The Effect of Sir Ebenezer Howard
and the
Garden City Movement
Twentieth Century Town Planning

by Norman Lucey

An evaluation of the changes in British town planning, by comparing the completed aesthetic design.

Using Welwyn Garden City as the basis and taking into consideration the early influences and present constraints.


a. The Early Influences on the Garden City.
b. The Early Garden City Movement.
c. The Garden City Style. 
d. Letchworth and Hampstead.
e. Welwyn Garden City.


a. Analysis of Garden City Housing.
b. New Town Housing.


a. The New Town Legislation. 
b. Land Allocation Variations.
c. State and Commercial Planning.
d. "Prairie Planning" and The New Town Phases.
e. Conclusion.

Sir Ebenezer Howard

Sir Ebenezer Howard




(a) The Early Influences on The Garden City

The now well discussed event that initiated practical town-planning in Great Britain and in many parts of the world was the publication in 1898 of the book, "To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform," by Sir Ebenezer Howard. Ironically, concerning the book, The Times wrote "an ingenious and rather entertaining attempt - the only difficulty is to create it." (October 19th. 1898)

The influences on the book were mostly personal to Howard, although a few previous parallels can be drawn. At this stage the majority are with utopians, despite the very realistic approach found in the book. In the early part of the nineteenth century, several Village Associations were set up to build around the London metropolis, e.g. around Ilford for 5-6000 people in 1848. The ideals were as follows; very similar in fact to the later design constraints of the Garden City Prospectuses.

"Air and space, wood and water, schools and churches, shrubberies and gardens, around pretty self contained cottages in a group neither too large to deprive it of country character, nor too small to diminish the probabilities of social intercourse." (Edinburgh Magazine. Dec. 1848.)

Indeed, this quote should be compared with "Tomorrow:" in which Howard states

"... by so laying. out a Garden City that, as it grows, the free gifts of Nature- fresh air, sunlight, breathing room and playing room- shall be still retained in all needed abundance" (Garden Cities of To-morrow. 1902 edition. page 113)

Due to the expense of travel for the working and lower classes of the time, the country offered a very romantic retreat from town life, despite its worse deprivation. Around the early 1800's the more well off classes were becoming more aware of the deprived, as it began to affect them.

"We want all the beauty that is here... and more also. And none of these distresses.... I believe- out of me and the Good Will in me and my kind there comes a regenerate world-cleansed of suffering and sorrow." ("New Worlds for Old". H.G.Wells 1908.)

The misery of the towns came to the fore in such writings as the "Communist Manifesto" by Marx & Engels (1848) and the works of Booth.

It is interesting to note that in all these early ventures, private enterprise was very important, e.g. James Silk Buckingham's plan for "Victoria" in l849; from which Howard obviously derived the radial diagrams for Garden City. Buckingham states that his scheme was designed to "avoid the evils of communism". At this time the technical and the political aspects of town planning thought were very closely related. Howard in his own book thought that his Garden City should be a private enterprise, though he did think that parliamentary powers would be necessary for a larger project.

The plan for Victoria consisted of an outer square containing 1000 houses and gardens, a second square slightly smaller within containing a covered arcade with workshops; similar to Howard's Crystal Palace containing shops and a winter garden, though possibly both were influenced by a similar plan to surround London with such a concourse. In Victoria a central square contained the more expensive houses and public buildings and the three were all connected with radiating avenues, tree-lined and extending from the centre. Howard states; "I had got far on with my project.." before he read Buckingham's book. (See "Garden Cities of To-morrow" 2nd ed.p112) The acreage of Victoria was to be 10,000 in total, although only 1,000 acres were to be built on, with a surrounding agricultural estate. Howard's original draft for his book also had a total of nearly this; 9,000 acres, with 1,000 built on. This was later reduced to 6,000 but with 1,000 acres for 30,000 inhabitants, (intensity 30 persons/acre.) and an additional 2,000 people in the surrounding 5,000 acre agricultural estate. The town also had l20ft. wide radiating boulevards, planted with trees, dividing the town into six sectors.

The reason for the town was "to raise the standard of health and comfort of all true workers of whatever grade," this being similar to the utopian city "Hygeia" in 1875 of Dr. Benjamin Ward Richardson which had a population of 100,000 in 20,000 houses on 4,000 acres. (25persons/acre)

In this city the boulevards were to be "....planted on each side of the pathways with trees, and in many places with shrubs and evergreens." The important variation between Howard's ideas and all previous utopian thought was the realistic way in which he had gone into explaining how the design could be carried out. His illustrations are only diagrams, dependent on the site, and this gave a new dimension to the town plan; a versatile freedom during its creation. The financial method of supporting the settlement on the increase in land value, "the unearned increment" due to its construction on virgin land, was entirely new. The basis though came from his own personal experiences, especially the reading of Bellamy's "Looking; Backward" which gave Howard his co-operative approach. His alternative living in the city and country during his younger days obviously had a prime effect together with the period he spent in the United States, especially the four years in Chicago after 1871. At this time a third of its population was homeless and Chicago was "The Garden City," due to the designing, before the fire, of the city's most ambitious park system in 1869.

One reason why Sir Ebenezer Howard's book failed to engage the attention of political and sociological experts at the time of its publication was because of his limited knowledge in the field in which he was to make such a distinguished contribution.

Howard's Garden City Diagram 3
Howard's Garden City Diagram 2

Diagrams from "Garden Cities of To-morrow" 1902

(b) The Early Garden City Movement

"My proposal is that there should be an earnest attempt made to organise a migratory movement of population from our overcrowded centres to sparsely-settled rural districts; that the mind of the public should not be confused, or the efforts of organisers wasted in a premature attempt to accomplish this work on a national scale, but that great thought and attention shall be first concentrated on a single movement yet one sufficiently large to be at once attractive and resourceful;..." ("Garden Cities of To-morrow" E. Howard. 1902 edition. Page 112.)

The movement was accomplished, but only in the New Town programme over half a century later. Less than eight months after the publication of "To-morrow", the Garden City Association was formed by Howard and in May 1900 it resolved "to form a limited company called The Garden City Limited", and in 1901 Ralph Neville K.C. became its chairman. Two conferences were held, the first at Bournville in 1901, established by George Cadbury twelve years earlier on 612 acres, there being at that time 925 houses on 138 acres, in which 300 delegates attended. And a second in July 1902 at Port Sunlight near Birkenhead when 1000 attended. The later was established by William H. Lever in 1887 on 56 acres. These were decisive propaganda steps leading eventually to the creation of Letchworth. To an appreciable extent it can be seen, on drawing comparisons between these early examples and Letchworth, that town planning attitude was rooted in artistic rather than social considerations. The similarities between The Causeway at Port Sunlight, Broadway at Letchworth and Parkway at Welwyn Garden City are obvious, although this is only a single example. Several important factors gave credibility to the Garden City proposals. Namely the existence of such material examples as those above and also that by Sir Titus Salt (Saitaire near Bradford) which was opened in 1853 with 3000 inhabitants housed in 800 houses. Also effective was its remarkably simple economic base, put forward as a legitimate undertaking for private enterprise.

On the 16th. July 1902, The Garden City Pioneer Company Limited was registered with a capital of £20,000, with the idea of setting up and constructing a Garden City around London. The original company was wound-up after some lengthy negotiations concerning the contract for the Letchworth estate and its signing in July 1903, and The First Garden City Ltd. was registered at Somerset House on September 1st.

Site Plans


The Garden City Style

Rushby Mead, Letchworth (1908)

(c) The Garden City Style

"The idea of the promoters of the Garden City was not to build an artistic town. We must first see that our citizens are decently housed." This was the attitude of Raymond Unwin, architect at Letchworth, and whereas this may be so, there still remains a strong resemblance aesthetically between all the Garden Cities and Suburbs. A resemblance of planning and architectural style mainly initiated by Unwin and his partner Barry Parker and carried on by such people as Louis de Soissons and Kenyon at Welwyn. Indeed the style has also had a vast influence on the New Towns, and it is this more than anything that has affected living conditions within them. The "style" is medieval, with strong associations with the imminent "arts and crafts cottage style". A large use is made of dormer windows, steep gabled roofs with low eves, sometimes mansard, and well categorised in Unwin's book, "Town Planning in Practice".

In the book, strong use is made of the "inward-looking" cul-de-sac and of cottages collected around "natural" greens . Narrow, informally winding gravel roads, between avenues of trees; the Garden City aesthetic at its best.

The plan by Messrs. Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin of Letchworth in 1903, was based on an area of 1250 acres for 30,000 inhabitants, (24 persons/acre) with 2500 acres reserved as rural belt. This plan was of course subject to modification as Howard states, ".... this absence of plan avoids the dangers of stagnation..." as development proceeded. Another plan was prepared by W.R.Lethaby and Halsey Ricardo in 1903, which was not used, and both plans surprisingly resemble each other, and Wren's plan for rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666. They are similar, even down to the radiating tree lined avenues and their positions on entering the town square.

According to Unwin the axis for the town at Letchworth was established because of the positions of three old oak trees on the site; an important step for future planning.

"the most beautiful gardens of all I believe to be those in which some of the aims of the landscape gardener have been carried out on a simple and orderly plan." (Town Planning in Practice. R. Unwin 2nd. ed.)

Letchworth was planned basically by the constraints of the site.

"That every house should have its garden and should be so placed and planned that all its rooms should be flooded with light and sunshine, unblocked by other houses or by its own projections, were the main ideals. It was necessary to break away from the customary type of street with its endless rows of houses, cramped in frontage, hideous in appearance from the street, and squalid in the congestion of its back projections and its yards." (Raymond Unwin FRIBA)

These were the reasons for the style that was evolved and had a strong influence on all town planning since. The creation of a medium between social reform of the squalid cities and the integration of nature. Indeed in the 1930's, Unwin's book was the bible for most planners, although its power has since waned.


Welwyn Garden City Site Plan

Welwyn Garden City Site Plan (1927)

(d) Letchworth and Hampstead

Strong parallels and changes can be noted between Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb; (construction began May 1907) the later being much more formal and overall perfect. Concerning Letchworth, C.B.Purdom states;

"the actual Garden City is less perfect than the ideal, but, we may hope, more human..... So far as aesthetics were concerned the directors had no policy whatever." (The Garden City. 1913)

This conflict had definite results. Unwin, whereas he did have to approve all submitted designs in the town, rejected little. No means were available to carry through what the Letchworth prospectus spoke of "the high standard of beauty which they desire to attain in the Garden City." The pamphlet that The Garden City Company issued in 1904 to intending builders should illustrate this lack of planning standard concerning aesthetics.

"It should be remembered that a sunny aspect for the main rooms is almost as important as ample air space.... (there should be) no outbuildings at all; the w.c. or e.c. being under the main roof and entered from the porch or from a lobby outside. The promoters believe that by encouraging quite simple buildings, well built and suitably designed and grouped together they will be helping to secure far the Garden City a special charm and attractiveness by methods which experience shows are better calculated to ensure them than the lavish use of pointless ornament."

It should be noted that these are only "suggestions" and that the whole pamphlet, on further reading, is in very general terms. The very feeble attempt to set an aesthetic standard for the town failed. One uniformity in the town did occur, and that was of the roof colour. This; "as the only aesthetic constraint that was felt important" and to which the directors were sympathetic. The causes of the indifferent building at Letchworth, are many, but probably the most important were the problems concerned with getting speculative builders to build in the town, and hence get industry to settle. The Garden City as a new concept was obviously viewed with scepticism, and the directors could not be too limiting. This was the main initial problem concerning a private undertaking of this kind, as opposed to a government project. Although this was not seen at the time as a failure of the company; "this control.... broke down because it attempted the impossible," it was proven to be so at Welwyn, and later at Letchworth in the planning of Broadway, when uniformity was obtained. Of course this was taken to extremes for other reasons in the first New Towns.

"There is, however, (at Letchworth) none of the fearful exactness, the almost painful sense of tidiness, and the self-conscious aestheticism that are experiences in the new suburb at Hampstead. A town is not made by one man, nor by one man's ideas.... There are for instance, many unquestionably ugly houses at Letchworth." (The Garden City. Purdom.)

The work of the Parker and Unwin partnership produced a much more static nature and greater uniformity in the smaller unit at Hampstead. Personally I think that because of this it is much more pleasing and as a whole, more united. The main reason for the change is it seems, the influence of the medieval ideas of Camillo Sitte and his principles concerning devotion to deliberate informality and irregularity. Straight streets become curved and corners, which were previously open of buildings become built up. A picturesque atmosphere was important, and thus a static whole, contrary to Howard's versatile principle of plan. This is basically why Hampstead succeeded; its small size was essential. It is the collection of conflicting architects at Letchworth that introduced its disconnected nature.




Letchworth: Straight curbed roads with uniform planting


Hampstead: Curving unmade lanes and max. use of site

(e) Welwyn Garden City

I am now going to cover Welwyn in more detail as an important bridge between the original Garden City ideals and those of The New Town Movement. Welwyn underwent these changes in planning over time, due to subsequent changes in management and thus is a good illustrative example.

"My ideals have as yet been realised only to a small degree, but I plainly see time and its evolutionary processes fighting ever on my side." ( Ebenezer Howard in Purdom's "The Garden City", writing on Letchworth.)

Welwyn Garden City was started immediately after the First World War in the period when Lloyd George invented his slogan, "A fit country for heroes to live in" and the max. residential density was raised to 12 houses/acre, to cover the increased demand. After Letchworth the term "Garden City" came into common usage, and for a long time, Howard's carefully defined concept was lost. It seems that also at this stage, several of his previous disciples began to doubt his initiative. They include Sir Frederick Osborn, who was concerned with Letchworth and became chairman of the We1wyn Company until 1935. He thought of him as "a fine old spirit but no longer capable of initiating a great enterprise." He was to be proved wrong when on 30th. May 1919, at an auction sale, Howard put down a deposit for part of Lord Desborough's Panshanger estate near Welwyn consisting of 1,458 acres at £51,000. Indeed the Second Garden City Ltd. was formed on 29th. April 1920, with a capital of £250,000.

In a pamphlet for private circulation, issued on 25th. September 1919, it was stated;

"The Board have invited Mr. C.M.Crickmer F.R.I.B.A. (an architect already partially engaged at Letchworth) to prepare the preliminary Town Plan on Garden City principles.... The preservation of the beauty of the district and the securing of architectural harmony in the new buildings, will be among the first considerations of the company..... The maximum density will be twelve houses to the acre."

The average was to be no more than 5, with when the final property was totally purchased (in 1949) a population of 40-50,000 on 4536 acres. The first houses were designed by Crickmer and built in 1920 on Handside Lane. Bernard Shaw is said to have denounced these as a "slum" although indeed, they are of the Letchworth tradition and very simple in construction. Then came one of the first of many progressions towards a new improved type of planning, when on 26th. April 1920, Louis de Soissons F.R.I.B.A. was appointed to make out new plans for the town, which were presented to the board on 11th. June.

De Soissons' original plans, again did not hold any mandatory power, although those drawn up are still in form, very similar to Unwin's planning style. A similar relation between formal and informal, winding roads exists. A large use is made of cul de sacs, and interesting copies between de Soisson's plans and "Town Planning in Practice" can be noted.

The Welwyn directors were much firmer than those concerned at Letchworth in supporting their architect/planner, and under the companies lease system the external design of all buildings was subject to approval. The company was not in such a weak position, compared with before, and this I feel produced a much nicer overall composition aesthetically. De Soissons chose for the town's main style the red-brick Georgian architecture of surrounding Hertfordshire rather than the Letchworth tradition.

Welwyn Garden City was the first development to benefit from the 1919 Housing Act, and in 1921, Welwyn Rural District Council, later to be an U.D.C. started building schemes under the jurisdiction of de Soissons. This period of design is still though very similar to that of Unwin, while certain aspects did give it an individual rural character. One important feature was the lack of metalled roads suitable for road traffic. The two original Garden Cities had rolled gravel roads on flint hardcore, of varying standard widths dependent on their use. This was mainly due to limited company resources, although maintenance costs were high; it gave a certain "rural" atmosphere. Most of the roads had no visible curb stones, or pavements and so the grass verges moulded into the roads in a very country manner. This has, with the advent of motor traffic, long since gone, and a great amount of the character has been lost. The actual houses in the residential districts had purpose built outbuildings, built by the company, so that tenants did not erect unsightly sheds. Rented houses were mainly built, although the company did start building for owner-occupation eventually. Higher rents were charged for better premises than those of the council. Similar elements between Unwin and de Soissons, and for that matter New Town planning are many. In the residential area, "the natural contour of the land had to be taken advantage of and the architectural effect that was aimed at had to be secured by strictly utilitarian means."

The reason given for cul de sacs was to make maximum use of the land with minimum service expenditure. The "Prairie Planning" outcry concerning the phase one New Towns was based on the assumption that they used Garden City ideals, whereas the urbanity of the early Welwyn cul de sacs is very real. The requirements of company expenditure and Unwin's " nothing was gained by overcrowding" produced very intimate enclosures with relatively high density planning around.

At Welwyn, "there was no money for embellishments." The roads therefore follow the contours of the land wherever possible so that the greatest amount of land could be developed at the lowest cost. "An examination of the plan will show certain roads on the curve and others made straight. This was not done on the drawing board to get a road scheme that looked good on paper; it is the result of following the natural conditions of the site". This is important because on comparing the Welwyn plan with that of Letchworth and then Hampstead it will be seen that a progression is nearing completion. The radiating boulevards of Howard's diagrams have, perhaps non-intentionally, produced a similar symmetrical/limiting town plan. Welwyn nearly avoided the formal avenue. Only the town centre has them, although this, because of its position makes it the most visually attractive part of the town. A progression away from the formal to the informal is present, even down to extreme informality in the first new towns. The Unwin mixture of the two, comes to a climax at Welwyn.

All trees already established were wherever possible left in the plan, all the roads were planted with trees and many more were planted at the back of building plots. At focal points, large trees were planted in groups to make features in the roads and cul de sacs. A large use was made of a flexible building line although the cornice line on building's is maintained along the length of roads, despite in some cases a gradient. According to Purdom, "Welwyn has shown that the best results are to be secured by building schemes being carried out as consistent units." The close is recommended by him as an important aesthetic, functional and social improvisation. De Soissons states that thirty is the max. number of houses to be put in one of them, although at Welwyn few have more than 12. Due to the companies important stress on residential development, this is where most of the trends exist. Welwyn for a long time, because of the commercial policy, lacked adequate means of socialising. No public houses were built; the council built a single community centre on the periphery of the town, and a single theatre held a monopoly together with the department store. Only now, and it is still in course of construction, has a possibly satisfactory amenities centre come into being.


Welwyn Garden City: Parkway

Welwyn Garden City: Howardsgate

Welwyn Garden City: Campus

Welwyn Garden City: Campus & Parkway

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Published by Norman Lucey
Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
© Copyright 1973, Norman Lucey. All rights reserved.