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Ebenezer Howard built utopian cities in England
And they still exist today.
Note from Elle: I am currently on vacation so I invited a few authors to write guest posts on utopian topics while I’m away. This week, I want to introduce you to, author of, who wrote this essay about Sir Ebenezer Howard and his utopian city designs. I’ll be back December 19th!
What does utopia look like?
Based on the Greek translation, utopia means “no place,” which would lead one to believe that it is a dream state that can never be achieved. However, I don’t agree with that notion. In fact, I believe large swathes of the world already benefit from some form of utopian lifestyle as compared to centuries-long past.
Thomas More, the author of the 1516 book “Utopia,” clarified in an addendum the following:
“Wherfore not Utopie, but rather rightely my name is Eutopie, a place of felicitie.”
Instead of an unreachable destination, it’s described as a “good place,” a place to strive toward. The ever-evolving nature of progress and development means that a “good place” can mean different things to different people at different times. It’s subjective. However, there are those that believe a “good place” can be achieved through innovative architectural design. And throughout the centuries there have been many layouts given to us by forward thinkers.
In Thomas More’s depiction, he alluded to an island. But other grand visions show us cities floating on water, or interconnected satellite communities. The shape and placement of our homes, stores, and workplaces are important. That physical manifestation of our surrounding day-to-day environment has an effect on how we function and interact with one another. We’ll be exploring those designs and how they can be implemented for the betterment of society, for inspiring more good in the world.
This is one such architect of that future.
Garden Cities of To-Morrow by Sir Ebenezer Howard
Sir Ebenezer Howard was a social reformer and urban planner who traveled broadly. He saw how cities in England and North America were growing crowded and he despised their cluttered, cramped design. Fascinated with social theory and progress, he strove to create a new approach to city development. Some even go so far as to speculate that he was influenced by the science fiction novel “Looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy, and the socialist theories of the future posited therein.
In 1898, Sir Ebenezer Howard published a book called “To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform,” later revised as “Garden Cities of To-morrow.” In this book, he outlined what he viewed as the reasons people choose to either live in populated cities or the sprawling countryside. He called them “Magnets.” The first magnet, labeled “Town”, brought in high wages, amusement, social elevation, in conjunction with pollution, isolation, and crowds. The second was “Country” where individuals were one with nature, had low cost-of-living, and owned an abundance of resources but lacked the most crucial benefits of a healthy society.
Sir Ebenezer Howard proposed a third magnet that would attract residents to what he called “Town-Country,” a utopian unification of the social opportunity provided by towns and the beauty of nature found only in the country. But how would the Town-Country, better known as a garden city, be designed for the benefit of its inhabitants?
What Makes a Garden City?
In his book, Howard lays out very specific steps needed to achieve his vision:
Gather a group of engineers
Purchase 6,000 acres of land
Bring in urban planning experts
Link with industries and businesses to provide jobs and commerce
Democratize land ownership (everyone has a stake in the value)
Cap growth at 32,000 citizens
Repeat the process
His schematics and specifications were mathematically precise and mapped out with intricate intent. However, one major issue with Howard’s concept was that if you made the garden city too attractive, you weren’t able to demagnetize it in order to keep a relative balance.
The more one considers the methods needed to limit a garden city to only 32,000 citizens, the more dystopian the concept becomes. Although, Step 7 stipulated that the process would need to be repeated. This would ultimately have to be the answer to maintaining the population; expanding outward and establishing nearly identical garden cities in satellite communities.
The perks of the radial design of a garden city is that it allows for satellite communities to easily add on to the other sections of the whole. This alleviates congestion in more ways than one. Much like a grid system, it allows for traffic to remain flowing rather than halting at a single point of failure. And if implemented properly, there would be several downtown city centers that function on the basis of convenience as well as a deterrence from overcrowding.
The First Prototypes
Letchworth Garden City
In the northern portion of the district of Hertfordshire, England, there existed an ancient parish known as Letchworth. In 1903, Sir Ebenezer Howard founded the company “First Garden City Limited,” and, along with some supporters (presumably investors), purchased the parish, renaming it “Letchworth (Garden City).” The city featured the UK’s first roundabout built in 1909.
What’s interesting when studying the original design of Letchworth (Garden City) is that it doesn’t resemble the exactitude of what Sir Ebenezer Howard had laid out in his book, although one can see the similarities. The planners certainly implemented the main tenets of Howard’s plans, such as establishing a city center with easy access, a residential sector, and the surrounding green belt. However, the end result cannot be viewed as an exact replica of Howard’s vision.
There are several foundational factors at the societal level that fall short of his planned utopia. Mainly, the strict adherence to population control and the nature of public land ownership. Over the decades, the land’s ownership was transferred from First Garden City Ltd. into what is now the Heritage Foundation, which directs surplus funds back into the renovation of the community.
On the date of the city’s centenary (2003), advocates proposed and successfully changed the official name from Letchworth (Garden City) to Letchworth Garden City—dropping the parenthesis—in order to coincide with Howard’s other project known as “Welwyn Garden City.”
Welwyn Garden City
In 1899, Sir Ebenezer Howard founded the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) which still exists today. It’s an independent, non-profit charity based in the UK with the goal of improving city planning. After Letchworth, Howard wanted to try his experiment again in the district of Hertfordshire. He called for ‘The Perfect Town,’ and the TCPA had defined that as:
"A town designed for healthy living and industry of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life but not larger, surrounded by a rural belt; the whole of the land being in public ownership, or held in trust for the community."
Welwyn Garden City was established by Sir Ebenezer Howard in 1920, on the periphery of London. It was developed around a main railway line and overtook the small village known as Digswell. Eventually, in 1946 the city saw huge growth when the UK government designated Welwyn a “new town,” which was an urban phase of relocating individuals from war-torn regions of the country after the bombing raids of World War II.
From a 2016 census, it appeared the population of Welwyn exceeded 50,000, therefore not adhering to the vision of Howard’s Garden City concept. It does function as a sort of pseudo-satellite community for London as a large portion of its residents commute in for work. However, due to the reliance on London, this ultimately goes against a Garden City’s highest order, which is that of self-sufficiency.
Legacy and Influence
Sir Ebenezer Howard was knighted in 1927, a year before his death. He was buried in Letchworth Cemetery alongside his wife, Lady Edith. The Howard Medal is considered to be one of the most prestigious awards in the field of city planning and urban development, and has only been awarded 11 times in over 90 years.
The Garden City Movement has been influential all over the world with many examples exhibiting variations of success. Most of these examples devolve into dormitory suburbs, which are better known as commuter cities. There are also striking resemblances held within ‘green belt’ cities that can be found across the United States and in many other countries. Even as recently as 2017, the UK had committed to 14 planned ‘Garden Villages’ in order to expand and meet local housing needs for first-time homebuyers.
The largest similarity that appeared during my research for this post and a prior story (Community of Tomorrow: A Guide to Wellness®), was the definitive radial nature of the schematics presented for the original EPCOT, a prototype city designed by Walt Disney before his death in the ‘60s.
What are your thoughts on garden cities? Do you think the physical design, or the social aspects of Howard’s vision were more important to living a better life in the Town-Country? Do you think it’s feasible for a city to ever be developed in such a strict, deliberate manner with the imposed limitations on population and property ownership?
Thank you so much for reading. If you’re still interested, here’s a video I found on the subject:
About the author:
is the creator of and founder of Storyletter XPress Publishing LLC. He currently lives in SLC, Utah, and writes and publishes speculative fiction on The Storyletter. Due to his fascination with science-fiction and fantasy worlds, he too is drawn to utopian ideations.