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

by Norman Lucey

Continued / Part 2



(a) Analysis of Garden City Housing

At Letchworth and as set down in Unwin's book, the standard Garden City cottage, obviously more "perfect" than a typical speculator's dwelling of the same period, consists of 3 bedrooms with fireplaces in two of them, with a bath in the scullery and a covered way to the external w.c. There were no fitted cupboards, but a fuel store and larder were provided. The actual constituents contained in the house are not very dissimilar to those in a standard town-house terrace. The main difference is the distance, uncovered from the scullery door to the w.c. while as far as the aesthetic additions are concerned, above the plain social requirements, every Garden City cottage, or terrace had two gardens, front and rear and even in the smallest, marvellous interior design with intimate fireplace alcoves in the living room, wooden ceiling beams, window seats and French windows opening out onto terraces in the garden.

In Welwyn Garden City, 20 years later, very little in the built-in amenities had changed. Probably due to the simplicity in design of the early buildings at Welwyn, they are much more acceptable visually than some of the Letchworth "master-pieces." De Soissons kept the exteriors of the houses reasonably simple though with remarkable interest and variety. The interiors vary immensely. The plots varied from 1/5th. to 1/8th. of an acre and were built by public utility societies under the Addison Housing Act of 1919. Also the R.D.C. built their own first small housing' scheme of 50 houses, being completed at Applecroft Road in November 1922. Some of these pioneer designs are the best in the Garden City. The continuity is surprising despite the large use of rendering materials and continuation of the "cottage style". The fall-off in perfection occurs in the monotony and gradual deterioration over time of the terraces built by the U.D.C. This is partially due to non-inspiring tree planting, long avenues without a break and bad grouping of buildings. The Garden City today though still holds together as a uniform whole.

The Garden City aesthetic; the rural appearance of such densities was basically due to the following. The discontinuation of the ideals, led to a revolt against a second rate Garden City planning, headed by the Architectural Review. Gravel roads, grass verges, sand paths, recreated country greens, the absence of car-parking spaces, garages and concrete produced the atmosphere. By 1927 the car was in consistent use. Although the main roads had been built at a width of 18ft., the courts and cul de sacs became a definite hazard. Despite the arguments of Sir Frederick Osborn, photographs prove that a large number of trees have been removed and never replaced in putting in curb stones, slight widening of roads and allocation of grass verges for car spaces within the courts. It is the cul de sacs, which did not have the versatility to provide extra space for cars that have retained their rural character, and have become of no use to the car owning family.

This resulted in the town planning in the phase 1 New Towns, which was to be a continuation of the Garden City aesthetic, becoming a derivation. The Garden City models were no longer as they were initially intended, and did not provide adequately for modern technology. The increase in state built housing, and the advent of the motor car both produced at Welwyn a gradual decline in satisfactory planning. Possibly because of the static ideas of Unwin, which were retained.

The first R.D.C. houses at Welwyn, which were started in 1921, are en obvious attempt to build successfully in the Letchworth tradition. The exteriors were highly modelled, with mansard gables and dormer windows, and the interiors consist of 3 or 4 bedrooms with fitted cupboards, separate w.c. and bathroom upstairs, and a kitchen and larder. This luxurious start is similar only to the better detached houses at Letchworth, and the standard of terrace is soon curtailed. The second scheme for 95 houses, completed in May 1924 on Guessons Road, is very much lacking in the approved amenities which Garden City housing was supposed to provide. It should be noted that the first scheme still survives, where as the Guessons Road housing. were demolished in 1972. In the second scheme, de Soissons tried to build minimum housing, although in fact if these are compared to similar minimum 19th. century housing in Birmingham it is found that a typical living room is 13' x 12' and bedroom 10-13' x 12'. Obviously the small variation in dimensions was counterbalanced by other factors. It seems though that the Garden City did not really provide better housing as a social reform to those in the city centres, if we consider only the amenities and not the property age or surroundings.

Throughout the period of planning at Welwyn Garden City, a deterioration in the amount of built-in amenities, with respect to living standards, occurs both in the U.D.C. and company housing. The U.D.C. housing of 1947 had all the amenities of the 1921 R.D.C. housing, though in a more simple, modern. architectural style. Only a space for a garage was provided; it was not built. In the U.D.C. designs, there is a move away from the particular Garden City Cottage style to a more universal general council terrace. By scheme five in the U.D.C. plans, completed in February 1950, in Knella Road, the interesting visual impact and detailed planning is lost.



Welwyn Garden City housing 1921

First R.D.C. housing scheme in Applecroft Road 1921

Welwyn Garden City housing 1930

Fifth U.D.C. housing scheme in Knella Road 1930

Welwyn Garden City housing 1939

Scheme 10 in Cowper & Upperfield Road 1939

(b) New Town Housing

Most of the houses built in the U.K. during the two years after the 1939-45 war were poor by current standards. Many builders tended to start where they left off in l939, particularly in the private enterprise field. Small bungalows of 1930's design were numerous, due to the individual licence systems and the restrictions in force on size and materials. By the end of the 40's this phase had passed, and for cheapness, industrialised prefabricated building excelled; examples being the Wimpey “no-fines” and the Government Aluminium bungalows, of which some 100 were built in Welwyn and completed in April 1948. These had been demolished by 1964. Some 21% of all dwellings built by the corporations in '64 were by industrialised methods, which limited design. By the year 1967 this had risen to 42%. This rise is mainly due to the building of blocks of flats, which increased in number due to an overestimation of the number required. (Crawley 1949: population expectation requiring flats. 15% - By 1957 down to 21/2%.)

By 1951 the New Town housing prograrnme got effectively under way, the design being significantly limited by Harold Macmillan's "People's House" proposals of January 1950. The standard ceiling height was lowered from 8 ft. to 7'6". Also, as at Welwyn, in December 1952 specialist construction, non-traditional building was being considered as an alternative by local authorities and the development corporations, because of pressure from the ministry. 900 sq. ft. was made the standard for a three bedroom house. If we compare this with previous housing in Welwyn Garden City we find that the housing of the company in 1946 with 3 bedrooms was only just over this whereas earlier housing, for example the first R.D.C. scheme a Welwyn in 1921, and a similar house, was only 800 sq. ft. in area. The second scheme of minimum houses in 1923 took only 700 sq. ft. The standards of room size after the war were much improved, and the Macmillan proposals were far from restricting. Therefore living standards and house sizes become important when considering planning density, as will be done in the next section. The main restrictions in 1951 lay in building materials.

Housing densities were increased, ten houses were to be built where there would have been previously nine, (11% increase) and Macmillan’s target of 300,000 houses was reached by 1953. The detrimental effect of such cheap housing is high maintenance costs. The addition of some amenities now are twice as costly as they would have seen then. Originally after the war, garages were being built, one for every twelve houses. By 1956 it was up to 1 to 8, with an eventual 1 to 4. Now it is recognised that 1 to 1 is inadequate and present building is planned for 1.33 cars per family, with additional parking for visitors.


Welwyn Garden City housing 1945

Welwyn Garden City houses for rent 1945

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