Letchworth Garden City, in Hertfordshire, was founded in 1903 by social reformer, Ebenezer Howard (1850 – 1928).
Howard was attempting to help solve the problems of the late Victorian age, in part linked to the industrial revolution. In overcrowded cities, people paid extortionate rents to live in squalid conditions, and in the countryside they had left behind a lack of opportunity and rural poverty every bit as bad as the urban slums.
Ebenezer Howard was a modest man, the son of a shopkeeper who lived in the City of London, a stone’s throw from the conditions he observed and abhorred. After an unsuccessful stint as a farmer in the USA and more useful employment as a stenographer in Chicago, he returned to London and quickly began to formulate his ideas. He joined debating societies with the likes of George Bernard Shaw and read voraciously. From papers on land reform by Alfred Wallace, to pamphlets on utopian ideas by Henry George and James Silk Buckingham, he was particularly influenced by an 1889 work called ‘Looking Backward’ by Edward Bellamy, which he underwrote the UK publication of. He worked as a parliamentary reporter, which brought him into close contact with reports on health and housing, which also helped shape his ideas.
Publishing and planning
He outlined his ideas in a book, published in 1898, called ‘To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Real Reform’. In it he set out his vision of a new type of settlement, Garden Cities, whose benefits would be twofold.
They would combine the best parts of town and country, with none of the disadvantages of either – which he expertly illustrated in his famous ‘Three Magnets’ diagram; but also they would be developed by a private company and handed over to a community trust, who would capture the profits arising from the town’s development and rather than line the pocket of an individual landowner, they would be reinvested back into the town for the benefit of its citizens.
He emphasised the importance of transport infrastructure, creating an inter-connected group of smokeless slumless cities, and introduced the now-familiar idea of zoning — situating factories, green spaces, workers housing and shops in their own distinct areas. The Garden City would be surrounded by a rural belt, which would both feed the town and offer people access to the countryside.
Creating The Garden City Association
Howard set up the Garden City Association to promote the idea, which quickly gained widespread support, from philanthropists like Cadbury and Lever (whose own factory towns at Bournville and Port Sunlight had been part of Howard’s inspiration) and important figure heads like Sir Ralph Neville QC, a well-respected Liberal MP who gave the idea serious political status.
By 1902 there was enough interest in the idea for The Garden City Pioneer Company Ltd to be founded to fund & purchase a site (of 4,000 – 6,000 acres) to actually build this great social experiment.
Locations had been scouted all over the country before the Alington Estate, in North Hertfordshire, came up for sale. Initially it was just 1,000 acres but negotiations with surrounding landowners brought it up to 3,818 acres and on October 11th1903, First Garden City Ltd was formed and Letchworth Garden City was born.
At the opening, in a huge marquee in the rain in one of Letchworth’s muddy fields, Earl Grey said:
‘I think Mr Ebenezer Howard is greatly to be congratulated upon the fact that within five short years his visionary hopes for tomorrow have become the almost fulfilled realisation of today…The fortunate community living on this estate will rejoice in the knowledge that the unearned increment which may result from the rents of a population of 30,000 souls will not go to enrich an individual landowner, but will be spent in such a way as will tend to refine the lives, ennoble the characters and exalt the minds of all who reside on the estate.’
Materplans and migration
Howard wasn’t a town planner or architect – his diagrams were only ever meant to be illustrative — and to design the layout for the project, First Garden City Ltd appointed two Arts & Crafts architects from Buxton in Derbyshire, Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker. They drew up a Masterplan which was adopted in 1904 and quickly developed an archetypal ‘Letchworth Look’ style of housing design.
The first Garden City attracted both middle class utopian idealists, enthused by the idea, and also (mainly) factories, relocating from towns and cities and bringing along their workforce en masse. Indeed Letchworth Garden City, despite its leafy suburban reputation today, has always been a working town.
Letchworth Garden City today retains the landscaping and green spaces that bring the countryside into the town, and also Howard’s original model that means rents from the town’s farms, shops, industries and offices are reinvested locally for the benefit of its citizens.