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What was Ebenezer Howard's big idea?

31th March 2014

By Rob Cowan

Sir Ebenezer Howard came up in conversation recently. Someone said to me: Ebenezer Howard – he was the guy who invented garden cities, the prototypes for unsustainable, car-based suburbia. That didn’t sound right to me, so I did some maths. What was the population of Britain in 1898 when Howard first published his proposal for garden cities? 38 million. What did Ebenezer Howard specify as the maximum population of a garden city? 32,000. So the population of a garden city would represent 0.0008 per cent of the population of the UK. How many cars were there in the UK in 1898? 8,000. So we can work out exactly what level of car ownership Ebenezer Howard was planning for in his supposed unsustainable, car-based suburbia. If Howard had done the sums, he would have expected that each garden city was likely to accommodate 6.4 cars. 0.4 of a car sounds like a motorbike with a flat tyre, so that leaves 6 cars.

 Put it this way. On that basis if you spent your days walking around a garden city you would come across a car approximately once every two weeks. So when someone says that Ebenezer Howard invented unsustainable, car-based suburbia, let’s recognise that when they say ‘car-based’ they mean practically no cars at all, and when they say ‘unsustainable suburbia’ they mean pedestrian-friendly towns connected by public transport with facilities within walking distance, as they always are in towns where people travel mainly on foot.

We know that Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities wouldn’t have out-of-town shopping centres, for example, because the people wouldn’t be able to get to them. One of Howard’s big ideas was cooperation and sharing, so he would have expected those six cars to be shared – probably owned by a garden city car-sharing scheme. Let’s imagine that every household in the garden city is involved in the car-sharing scheme. Let’s say that they can borrow a car from the car pool for half a day at a time. Do the maths. Every household in the garden city would have the use of a car once every 10 years. So you would have to buy enough household provisions at the out-of-town shopping centre to last you 10 years. How much would you need to buy?

 For a start you wouldn’t fill up the car with perishables. You would look very carefully at the best-before dates. Let’s see, a best-before date only nine years ahead. That’s no good. Let’s face it, there’s very little you would be able to buy on that basis in 1900. Zinc buckets. Washing line. Whisky. Bootlaces. Framed portraits of Queen Victoria. That’s about it. So we do our shopping, load the car with 10 years supply of zinc buckets, washing line, whisky, bootlaces and framed portraits of Queen Victoria, and drive home. Have we bought enough bootlaces, Dad? Don’t worry about it, son. We’ll get the use of the car in another 10 years time. If it snaps before then, tie a knot in it. So, it is clear that Ebenezer Howard was not thinking of a garden city based on car-borne, out-of-town shopping. His garden city concept was not a prototype for unsustainable, car-based suburbia.

Howard was born in London in 1850. When his parents first looked at their new baby, they said: ‘well, that looks like an Ebenezer if ever I saw one’. So that’s what they called him. I’m guessing that’s how it was. For most of his life he achieved very little. He went to Nebraska and tried farming, but he failed and came home. He spent 20 years as a shorthand writer. He invented a stenography machine. It didn’t work. He devised a new prototype. That didn’t work either. He invented a keyless watch. People asked: were’s the key? He said: it’s keyless, that’s the whole point. They said, but it doesn’t work! He invented a proportional-spacing typewriter, but it didn’t type with the letters spaced proportionally.

Then he invented garden cities. Not in a flash of inspiration, but in a systematic way. Victorian Britain was full of people with ideas of how to tackle the problems that many people feared were threatening to destroy society. There were enthusiasts for everything – land reform, public health reform, cooperative living and working, housing reform, model communities. Ebenezer Howard looked at them all but he didn’t become a fanatical enthusiast for any of them. Instead he checked out which of them were compatible with several others, and with each he identified which elements of the idea seemed likely to lead to confrontation and which elements seemed likely to lead to cooperation.

He took all the elements that seemed compatible with each other and that seemed likely to lead to cooperation, and worked out how to fit them together in an overall scheme. That became his proposal for garden cities. At a regional level a number of garden cities would be grouped as what he called a ‘social city’, in which individual garden cities would be linked by railways. You couldn’t rebuild society, abolish capitalism or rebuild the slums at a stroke without violent revolution, Howard said, but you probably could build alternatives from the bottom up, in gradual, peaceful stages. He expected that more and more people would be attracted to the garden cities, with the result that land values in the old cities would fall. This would allow them to be gradually redeveloped at densities compatible with the sort of life that people aspired to.

It didn’t work out like that, not least because planning became divorced from what Howard knew were its essentials: land ownership and land values. In Howard’s vision, the freehold of each garden city would be collectively owned, so the rise in land values brought about by the creation of the city would be retained as part of the community’s wealth, rather than being siphoned off by developers and speculators. That happened in the first garden city, Letchworth, but nowhere else. It’s time we tried it again.

The loss of faith in the potential of planning doesn’t diminish the brilliance of Howard’s insights, which are still as relevant as ever. Howard’s wife said to him after she died in 1904: ‘You have achieved much more than you ever imagined.’ After she died? Yes. Howard and his wife were both spiritualists, so after she died he called her up. And if Howard can call up his wife, we can call him up. Let’s ask him: Where do we go from here? Please, give us some sort of sign...

[For a cartoon version of this blog, see www.plandemonium.org.uk]


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  • Lewis N. Vi... 29th July 2014

    It's been a while since I've read up on the garden cities. I have a copy of Raymond Unwin's Townplanning in Practice and I take it as more or less as historical fact that Unwin was handed the job by Howard as the professional entrusted with working out the details.

    Planner Soissons quotes the purpose of the GC 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"


    Wikipedia gives the population of Letchworth GC as 33,000 and the land area as 7.75 square miles—which at first blush looks pretty good. Take away 33% of the land for road space and another 15% for parks and we have about 4 square miles or 2,560 acres for buildings. At 2.2 people per unit we require 15,000 units in 2,500 acres or 6 units per acre.

    Yep. No doubt about it. It's a suburb.

    You can pack them into a dense core—33,000 is a bit mean for one pedestrian shed yielding 125 units per acre.

    Grouping them into a cluster of quartiers with the rail along the edges we can meet the requirements with 3 quartiers at 40 units to the acre. The build out can be achieved with Georgian terraces 2.5 stories high. That still leaves 7 square miles of open land.

    Welwyn GC has 43,000 population in 20 square miles. The math is going to be even more generous there.

    Howard is reported thinking of local food production contributing significantly to the population. But there is no mention of that, or of industry in the Wiki write ups for either LGC or WGC. Welwyn was home to a secret arms project during WWII. However, the other references are to shopping centers... a hallmark of suburbia.

    It would appear as if most folks are commuting to work... which is suburban as well.

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