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Revaluations I: Howard’s Garden City

Garden Cities of To-morrow

by Ebenezer Howard, edited with a Preface by Sir Frederic Osborn, with an Introductory Essay by Lewis Mumford
M.I.T., 168 pp., $1.95

The appearance of Garden Cities of To-morrow in an American paperback brings to an almost hilarious climax this book’s astonishing career. At least it produces hilarity—not unmixed with obvious Schadenfreude—in a few people like Osborn. Clarence Stein, and myself, who staked our reputations on persistently advocating the ideas first put forward by Ebenezer Howard some sixty-seven years ago. From the beginning this book lived an underground existence, even though within five years of its first publication in 1898, the first Garden City was actually begun. Apart from a handful of planners, Unwin, Parker, Abercrombie in England. Henry Wright, and Clarence Stein in the United States, Howard had no influence whatever—pace Jane Jacobs!—upon official planning or academic thinking. But suddenly in 1946, this smoldering idea, carefully kept from going out by a few dedicated people, burst into flame; and during the last decade garden cities, now called New Towns, have been multiplying all over the world; and have even been taken up in the United States, after a fashion, by enlightened real estate operators looking for profitable long term investments.

No casual reader who turns immediately to Howard’s text without reading Sir Fredric osborn’s Introduction or my expository essay will possibly understand how this modest little tract could actually have come to be the most important book on the planning of cities that has appeared in the last century. On a superficial view, it is true, Le Corbusier’s The City of To-morrow has had far more visible success, for it harmonized with the mechanistic preconceptions and bureaucratic requirements of our contemporary economy. Le Corbusier’s Vertical Garden City is a sterile caricature of Howard’s essential idea, with all Howard’s ingratiating humanity and good sense left out. It is perhaps the reaction against grim bureaucratic erections on the model that Le Corbusier advocated that has suddenly revived interest in Sir Ebenezer’s master idea.

One of the amazing facts about Howard’s book is that, though it is among the most modest and most reasonable pieces of expository prose that I know, the very title seems to provoke such violent opposition that its critics never go so far as to read the book. One would think that “garden” was another name for “open sewer”; and one might fancy that the very notion of a city with gardens in it was an offense against the essential functions of urban living—though every historic aristocracy has looked upon the urban garden as one of the essential marks of its position and wealth. People who regard garden and city as antithetical terms must dismiss all the once-beautiful squares and parks of Bloomsbury, Mayfair, Edinburgh, and Bath as betrayals of urbanity. But the historic fact is that the existence of cities without gardens is a symptom of urban pathology: a by-product of high land values and low life-values. It was precisely the swinish overcrowding of Milan that prompted Leonardo da Vinci to propose to the Duke of Milan to replace Milan’s disorder and foulness by building ten cities, each with a population of thirty thousand people. As so often with Leonardo, he here outlined the garden city principle four centuries before Howard.

One might compile an amusing list of the urban experts whose antagonism to Howard’s work was equalled only by their ignorance of the history of the city itself. Almost to a man, these professionals treated Howard’s proposals as pathetically unrealistic, utopian, or impractical; and even when confronted with the fait accompli of two garden cities they demonstrated to their own satisfaction that their success was meaningless and that if Howard had heeded their objections in time he would never have sought to build them. Even today, in the most recent number of the Journal of the American Institute of Planners an academic reviewer of Osborn and Whittick’s recent book describing the British New Towns, querulously reproves the author for not endeavoring to conceal from the reader how remarkably successful they have been. This sort of toplofty dismissal greeted Garden Cities of To-morrow from the beginning. When the book came out one of the Fabian Society’s municipal experts said that Howard’s plans should have been submitted to the Romans when they conquered Britain: it was now too late. And with a final smirk this critic described Howard as proposing to pull down existing cities “and substitute garden cities, each built according to pretty colored plans, nicely designed with a ruler and compass.”

This is typical of the peculiar state of mind Howard’s book produced during the first half-century of its existence; and for similar minds today, Garden Cities of To-morrow is still, literally, a closed book. Actually Howard proposed to build new cities, not to tear old cities down; and he believed that the old, sordid, overcrowded metropolises would eventually be rebuilt on a more humane pattern, if once New Towns were reproduced on a sufficient scale. Howard made no plans of any kind, colored or otherwise, for he was by profession a court stenographer, and by avocation an inventor, not a planner or an architect; and he never sought to gain adherents to his conception by anything but rational argument. Such illustrations as you will find in his book are plainly labelled with a warning that they are diagrams, and that the actual plans would depend upon the site selected. When the first garden city, Letchworth, was designed, the planners, Messrs. Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, leaned over backward, somewhat to the disadvantage of coherence, to avoid anything resembling Howard’s remarkably lucid diagrams.

Beginning with this Fabian tract, one could put together a whole book of howlers, composed of the comments that have been made upon Howard and his classic work. This would culminate temporarily in Jane Jacobs’s preposterous mass of historic misinformation and contemporary misinterpretation, in her The Death and Life of Great American Cities; for there she exposed her ignorance of the whole planning movement by seeking to make Howard responsible for all the mistakes made in modern planning—despite the fact that Howard’s actual influence was nil, being limited in America to that minute portion of planning which produced Radburn and the Greenbelt Towns that Rexford Tugwell initiated during Roosevelt’s second administration. As an appendix to this book of howlers, I could add a growing list of planners who have, consciously or unconsciously, adopted most of Howard’s leading ideas and given them another name.

But though Garden Cities of Tomorrow seems to have the curious faculty of bringing out the latent silliness in the minds of some of our ablest contemporaries, that would hardly account for the power that it has begun to exert over more open minds, more than a half-century later. Both the book’s survival and its second birth in paperback are hard to account for except as an evidence of the inherent soundness of Howard’s central ideas and his method of approach. Certainly, from a literary standpoint, his book is far from being a masterpiece. Compared with its near-contemporary, Morris’s News from Nowhere, a placid idyll of the good life. Howard’s book is pallidly prosy and uninviting. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, dreary though it seems now in a society so much like the one he pictured, was a far more exciting tract, which immediately roused enthusiasm in millions of readers, including for a while Howard himself, but died out in a few years: while Howard’s slow-burning fuse took half a century before it caused the explosion of New Towns that is now going on.

Nothing more unlike a Madison-Avenue confection in the way of a prospectus can be imagined. Nowhere in this whole book is there a concrete image of how the Garden City would look. The nearest that Howard comes to this is his description of a huge Crystal Palace to serve as a shopping center, an essentially mid-Victorian dream that would not have survived the nineteenth century if Mies van der Rohe and his followers had not revamped it and once more proved its unsoundness. Instead of pictures, images, pious wishes, one finds from the very first chapter that every fresh qualitative proposal is accompanied by sober quantitative estimates: detailed estimates of the amount of land needed, the costs, the possibility of achieving economies, the sources of revenue. Chapters Three and Four deal with the Revenues of the Garden City; Chapter Five with further details on expenditures; Chapter Six with Administration. That cautious circumspection itself turned out to be persuasive.

Howard was content to set forth the central idea of the Garden City in exactly sixteen pages. If the reader masters those pages, and then turns to Chapter Twelve, on Social Cities, in which Howard points out that a group of ten such towns could be organized to have all the advantages of a large metropolis, he will know something that most of Howard’s most strident critics have never taken the trouble to find out: exactly what Howard meant by the term Garden City and for what reasons he thought that this new urban model would provide a more salutary mode of living and working than that offered by the depleted countryside, the vacuous residential suburb, or the congested metropolis.

I cheerfully leave the reader of this paperback to discover for himself what Howard actually wrote and meant, with such help in understanding the background of the whole New Towns movement as Osborn and I, in our several expositions, may be able to give him. Here I shall confine myself to explaining how it is that his treatise, which flouts all the popular standards for what makes an immediately successful or even an ultimately influential book, could have remained in circulation for so long and become even more important today than it was fifty years ago.

The first thing one notes about Howard’s tract, apart from its lack of color and sparkle, is a complementary virtue—its quiet, modest, entirely reasonable tone. Howard does not announce that he has invented a patent remedy for curing all urban ills; he does not for a minute suggest that the destructive dynamism of building cities solely with an eye to financial profit can be abated without regulating free enterprise in the public interest; still less does he picture the Garden City as an ultimate utopia where people will be able to live happily ever after. Far better than Howard’s critics, who reproach him with having a static concept of the city, Howard had a sense of process, and a readiness to meet each fresh situation with a fresh response when it came up. His greatness as a social inventor, for that is what he was, lies in his unwillingness to propose any new institutions or activities that had not already been tested: for his genius was his ability to bring together, in a fresh combination, many different ideas and principles, by availing himself of the means that were already at hand: joint stock enterprises, cooperatives, municipal corporations, individual investors. If he had written his book twenty years later, after a new form of corporate organization, the Public Authority, had been created for the Port of London, he would doubtless have been as ready as his followers were in 1946, to avail himself of that method of organization. What Pascal said of original ideas applies to Howard’s contribution: By a fresh combination of old words one expresses new thoughts.

Howard’s mind was the very flower of Victorian rationalism, as many-sided, as balanced, as humane as the kind of community he sought to create. He had the Victorian eagerness for mechanical improvement; he was ready to examine every reasonable proposal, whether it came from an individualist or a socialist source, whether it favored municipal ownership or private enterprise. His choice of chapter headings and quotations is a sort of enchiridion of Victorian thought, full of important human sentiments that cannot be fed into a computer. To the happy British experience with town planning under unified feudal land- ownership, he added the proposals of Thomas Spence and Herbert Spencer for the common ownership of land; from Kropotkin under the influence of his Fields, Factories, and Workshops, he took the notion of combining agriculture and industry, in small units using an advanced technology; and as for his idea of limiting the size and area of the city, this is an idea he owed immediately, on his own confession, to his utopian predecessor, James Silk Buckingham, though it was in fact the basic principle in the building of ancient Rome’s colonial towns, from Pavia and Piacenza to Timgad. In his characteristic way, Howard claimed nothing for himself: his originality consisted in putting other people’s ideas together and setting them to work.

But unlike his academic critics, Howard had another virtue that perhaps enabled him to gain the confidence of the handful of able business minds who brought his original proposals to life: he had an experimental mind, and a gift for taking shrewd risks, as when, single-handed, and with money he borrowed on the spot from the estate agent in charge of a land sale, he acquired the big parcel of land on which Welwyn Garden City was built, before his colleagues had ratified his judgment. He had the kind of simplicity, integrity, and daring one finds in a literary genius like Blake: so that he could take shortcuts where more sophisticated minds would be baffled by their own self-imposed complexities. Yet in some ways, Howard was conceptually two generations ahead of his time: for he used the term “model” to describe his idea; and he put forth the Garden City, not in any final way, but as a working-model to be tested and modified by experience. Howard believed that if a single garden city were built and proved successful, it would serve as a basis for a national policy of building garden cities, just as the first local experiments with the steam locomotive and the railway led to the organization of whole railway systems under national authority. And this is precisely what came about in Britain.

Any contemporary urban researcher or market expert would have informed Howard flatly how chimerical this proposal was. (Some of them are still telling him so.) But strangely enough, this reasonable mind attracted support from a few equally reasonable and far-sighted industrial leaders and business men, with the remarkable result that the first garden city was launched within half-a-dozen years of the publication of Howard’s book. This, too, was something of a miracle. For everything in fact happened precisely as Howard had pictured, though not quite so soon. When the Second World War broke out, two garden cities, Letchworth and Welwyn, were firmly established. The second indeed proved financially so successful that a group of canny business men attempted a takeover of Welwyn a little while ago, to manage for their private profit this corporate property, which Howard had meant to be conserved for public benefit. (That barefaced swindle was defeated only through the intervention of Parliament.) But the national policy that Howard counted on was indeed instituted in 1946; and as a result twenty-one new towns, planned to hold eventually well over a million inhabitants, have been established in Britain alone.

If once the reader becomes interested in Howard’s leading idea, two other books now available will give further light on its contemporary development. The first is Clarence Stein’s New Towns for America (Reinhold), and the other, a more recent work, is by Sir Fredric Osborn and Arnold Whittick, The New Towns: The Answer to Megalopolis (McGraw-Hill). They should give comfort and courage to those who, in looking around our “great American metropolises,” discover that Dr. Strangelove’s methods and aims are as prevalent here as in the Pentagon, and are no less disastrous.

If the human values of the city are to be recovered, it is neither Le Corbusier’s lead, nor Robert Moses’s, nor Jane Jacobs’s that must be followed, Ebenezer Howard, the seemingly meek little man with the white walrus moustache, is still at the head of the procession; and the growing success of his ideas in a world as unreasonable, indeed as ferociously irrational, as our present one, full of senseless esthetic “happenings” and insensate physical threats, is a reassuring sign that reason is not entirely dead; and someday, before we are all poisoned or incinerated, it may even regain some of the ground it has lost during the last fifty years. At a memorable meeting I witnessed in 1925, the Robert Moses of the German Ruhr district boastfully wrote his name in a guest book as “Schmidt, Boss of the Ruhr.” Coming after him, Howard with a twinkle in his eye wrote under it: “Ebenezer Howard, Boss of Schmidt.” As it turns out, he never said a truer word.

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