design development peak oil politics

The return of the garden city

Qingdao: a garden city under construction in China.

At the very end of the 19th century, a new movement sprang up in urban planning circles. It was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard, a reforming MP who believed that human beings would thrive best in small self-contained ‘garden cities’ in the country. He described his ideas in a book, the utopian Garden Cities of Tomorrow, and eventually managed to persuade the country to trial his ambitions in the brand new town of Letchworth. In the process, he accidentally invented the modern suburb.

The garden city idea is very attractive. If you’ve been to Welwyn Garden City or Letchworth, or many of the towns around the world that were inspired by the movement, you’ll know how pretty they can be. But they have some fundamental flaws: they require open green field space, and are therefore very wasteful of land. They are also very low density, with wide green spaces, fountains, and tree-lined boulevards. Beautiful of course, but with great big gaps between everything they feed car dependency, and are therefore unsustainable. Building a new one in Britain now, in an age of rising petrol prices, would be pretty crazy.

Which makes it rather depressing that yesterday, in a speech full of blissful ignorance about the realities of oil depletion, David Cameron announced a new age of garden cities. “In the last century private and social enterprises also created places like Hampstead Garden Suburb, Letchworth, Welwyn Garden City” said Cameron. “Not perfect, but popular, green, planned, secure with gardens, places to play and character-full houses, not just car dominated concrete grids.” So the government is going to launch a consultation on how to learn from the garden cities and build new towns, with the added imperative, obviously, “to allow significant new growth to happen.”

If that’s an objective learning process, some good may come of it. In Ebenezer Howard’s book, he imagined his towns as independent. There would be workplaces within the plan, separated from the main housing areas but still accessible – an early form of zoning. The countryside all around the town would be preserved so that it could grow its own food. He also wanted his towns to operate as co-operatives, with the citizens essentially owning the town in common. That vision got watered down considerably in the actual construction. Instead, his towns ended up as leafy dormitory towns for wealthy suburbanites commuting into London.

Car dependency and long commutes are something we need to avoid, so if we’re going to learn from the garden towns, we’d need to put back in the idea of greater self-sufficiency, architectural coherence, and a sense of civic space. We’d need to drop the expensive and wasteful low density greenery. Towns fit for a world with expensive oil and a carbon problem will need to be compact and walkable, with mixed use neighbourhoods and integrated transport systems.

I doubt this is what David Cameron has in mind, but we shall see. If he is hoping to build new garden cities like the ones we have now, he will be attempting to resurrect an 1898 vision of the ‘town of the future’ as if nothing in the world has changed. Which would be rather ironic in a speech billed as “a vision for this country’s infrastructure in the 21st century”.


  1. I’m not clear on who described the PM’s speech as ‘a speech full of blissful ignorance’ but I do wonder if his speech is actually in ignorance or full knowledge of his aims. Whichever it falls into, I have found the speech to be about enticing investment into building a better, faster and safer place to live because we demand to keep up with the Jones’ and that is what our soul wants!! I can only surmise that his soul is not facing the same way as mine.

  2. Re. my comment above – I also read elsewhere this comment by Dr Vandana Shiva – ‘If we are serious about ending poverty, we have to be serious about ending the systems that create poverty by robbing the poor of their common wealth, livelihoods and incomes.’ That’s a soul facing the same way as mine, and yours? Perhaps we need a website called ‘UNITE’ so we can do exactly that and let the PM know that he is wrong about what our souls want? Anyone out there capable of doing this for us?

  3. That’s me describing it as blissfully ignorant. I suspect the prime minister is surrounded by people telling him things he wants to hear, and that oil depletion isn’t real would be one of those things, like it has been for every government in the last couple of decades.

    Not sure the PM would listen to a website called UNITE though – sounds too much like the union!

    1. What about UAP – Unite Against Poverty?

      Get it known worldwide. Everyone signing regular petitions against policies which are unfair on minorities and the poverty stricken,in their own countries and maybe in others, if possible? Make sure we all know what numbers are with us and against us. Make sure the governments cannot say it’s what we want if it isn’t. Make everyone aware of the unfairnesss to others and not just their own unfair treatment. Make it easier for people to say that they care. Am I dreaming, am I unrealistic, am i naive? Let me hear your thoughts if you will..

      1. It’s a good idea, although there are already groups doing similar things. Avaaz is a good platform for finding a united voice on issues, and so is 38 Degrees. It’s a lot easier to get involved in those than to try and set something up from scratch.

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