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Garden Cities by Ebenezer Howard

Posted in Arts (Design & Performance), Book Reports, Cooperatives / Communities / Networks / Travels, Critical Commentary of Civilization, Sustainability with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2011 by Drogo

From the book Garden Cities of To-morrow by Ebenezer Howard 1898, 1902

Ebenezer Howard was a shop keeper’s assistant, farmer, writer, sociologist, and statesman. Howard valued good living conditions, democracy, nature, human rights, and personalities. Osburn and Mumford added notes that introduce, critique, review, and praise Howard. JH Osburn claims Howard may have been influenced by Bellamy’s book Looking Backward. According to Lewis Mumford Howard was also inspired by Spense, Buckingham, Wakefield, George, and Kropotkin. Howard’s narrow building lots were handed down from medieval English dimensions (20 x 130 ft).

Garden Cities of To-morrow begins by describing the “Three Magnets”: Town, Country, and Town-Country. Howard explains why we are attracted to the best of both Town and Country aspects. Town-Country benefits have cooperation, beauty, nature, green fields, green parks, good utilities, good commerce, social opportunity, high wages, low rents, low price rates, and low pollution!

In most chapters, Howard proposes how Garden Cities would function with diagrams. He describes inter-connected urban nodes. Central City is shown with a constellation of satellite micro-cities (garden cities, towns, villages, developments). Garden Cities at their heart have a central garden, with rings of dwellings, shops, roads, industry, fields, and farms. The ordered layout is meant to improve biological, social, economic, and personal life for everyone.

Howard considered some difficulties with analytic self-criticism. He saw the weak points in his plans, and how they might fail. This foresight can allow us to prepare for the worst problems, to better shape designs for the future. He maintained that human ideals are worth trying; quoting Darwin “Selfish and contentious men will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be accomplished,”. Howard believed that Socialism and Individualism must come together in the future to realize a true, vital organic society and state.

Ebenezer Howard felt that Garden Cities would work, because the plans were based on understanding human nature. He indicated that Urban or Communal failures are a result of the ‘Duality Principle’ (Janus). Ignorance of the Duality Principle allows kindred mistakes, by regarding one principle action to the exclusion of others. Howard believed we are all communists to some degree, even those that shudder at being told this, because we believe in roads, parks, and libraries. Individualism is no less excellent, in his mind, as he compares good society to an orchestra that plays together, but practice separately. Expense, however, always tends to get in the way of progress.

Sir Raymond Unwin worked with Howard. In 1903 they designed and established the first Garden City in England, named ‘Letchworth’. Letchworth proved a success, and in 1919 the second Garden City ‘Welwyn’ was founded. By 1950 the cities had a combined population of over 40,000. The account of their success is given in Purdom’s Building of Satellite Towns. Some key points regarding the study of Garden Cities are: how urban and rural districts connect, health and sanitation, zoning limitations of density and sprawl allowing light, gardens, and leisure, harmony rather than standardization, communications, ownership and cooperative leasing, public freedom and choice of enterprise.

Contemporary critics dismissed “Garden Cities” as more akin to the fantasy of H.G. Wells, than to the realities of urban planning. Despite the critics, Garden Cities of To-morrow is cited in countless planning bibliographies, and provides an organic alternative to bleak industrial future city-scapes. So what happened? Our suburbs in America do not follow his models, although some are better than others. Howard wanted to keep the city, town, and country distinct from each other, unlike amorphous suburban sprawl. He wanted more green around and in cities, by confining and condensing urban development, to keep the country rural, pastoral, and agrarian; yet integrating their foundations for healthy and function living.

“The pathway of any experiment worth achieving, is strewn with failures. Success is, for the most part, built on failure.”  – Ebenezer Howard

“Creative work always arises by the synthesis in one’s mind of material from otherwise unrelated sources…”  – J.H. Osburn