, Germany, built to house steelworkers;

  • Sunnyside Gardens near New York;
  • Chatham village in Pittsburg; and
  • Radburn, New Jersey;

Although these ended up, like Hampstead Garden, another of Howard’s projects, as suburbs.

Post-war new towns

After the second world war, Britain built many new towns such as Stevenage and Milton Keynes. These incorporated some ideas from the garden cities but were more ambitious and paid for with public money as part of the post-war rebuilding of Britain.

Often, they were networks of connected villages or neighbourhood units, sometimes constructed around schools like Aspley above, separating pedestrians from cars, and designed to be relatively self-contained (at least as far as living nd working went) to minimise commuting. The land was selected by the local authorities concerned.

Unfortunately the projects were never properly seen through, because, in the 1980s, the Thatcher government ordered the selling off of the land and properties (along with council house tenants being given the right to buy) at market value. This ruined the original concept, since private ownership saw prices rocket, and with this the social aspect of the towns largely disappeared.


The book draws six recommendations, or lessons to be learned from the above experiences:

  1. the need for a dedicated, local, planning consent process
  2. the up-front development cost was in every case repaid by the value of the towns, however they were initially financed
  3. correctly-composed partnerships can deliver the towns quickly
  4. the importance of good, clear design and master planning
  5. the need for a long-term plan for stewardship
  6. the need for public support and involvement


In 1998, ecovillages were officially named among the United Nations’ top 100 listing of Best Practices, as excellent models of sustainable living. The best known ecovillage in the UK is probably Findhorn in Scotland. Founded in 1962, since 1980 the Findhorn Foundation has been involved in the development of the Ecovillage Project as a natural continuation of its work with nature. There is now a global ecovillage network.

Fast forward to 2007, and the UK government proposed a series of eco-towns.

Unlike eco-villages these were top-down, not bottom-up proposals. Although many failed to materialise (mainly because lessons 3 and 6 above were not heeded), they did result in a set of eco-town standards and some developments such as Bicester, Whitehill and Borden.

The standards included that they should be: zero carbon, resilient to climate change, 30 per cent of homes should be affordable, have low carbon transport with local jobs, that 40 per cent of the land should be greenspace and increase biodiversity, including: “particular attention should be given to land to allow the local production of food from community, allotment and/or commercial gardens”.

They should also be water-efficient and flood-resistant and manage their waste efficiently. Finally, they should “develop their master plan” with “a high level of engagement and consultation with prospective and neighbouring communities”.

The Conservative government scrapped these standards in 2010.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life, a Blueprint for Low Impact Living. See his website here.

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