Ebenezer Howard

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Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) was a British writer who developed and popularised the idea of the Garden City, and was a huge influence on town planners in the western world for most of the twentieth century.

Howard emigrated to the United States in 1871, living in Nebraska and Chicago, but returned to London in 1876, working as a clerk and sometime Parliamentary reporter. He became a supporter of Henry George, whose single tax proposals were to influence Howard's work. In 1898 Howard published To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, republished under its more familiar title Garden Cities of To-Morrow in 1902. In it, he argued that the problems of ever-expanding cities, and the poor social conditions within them, could be solved by instead building self-contained networks of 'Garden Cities' which would be restricted in size, would be designed to maximise the social, intellectual and economic potential of a community, and would offer the advantages of living in town and in the country in terms of cultural, educational, recreational and environmental amenities.

Howard's model saw urban refugees building up a city until it reached a population of 32,000, whereupon a new city would be started nearby. Ultimately, Howard saw the creation of a network of such cities: six such surrounding a slightly larger city of 58,000, the settlements divided by green belt land and linked by high speed urban railways. Such a grouping of cities, he believed, would provide all the advantages of a single large city, and few, if any, of the drawbacks. His economic system drew on George: land would be municipally-owned, and revenue derived from the increasing value of this land as the cities developed would be used to provide public services, even old age pensions; the need for individuals to pay municipal rates would dwindle and disappear.

In 1899 Howard founded the Garden Cities Association which survives as the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA). With supporters, he managed to gather sufficient finance to start work on the first Garden City at Letchworth, Hertfordshire, in 1903. The town was designed by the architects Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, broadly along the lines suggested in Howard's book. Most of the housing was provided by co-partnership housing associations; employment was provided by radically-minded businessmen who had been persuaded to support the project, like the publisher Dent, but the largest single employer was Spirola, a corset manufacturer, very much at odds with the sandal-wearing, rational dress, Esperantist and folk-dancing ethos of the new town.

Howard was unable to gain support for further new town foundations after 1903 until 1920, when he acquired an estate near Welwyn in Hertfordshire and commenced construction of Welwyn Garden City.

Both Letchworth and Welwyn G.C. are thriving communities, but not in the way that Howard had intended. It could be argued that his theories were not properly trialled, since a grouping of six or seven new towns never emerged to test their sustainability as a self-supporting network.

Nevertheless, his theories were very influential in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, on urban form if not economic and social function. The low density housing adopted as Letchworth became the ideal for housing reformers; 'garden suburbs' (in one sense a complete negation of Howard's true intentions) became a vogue, and low density housing (not more than twelve dwellings per acre) was the norm for both privately owned and municipal housing in the interwar years. Only after the Second World War did the discrete Garden City again take its place in planning orthodoxy, this time in the form of the New Towns designed to reduce the population of London and to regenerate depressed areas in northern England, south Wales and Scotland.