Let's Bring Back the Garden City Movement

Ebenezer Howard's proposals from 120 years ago look very attractive today.

Welwyn square
Looking over the Town Square at Welwyn Garden City in England.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

In a recent post titled "Garden City Movement: The Making of a Utopian Design Concept," Treehugger contributor Lisa Jo Rudy described England's Welwyn Garden City as "an ordinary suburb." I visited Welwyn Garden City visionary and British urban planner Ebenezer Howard's final home a few years ago and found it not at all ordinary. In fact, I have been thinking about it ever since, convinced that the garden city as envisaged by Howard is a model we should be using today and when we build a green, post-pandemic world. Essentially, we need a new garden city movement.

Aerial view of Welwyn Garden City
Aerial view of Welwyn Garden City.

Fox Photos / Getty Images

This is not a new idea. Nathan J. Robinson recently wrote a wonderful article for Current Affairs titled "The Need for a New Garden City Movement." He quoted Richard Morrison of The Times, who says of Welwyn Garden City: “At a time when millions of twentysomethings are cooped up in their parents’ homes or dismal multi-occupancy flats because of stratospheric rents and house prices, the existence of places such as Welwyn is a reminder that it need not be like this.”

What we could be building today are similarly wonderful places built on garden city principles, as described in a 2014 document, "New Towns and Garden Cities: Lessons for Tomorrow." The document notes:

"A Garden City is a holistically planned new settlement that enhances the natural environment and offers high-quality affordable housing and locally accessible work in beautiful, healthy, and sociable communities. The Garden City principles are an indivisible and interlocking framework for their delivery, and include:

  • Land value capture for the benefit of the community.
  • Strong vision, leadership, and community engagement.
  • Community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets.
  • Mixed-tenure homes and housing types that are genuinely affordable.
  • A wide range of local jobs in the Garden City within easy commuting distance of homes.
  • Beautifully and imaginatively designed homes with gardens, combining the best of town and country to create healthy communities, including opportunities to grow food.
  • Development that enhances the natural environment, providing a comprehensive green infrastructure network and net biodiversity gains, and using zero-carbon and energy-positive technology to ensure climate resilience.
  • Strong cultural, recreational, and shopping facilities in walkable, vibrant, sociable neighbourhoods.
  • Integrated and accessible transport systems, with walking, cycling and public transport designed to be the most attractive forms of local transport."

One could add it could be built out of low-carbon materials at relatively low heights, perhaps all out of wood and straw. It could also be affordable because of the community ownership of land. According to Brett Clark of the University of Oregon, In his paper "Ebenezer Howard and the Marriage of Town and Country," Howard became a "fervent land reformer after seeing Henry George lecture in 1882. In 'Progress and Poverty,' George argued for the nationalizing of all land so that ground rent could be used for public purposes." Georgism is all the rage these days, with a new city, Telosa, being designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and slated to be located in the western U.S. around George's economic principles, demonstrating yet another old idea that is new again.

Garden City Concept laid out by Ebenezer Howard in 1902
The Garden City concept laid out by Ebenezer Howard in 1902.

Ebenezer Howard

The garden cities were relatively small with populations of about 32,000 but were dense enough so that you could walk to the shops, get locally grown food, support local small businesses, and do it all without a car. They were not necessarily round; that was more of an intellectual exercise than a real plan, though it is an element that has been picked up in a lot of the more modern concepts.

15-minute city
A graphic of a 15-minute city.

Paris en Commun

They were what we would call today 15-minute cities, where you can do your job, go to school, see your doctor, and be entertained all within a 15-minute radius of where you live. But these would be out in the country, where land is more affordable, too far from the big city for a daily commute, but could today be connected by high-speed trains.

Program for cit
A graphic on the Bitcoin City.

Fernando Romero

You can see a lot of Howard and the garden city of Tomorrow in the recently proposed Bitcoin City, which also aspires to the kind of social change that Howard was proposing.

They could be successful today because of what we have called the third industrial revolution that has changed the way many of us work. The pandemic gave it a big kick in the rear, with the dramatic increase in the number of people working from home. As I wrote in my book "Living the 1.5-Degree Lifestyle," cities, as we know them today, developed in the second industrial revolution with the invention of the office.

"As the offices flourished, they needed stenographers who could take dictation and they needed typists. The demand was so great that there were not enough men to do the job (and many didn’t want to be stuck in the same job with little chance of advancement), so companies started accepting women; there were more female and literate high school graduates who were willing to learn how to type, and they got paid less, too. With the industrialization of farming, people flocked to the cities where these jobs were, where women could significantly contribute to the family income. With typing and carbon paper, there was an explosion in paper consumption and the invention of the vertical filing cabinet, and the need for ever more office space to keep it all handy, central, and accessible. But it all had to be close to where the workers lived, so the elevator was put to work (it had been around for a while too) so that buildings could go up and stack more people more closely together. And in the space of just a few decades, between 1870 and 1910, we pretty much got the cities we have today, with office buildings and apartments and suburbs, subways and streetcars, all running on coal and steam and electricity and telephone wires."

Despite pressure from some employers to get everyone back into the office post-pandemic, the genie is out of the bottle and many have learned that they don't have to. The big city may just not be as relevant as it used to be, now that we don't need stenographers and filing cabinets and Xerox machines, now that many people can work just as happily from their garden city and come into the office occasionally, or commute to satellite offices in the garden city.

In the 19th century, cities sprung up along the railway lines. In the 21st century, garden cities could be strung along new high-speed rail lines.

Diagram of Three Magnets (Town, Country, Town-Country)

The JR James Archive / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

In his paper, Clark writes:

Howard argued that both town and country had qualities that attracted people to them. For the countryside, the beauty of nature, fresh air, sunshine, and the fruits of the earth were the magnets pulling people to the land. Cities attracted people to them due to the opportunities for employment, hopes of advancement, social enrichment, higher wages, and cultural activities. Thus, Howard proposed a third magnet—garden cities—that combined the “energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country.”

A hundred and twenty years after Howard wrote that, it still sounds quite lovely. And with modern construction, communications, and transport technology, it sounds like something that could be very successful today.