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

by Norman Lucey

Continued / Part 3



(a) The New Town Legislation

Several government sponsored reports in the 1930's endorsed the idea of "Satellite Towns" to bring about the decentralisation of London. (e.g.. Chamberlain Report; Marley Report 1934; Barlow Royal Commission 1937)

Towns "...not in isolation but rather as elements in the wider sphere of regional and national planning." (Chamberlain Report)

These reports though, had little effect on the country's planning policy, and it was only really the bombing of British cities in 1940-41 that brought about a planning consciousness. The first fully worked out "Garden City” decentralisation plan was that of Sir Patrick Abercrombie in 1944. The Greater London Plan." The density on which calculations in the Abercrombie plan are based is 20 persons/acre. At Welwyn at that time there were 13,500 people on 1205 acres, (i.e.. 11 persons/acre.) and in the plan this was to be raised to 40,000 on the vacant 1,375 acres with additional increases of 3500 persons by sporadic in-fill. That is a proposed regional decentralisation of 25,000. The average density of the town would then become 16 persons/acre. This is in fact an underestimate of the towns present density.

In 1945, Lewis Silkin (Minister of Town & Country Planning) and Joseph Westwood (Secretary of State for Scotland) set up an advisory committee under the chairmanship of Lord Reith. This committee eventually progressed to the final Royal Assent of The Town and Country Planning Act on 11th. November 1946.

“Stevenage, will in a short time become world famous. (laughter) People from all over the world will come to see how we here in this country building for the new way of life.” (Lewis Silkin )

Legislation now under the state took more account of public opinion, in effecting planning, and it took several years of local consultations and public inquiries before the towns were designated. Of course the original owners of the land only obtained minimal or set compensation due to compulsory purchase, whereas the original Garden City companies had to bargain and pay in full for the development land.



Before 1939

Welwyn Garden City before 1939

After 1946

Welwyn Garden City after 1946

(b) Land Allocation Variations

Raymond Unwin states in "Town Planning in Practice" that "not more than one-sixth of any site should be covered by the buildings..." This guideline is used in the area allocations for Welwyn, and has been handed down to the New Towns.

“Yet one of the main principles behind decentralisation, density control, is founded upon a basic misconception by British planners. This arises from too great a concern with the local effect of densities and the almost superstitious belief that low densities are good, while high densities are harmful.” ("Planners Report" Rodney Carran & Michael Rowley.)

To concern oneself with local densities is an important principle of the Garden City Style, and where the above is true, I do not feel that all that is stated is detrimental. The later misconception is in my view due to inadequate understanding of the basic use of cul de sacs in the Garden Cities; the right mixture of high building density and open areas.

At Welwyn, "the residential area was regarded as elastic, and the rural belt was little more than an acknowledgement of the principle." (C.B.Purdom) It was later to totally disappear. The land allocations significantly vary after the New Towns Act of August 1946, and a comparison indicates some of the trends. The relation of residential area to rural space has reduced the housing density. Indeed the relation of total area to that of residence has increased out of proportion, probably due to an agricultural belt which was initially felt inadequate, and was thus increased, and land which had not at that time been allocated and thus remained rural. The initial proposed density of Welwyn was no more than ten dwellings/acre at max. with an average density of no more than 5 dwellings/acre. The 1920/21 plan gave a density average of 8/acre, (assuming 4 persons per household at a density of 0.033 acres/person in the residential areas). In 1947 this had been changed to 6 houses/acre, (i.e. 0.042 acres/person in residential areas.) This change in planning policy, and gradual decline in housing density, before and after the initiation of a New Town Development Corporation was according to Sir Frederick Osborne a gradual progression and the aesthetic failure due to it, was because of “lack of enthusiasm” on the part of the planners and architects, though it may be noted, not on the part of de Soissons. Of course the main factor, other than that of the change in control, was the 2nd. World War, which held up building, and makes the change more distinctive over the mid forties. Sir Frederick thought that the change was basically one of architectural style, despite the sudden lapse in tree planting; a relatively cheap commodity. The companies original policy concerning tree planting was to give immediate results, and therefore more trees were planted than were necessary, with thinning out after growth.

The probable density changes at Letchworth over the '61-'71 period also illustrate this progression towards lighter density housing. In 1961 the average density in residential areas was 4.7 houses/acre ( i.e.. 0.053 acres/ person ) progressing to a probable 4.2 houses/acre in 1971. ( 0.06 acres/person.) The trend has slowed down but is still present.

Another change in New Town policy occurred after the aesthetic failure, in certain parts, of phase I; namely a general the increase in total overall population that it was thought provided a satisfactory whole. e.g. Harlow (Mark 1) 50,000 (cf. Welwyn ) Cumbernauld (Mark 2) 100,000; Milton Keynes (Mark 3) 250,000:



Cul-de-sac examples: Hampstead, Asmuns Place

Welwyn, Woodhall Court

Welwyn, The Orchard

(c) State and Commercial Planning

The fact that Welwyn Garden City was designated a New Town, whereas Letchworth was not was based entirely on the political opinion of the time. This though provides a good basis of comparison between the two planning types. Silkin's only politically justifiable decision was due to the extreme tensions that were occurring between the Welwyn Company and the Urban District Council over planning policy before the act. The minister stated in a letter to Sir Theodore Chambers, chairman of the Garden City Company on 12th. May 1948;

"While giving full weight to these assurances, the minister cannot ignore what in his view constitutes a fundamental difficulty, namely, that the duty of a private company is not and cannot be the same as the duty of a public corporation. A company must have regard to the interests of its shareholders. A public corporation has no interests except those of the public. The proposal for Welwyn Garden City is that there should be a major expansion carried through as part of the decentralisation of London as quickly as is reasonably possible, and it seems to the minister that it must be right to use the machinery of the New Towns Act, thus ensuring that the expansion is carried through in accordance with his directions, rather than to rely on the goodwill of a company which has no such obligation."

The witness to the wisdom of some of the later words is illustrated by the event at Letchworth. On the closing of the company, several monopolies on supply to residents were ended, and this was generally thought of as a good thing.

"Now if parliamentary powers are necessary for the extension of railway enterprises, such powers will certainly be also needed when the inherent practicability of building new, well-planned towns.... is once fairly recognised by the people." (Howard. "Garden Cities of Tomorrow.")

"The minister in any event, thinks it undesirable that a private company, however public-spirited, should, by virtue of its ownership of most of the land and buildings, be in a position to determine the character of a whole town and the living conditions of the majority of its inhabitants."

This is obviously socialist thinking, and the naming of the new areas of development (i.e. Welwyn and Hatfield New Town) was a deliberate attempt to erase the good reputation of the satisfactory planning associated with Garden Cities. There is of course always a bias, in a free-enterprise society, against government interference, especially when at Welwyn it apparently, because of more widespread responsibilities, changed the whole character of the town.

By the time of the initiation of the New Town Policy, the financial base of the Garden City had considerably changed. The true co-operative township which Howard had written about had never been achieved, and thus we are not certain of what type of planning, if different, would have occurred and thus shaped UK planning generally.

David Lloyd George in his Finance Bill of 1909 made the first attempt to tax the "natural" increase in land values; the “unearned increment” on which the finance of the Garden City was based. This became taxable up to 100% in the Town & Country Planning act of 1947. The change in planning that might have occurred if Welwyn had continued under private ownership after the 1946 Bill, can be vaguely seen by comparing it with Letchworth, which did not become State owned. This state of affairs in fact produced a slower advance in development after 1948, with an obvious indifference of the directors to state ideas, from the local council. In 1954 the nationalisation of development values was abolished and the company was once more in possession of its “unearned increment”, and a sudden change in the profit of the company occurred. (i.e.. 1953 - £15,632; 1955 - £24,702.) Due to this, the directors became concerned with winding up the company and regaining their capital, delivering the assets to its shareholders and letting speculative builders complete the town. Contrary to what had previously been suggested the Letchworth chairman then stated;

“We ought now to declare that we recognise no obligation to hand over our company, or offer to hand over our company to the council, the government or anybody else.”

The first Garden City was becoming the subject of stock market speculation. The ownership of the company changed hands and in 1961/2 parts were sold to developers. Due to these, and other events, contrary to the successful and public-spirited running of the town, the Letchworth Urban District Council promoted a private bill for the purpose of establishing a corporation which obtained its Royal Assent on 1st April 1962.


Basildon New Town

A quadrangle at Basildon New Town

(d) "Praire Planning" and the New Town Housing

In Louis de Soissons’ report to the proposed New Town Corporation at Welwyn, in October 1947, he states;

“For the sake of aesthetic continuity, the architectural character of the areas already partly built up will be continued. In the other areas the architectural note and materials may be changed in an endeavour to achieve variety.”

The company's activities had been halted in February 1947 and the New Town was designated, with a total population limited to 36,500 in January 1948. The first corporation amendments under the retained planner de Soissons, were to remake some unsafe road junctions and widen some road bridges. The later had previously been impossible due to uneasy relations with the railway company. The corporation also tried to combat the class distinctions that had arisen between the residential areas on either side of the railway. The population limit was raised to 42,000 in 1954 and later to 50,000. The annual report of the New Town Corporation in 1966 illustrates the changes in planning practice that had occurred.

“Mr. Louis de Soissons had looked at the planning of the town from the greenbelt on the periphery to the more urban picture of the town centre. He had seen the original landscape of normal agricultural countryside with plenty of fine trees and had visualised it with a large number of pleasantly sited residences and other buildings with roads lined with trees using wherever possible the original field boundaries as dividing lines within the development. For this reason he intended to retain most of these fine trees and he hoped to reinforce them with carefully planted vistas in and around open spaces and in boulevards. The corporation appreciated that this plan had already produced a picturesque and happy place in which to live, but it had to base its ideas on a rather more speedy expansion than the original company had thought of when they set out to bring the original plan to fruition.”

This is a well reasoned explanation for the obvious deterioration in the planning compared with that of the original town.

“The original plans for the town were made some 45 years ago in a more leisurely age and it has been necessary to adopt them to meet the changing requirements of the modern way of life..... Furthermore the original planners also anticipated slow development over a number of years depending largely for its speed on the availability of finance...... Mr. de Soissons continued to act as the corporation's consultant planner until his death in 1962.”

The cost of maintaining Welwyn town centre, Parkway and Howardsgate, rose 100% between 1950 and 1964, and this is a typical argument for the change in planning.

In July 1953, an article in the Architectural Review showed disappointment in the Phase I New Town Planning and its supposed reliance on Garden City policy. Gordon Cullen writes of "Prairie Planning and footsore housewives and cycle weary workers". Opposition to this view was strongly held by the Town and Country Planning Association and the local authorities, although much of the argument was based on emotion rather than fact. "I always regretted the day that the Garden City Association weakened its good wine with the water of town planning." (Purdom) Influences from the United States and Scandinavia became apparent, and certain changes in social habit, such as the decline in demand for a large garden had to be accounted for. "A garden is irresistible to a man of wholesome mind," is typical Garden City philosophy which today seems over romantic. Yet from my own experience, the Welwyn gardens are not overlarge. The density average for the Phase I towns was 13-15 dwellings/acre, consisting mainly of 2 storey, 3 bedroom housing of 900-1000 sq.ft. and a front garden of l5ft. depth and 20 ft. frontage. I think that this l5ft. constant step-back from the street, with corridor planned roads was the basic feature to create the revolt. The streets were too spacious and the scale of the houses too small, thus creating insufficient enclosure and a loss of architectural quality. The planning in the Phase II towns reintroduced a large use of the cul de sac, but of a more unnatural flooring, and took more care over the planting. A return to a more intimate Garden City "quad-planning" occurred, although the rural qualities of the early photographs will never be totally regained.

So long as the ratio of garages to dwellings was 1-5, sufficient space could be found in the plan to integrate them without additional road construction. With 1-2 garages/dwelling, a casual provision is no longer viable and the large grouped garage court, or garages placed forward of the house, have produced the unattractive effects of overwhelming concrete.

Both Howard and later Reith advocated the setting up of neighbourhood centres or wards in the satellite towns. The two Garden Cities have to a certain extent adhered to this policy and have thus influenced the Phase I towns. It is the geological limitations which mainly determine the success or failure of such centres socially and not the size or density of the area concerned. Evidence in the first New Towns has not conclusively proven that low densities are non-advantageous; they have though proved a dissatisfaction with this type of open planning and geographical layout. The first breach from the neighbourhood centre was of course Cumbernauld with its continuous multilevel centre surrounded by high density housing.

The Phase II towns also escaped the Garden City antiquarianism; the primitive creation of a false heritage, producing' a deliberate attempt to increase building densities to a range of 12-16 dwellings/acre, the maximum being 18 /acre. And yet, the most important document in all New Town policy, the master plan, is in fact not required by statute. It has no legal significance, and is never formally approved by the minister. This is the aspect that certainly does remain, from Howard’s book. A free plan, which does not limit the planner as styles change, and different types of planning gain or lose fashion.



Fountain at Welwyn Garden City

Louis de Soissons' work at Welwyn Garden City

(e) Conclusion

In British town planning over the past 100 years, there have been two parallel tendencies in design. These are social reform and improvement in aesthetic appearance. By many planners still, it is thought that the later automatically brings about the social improvement of living standards. Also, it has always been thought that a lowering of residential densities correspond to an improvement in conditions, although at present the opposite pole to that which occurred in the early 20th. century is being proposed.

This paper is basically concerned with the aesthetic deviations due to resources, which practically occur, although theoretically aesthetic town design should be entirely independent of such constraints. The attitudes of planners are influenced by such, although it seems that the density progression has had little effect visually. One thing does seem certain, and that is the growing awareness of the visual design, although its comparison as has been done in this paper is purely subjective.

Howard's basic concern was social reform, yet in calling his town “Garden City” he was setting an aesthetic standard. Town design is very prone to external influences and the response is not necessarily similar in the same conditions. But because previous standards have been set, the changes are significant.

The main aesthetic came initially from the domestic work of such architects as Voysey and Norman Shaw's designs in the first Garden Suburb at Bedford Park, London in 1876. These aesthetic influences have had a much greater effect on social conditions today than reforms in living conditions because of the early works and an ability to relate to them. This has been shown in the little change in internal house design and amenities, although popular house size has a positive correlation with living standards, throughout the period. Indeed Charles Voysey's designs were copied between the wars by speculative builders, being put forward as "primitive" antiquarian and thus functional. The "medieval style" has gradually dampened although Sitte’s “Der Stadtebau” (1889) still illustrates our adherence in town design to an attractive picturesque "Townscape" charm, and effective progression from the formal to the irregular.

Other important aspects derived from the early Garden Cities and Unwin are the flexible plan, and its heavy reliance on the site. There was present a constant drive to retain the beauty and not to destroy but improve the natural aspects of the site on development.

It has been seen that the idea that the State, due to its overall control and non-reliance on financial considerations can provide "perfect" design is contradicted. Other problems such as a decentralisation policy create an aesthetic roughness due to the speed of development. "Teething troubles" occurred at Letchworth and the Phase I Towns, and this is understandable. But the speed of development has created a greater scar in the second case. The post-war “good enough is good enough”attitude; a lack of enthusiasm, was eventually passed on to what Peter Smithson called “raising simple materials to a poetic level” and a general improvement in design. State and commercial planning cannot exist successfully together, and legislation has limited the effectiveness of both parties. Public participation has hindered and slowed the initiation of the projects of the state, although actual development is much faster.

The increase in the amount of state building and the advent of the motor car have been the prime influence on design, although aesthetically, as illustrated by the photographs, design remained remarkably static over the twentieth century.


Letchworth: Burnell Walk 1913

Glenrothes: Similar layout 1956




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