All posts tagged: Ebenezer Howard
Does Inside Housing exert an influence on the minds of housing ministers and the right-wing press? I only ask because my article in July extolling the virtues of Ebenezer Howard and his Garden Cities has been followed by both Grant Shapps (The Guardian 19th September) and The Daily Mail (26th September) claiming that Garden Cities are the solution to many of our housing problems.
The Daily Mail article (“Proof you can build new homes, and keep England green”) claims that Garden Cities could be a solution to the current battle over the draft National Planning Policy Framework. They highlight the role of the Mail’s proprietor Lord Northcliffe in supporting Ebenezer Howard (he invested in £1,000 of shares) and in promoting the Garden Cities in his papers, to the extent that they were called “Daily Mail Towns”. For the first time in my life I am in agreement with the paper that once supported the Blackshirts. The headline may sound slightly oxymoronic but I’ve argued before that Letchworth probably contains more wildlife in its parks and gardens than much of the surrounding countryside. I was there last week and counted six black squirrels in a twenty yard stretch of hedgerow.
Grant Shapps praises the Garden Cities for their self-sufficiency and their freedom from state control, unlike their later counterparts the new towns. They chime with his passion for self build and community land trusts. And he is right. Howard built both Letchworth and Welwyn entirely with the help of private investors like George Bernard Shaw and without any government support. The question is, could it happen today?
Howard’s vision was for self-sufficient towns of around 30,000 people where the municipality would retain the freehold interest in land and use the income from ground rents to fund its activities, including education, welfare and pensions. The town would be self sufficient in employment so that people could cycle or walk to work, and sewage would be recycled into the surrounding market gardens. This is a revolutionary concept, based on the writings of Kropotkin and other visionaries, and is reflected in the 2007 prospectus for eco-towns. But the problem of eco-towns, apart from local opposition (only one of the original fifty sites is still active) is that they were simply too small to be self-sufficient. Howard understood that you need at least 1,500 hectares and 30,000 people to make a town self-sufficient – that means secondary schools, shops, cultural facilities, swimming pools and all the other facilities that stop people going elsewhere for their basic needs. But are we seriously going to find sites of 1,500 hectares for new Garden Cities in the south-east where they are most needed? My housing association colleagues in Hertfordshire tell me that they can barely build a garden shed without howls of protest from local residents. It will need resolute action from the housing minister and his colleagues to see this vision through. Given the furore over the relatively mild provisions in the draft National Planning Policy framework I see little chance of success, but I wish the housing minister well in his endeavour.
I sit on the Board of Howard Cottage Housing Association in Letchworth, and this is our centenary year. We were founded in 1911 by Sir Ebenezer Howard, the man who created the Garden Cities. His portrait watches over our meetings and, with his Biblical name and walrus-like moustache, he looks like a typical reactionary Edwardian gentleman. But dig a little deeper and you will find that Howard is very much a man of our times, for his vision encompasses many of our current pre-occupations, such as food miles, community land trusts, self sufficiency, social cohesion and eco-towns.
In 1898 Howard published his only book, “Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform”. It was re-issued in 1902 as “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”. The first title reveals his true intent, for Howard was a social revolutionary who saw the garden cities as “a stepping stone to a higher and better form of industrial life”, - a world where the worst aspects of city and country living would be eliminated, and only the best aspects retained.
Howard’s model Garden City was an estate of 6,000 acres, built on agricultural land, of which only 1,000 acres would be urban, giving a population of 30,000 at 30 to the acre. The remaining 5,000 acres would girdle the town and contain, fields, market gardens and workshops, allowing food and goods to be easily shipped to the town (low food miles). Sewage from the town would be used to fertilise the surrounding fields and power would be produced locally. Once the city reached its optimum population of 30,000 a new city would be built beyond the green belt and a radial set of cities would eventually be created with a larger central city at the core, each connected with an efficient rail system.
But here is the interesting part. The freehold of land within the Garden City would be held in trust for the benefit of its residents so that, as ground rents rose and the original mortgage was paid off, the revenues would fund the entire operation of the municipality, including health services, pensions and social insurance. This is a truly modern vision, a kind of eco-town which would be self sufficient and sustainable, where food miles are minimised and where a new system of land ownership allows the community to benefit from uplifts in values, providing a comprehensive welfare system semi-independent of national constraints. In truth, Howard was more than a century ahead of his time.
But unlike many theorists, Howard actually saw some aspects of his vision translated into reality. Under his leadership, work began on Letchworth, the world’s first Garden City, in 1903, and on Welwyn Garden City in 1920. However, like many revolutionaries, his theories were only partly understood and the notion of self-sustaining welfare states within each garden city has not been carried through, although the Letchworth Heritage Foundation still retains freehold ownership of a significant proportion of land and business premises and provides a range of services to the residents of the town.
The Garden City movement developed into the Royal Town Planning Institute, and Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944 proposed a green belt and a wheel of new satellite towns around London. This was the direct result of Howard’s original vision. A few weeks ago Howard Cottage Housing Association hosted a centenary event where David Orr, John Lewis and James Tickell led a public debate that considered Ebenezer Howard’s impact upon present-day thinking. If you have any interest in the history of our sector and the development of town planning in the UK I urge you to re-visit Ebenezer Howard’s legacy.