Garden City Movement: The Making of a Utopian Design Concept

Learn how garden cities were created and what critics say about the movement.

Letchworth Garden City - town development in Baldock Road, Letchworth, created by the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard in 1903.
A painting of Letchworth Garden City, a town development created by the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard in 1903. Culture Club / Getty Images

The garden city movement was inspired by a utopian city planning concept developed by Englishman Ebenezer Howard. Garden cities were designed to provide access to the best aspects of both town and country. Howard's ideas grew out of the Industrial Revolution and were, in part, a reaction to the condition of workers in London. The garden city movement has had a significant impact on today's urban planning standards.

History of the Garden City Movement

Howard first presented his garden city concept in 1898 in a book entitled To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, later republished in 1902 under the name Garden Cities of To-morrow.

Howard believed that ideal living conditions for people of all economic levels could be created by establishing "town/country" cities with very specific parameters. His ideas were built on prior utopian works, which extolled the idea of a carefully managed working class living in idealized communities run by strong governmental institutions.

The Three Magnets

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

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

Howard's writing during the Industrial Revolution was in response to urban slums, pollution, and lack of access to the countryside. Much of his book was dedicated to the idea that cities, as they existed in his time, were not sustainable and would most likely, eventually, have to be destroyed. At the same time, he was aware of the economic problems of rural farmers who, dependent on the weather and crop prices, often lived in poverty.

In his book, Howard described "town" and "country" as magnets drawing people to them for different, sometimes opposing reasons. He described the pros and cons of each—for instance, the country offers "beauty of nature" but a "lack of society", whereas the town features "social opportunity" in exchange for a "closing out of nature." Howard argued that neither the town nor country was ideal.

His solution to this dilemma of place was to create a "third magnet"—a town-country hybrid that would offer both the conveniences of the town and the peace and beauty of the country.

Design of the Garden City

To provide ideal living conditions for a wide range of people, Howard decided to create highly structured, carefully laid out communities. In Howard's time, British landowners were allowed to make any use they wanted of their own land, so Howard envisioned purchasing large areas of land from aristocratic owners and setting up garden cities that would house 32,000 in individual homes on 6,000 acres.

Howard had an elaborate plan in mind: His garden cities would include, starting from the center of the circle:

  • a huge public garden with public buildings such as town hall, lecture halls, theaters, and a hospital;
  • an enormous arcade called the "crystal palace," where residents would browse at a covered market and enjoy a "winter garden;
  • approximately 5,500 building lots for individual family homes (some with "cooperative kitchens" and shared gardens);
  • schools, playgrounds, and churches;
  • factories, warehouses, farms, workshops, and access to a train line.

In addition to designing the physical structure of his garden cities, Howard also created an elaborate plan for funding its construction, managing its infrastructure, providing for the needy, and ensuring the health and welfare of its residents. In its ideal form, the Garden City would become a network of smaller cities built around a larger central town.

Notable Garden Cities

UK - Letchworth Garden City - A woman cycles her bicycle past Arts and Crafts period houses
Letchworth Garden City, UK - A woman cycles her bicycle past Arts and Crafts period houses. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Howard was a successful fundraiser, and, in the first years of the 20th century, he built two garden cities: Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City, both in Hertfordshire, England. Letchworth was initially quite successful, but Welwyn, built just 20 miles from London, quickly became an ordinary suburb.

Still, garden cities took off elsewhere. The movement expanded to the United States where garden cities flourished in New York, Florida, and Virginia. More were built around the world in Brazil, South Africa, Japan, and Australia, among other places.

Much more recently, Walt Disney's original concept of the Experimental Prototypical City of Tomorrow (EPCOT) drew a great deal from the garden city. Like the garden city, Disney's EPCOT was designed in concentric circles with radiating boulevards. Unlike Howard, however, Disney envisioned having a great deal of personal control over the day-to-day management of life in "his" city.

Praise and Criticisms

Even today, Howard's ideas are the subject of both praise and criticism. Critics either saw it as a useful model for city planning or as a means for expanding industrialism, damaging the environment, and controlling the working class.

Howard's enthusiasm for progress, industrialization, and expansion without regard for limited resources stands in conflict with the views of today's environmentalists. Similarly, his belief that urban centers are unsustainable clashes with more modern planning ideals.

On the other hand, the idea of a garden city took root in urban planning, leading to the rise of green spaces within urban landscapes.

View Article Sources
  1. Cabannes, Yves and Philip Ross. "Food Planning in Garden Cities: The Letchworth Legacy." RUAF Occasional Paper Series, 2018.