On this day 166 years ago, Ebenezer Howard was born in the City of London. He did not have any special education and left school at the age of 15 to work as a stenographer, holding several clerical jobs. After a few years in the U.S., where he tried his hand at farming and worked as a reporter, he returned to England in 1876 and finally settled as a court reporter for Hansard. Daily contact with social problems deepened his interest in social reform and alternative lifestyles, already awoken in the U.S. through his contact with the works of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he began to read widely and gather ideas through exchanges with socialists, anarchists and reformers of the day. In the 1880s he began to write the book that would provide the utopian vision for the Garden City Movement: To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Social Reform (1898), revised and reissued in 1902 with the title: Garden Cities of To-morrow.

In it Howard outlined an alternative to the shabby industrial cities of his day: a self-sufficient small community of about 30,000 inhabitants who would enjoy the best of town and country living. A Three-Magnet diagram explained his views: it enumerated the advantages and disadvantages of each country and town in order to suggest Howard’s utopia as the alternative that people should seek in the future – the ‘Town-Country’, where all the positive attributes of both would come together. A Garden City, as it would soon be called, would have to be carefully planned and managed for and by the community, it was to be surrounded by a belt of open countryside and nature, industry would be situated in a separate zone, and everywhere were to be open spaces with trees, grass, etc.

At the time Howard’s ideas were laughed at – but not for long. By 1903, a number of like-minded people had joined to form the first Garden City Ltd. and by 1909 one of the first Garden Cities worldwide had been built: Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire (architects: Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker). It became a model for many others: Welwyn Garden City (Hertfordshire, 1920s), Canberra (capital of Australia, begun in 1913), Hellerau, bei Desden (Germany), Tapanila (Finland), to name but a few.

If you are good at German, you may want to read this article about an almost forgotten Hellerau from Die Zeit (1997).

You may also be interested in Norman Lucey’s study of the effect of E. Howard and the Garden City Movement on modern town planning.

Exploring the Garden City Collection of the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation is truly fascinating.

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Source of Poster: Roots & Branches