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In Perspective: Remembering Sir Ebenezer Howard

Sir Ebenezer Howard

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Recognised as the founder of the garden city movement, Sir Ebenezer Howard has created a rich legacy in town and country planning. Here, we cast the spotlight onto this legacy and consider the strength of the garden city movement today.

Howard was born in London in 1850, and witnessed many of the social and health problems that plagued the city as a result of overcrowding, poverty, and inadequate housing. In 1871, partly unhappy with the poor living conditions in big, industrial cities, he travelled to Nebraska, USA, to work on his uncle's farm.

Although Howard enjoyed some of the environmental benefits of a farming lifestyle, he eventually moved back to England and in 1876, found work with Hansard – the official verbatim record of the Houses of Parliament. This series of events would come to inspire the garden city movement. Howard, now regularly exposed and inspired by arguments about social justice, planning, and housing provision, would try to marry the environmental benefits of an agricultural lifestyle with the employment benefits of a city lifestyle.

Published in 1898, Howard's book, To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, expressed his vision for how a healthier, more co-operative society could be achieved in the form of garden cities. Crucially, Howard had shown that this could be done without a violent revolution which, previously, he had foreseen as the only way of achieving this vision. Using words and diagrams, the 1902 edition of the book (with some minor revisions) – now titled Garden Cities of To-Morrow - illustrated his vision of a self-sufficient, garden city surrounded by greenbelt that would not be available for development.

While Howard provided examples of what the city might look like, he emphasised that it would largely be subject to the plot of land on which it was built. Despite this, Howard was more uncompromising on other parts of his vision with a premium placed on spaciousness, co-operation, and housing and environmental standards. Like older cities, there would be plenty of jobs and a lively town centre 'for amusement', but there would also be numerous public parks and wide boulevards in order to maintain good standards of air and environment.

The freehold on which the city was built would be held in trust by a private corporation for the benefit of the city's residents, and 'rate-rent' would be paid to the trustees in proportion with the overall value of the land on which the city was built. Any surpluses (minus the interest payments on the loans which funded the initial development) would be reinvested into the city. Furthermore, Howard theorised that, as the popularity of garden cities increased, the land value of the older cities would gradually decrease, leading to redevelopments in the older cities that supported much more sustainable population densities, and mirrored many of the principles upheld by garden cities.

Howard's ideas generated enough interest and funding to build the first garden city in Letchworth in 1903. This was largely successful, however, later projects such as Welwyn Garden City diluted many of the planning, co-operation and self-reliance principles that Howard had strongly supported, as many of the project's financiers pressed for returns on their investment. Nevertheless, both garden cities enjoyed higher life expectancies and lower infant mortality rates than those found in London, and features such as greenbelt, tree-lined boulevards, and zoning (the division of residential and commercial areas) all developed from the garden city movement.

While Howard is sometimes characterised as an advocate of urban sprawl and car-based suburbia, this is incorrect for he identified a maximum capacity for each garden city, and transport planning was centred on use of public transport. Furthermore, he could not fully predict the levels of growth in population and car-ownership that we see today, and although his planning principles have rarely been wholly implemented, many of them are still fundamental to town and country planning projects across the world.

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