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 …

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