Nineteenth Century Urbanisation
Intensive urbanisation began under the influence of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. By 1850, 40% of Britain’s population dwelled in urban centres which predominantly formed around mining regions and commerce centres. This rapid urban growth brought with it major social problems, such as unemployment and squalor tenement housing. Urban diseases, such as Cholera, posed a serious threat to public health. Spiralling overcrowding and unsanitary conditions affected the poorest of urban districts most acutely.
What is the Garden City?
The Garden City proposed an entirely new theoretical concept of a balanced urban utopia designed for healthy living. Taking its name from the work of Ebenezer Howard, who in his book To-Morrow: A peaceful path to realm reform (1898) developed the concept of garden cities as a way towards ‘a better and brighter civilisation’. Howard’s garden cities attempted to reduce urban overcrowding and address social and public health concerns that emerged in Europe’s industrialised towns in the nineteenth century.
The Garden City has three main elements. The first element being decentralisation. The twentieth century was to be the age of the “great exodus” from the over-crowded city, the population and industry shall move from existing urban centres to distant districts i.e. the proposed Garden Cities. Secondly, the garden concept means a low-density layout, with limitations on population growth to about 32’000 people to prevent urban overcrowding. The third element of Garden City was city ownership. Land was to be owned by communal landownership and the municipality to stop unfair monopolisation. Profits were to be reinvested into the Garden City for the benefit of the community’s development.
Garden Cities Around the World
Foundations were first laid for the inaugural Garden City in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, in October 1903, just five years after Howard had published his vision for Garden Cities. Established in 1903 First Garden City Ltd was formed to own and operate the town according to Howards three elements. Today, Letchworth is still owned and operated according to Howard’s intentions, by FGC Ltd.’s direct successor, Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation.
In 1919, Howard identified 2’378 acres of land outside the parish of Welwyn, Hertfordshire, that was suitable to establish the second Garden City in England. Foundations were laid in 1920 and the Welwyn Garden City Company was established to own and operate the town as had been done in Letchworth. Designated a new town in 1948, the WGCC handed its assets to the Welwyn Garden City Development Corporation to continue Howard’s vision.
In Denmark, Studiebyen ‘The Study Town’ located in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen was founded by F.C. Boldsen in 1920. Aimed at studying the shortcomings and advantages of different housing types economically, Studiebyen was founded to create better housing for the working class following the first world war and drive for state-funded housing; to provide opportunity to move out of Denmark’s industrial cities. Classically a garden city, ‘The Study Town’ features a gatehouse, small squares, tree lined streets, built public housing and low-level buildings.
In France, Stains Ile-de-France in Seine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris was founded in the 1920’s by Henri Sellier and architects Georges Eugene and Gonnot Albenque. Stains consisted of housing for families and high-density flats surrounded by public green spaces, community facilities and commercial shopping districts. Originally, the project was ambitious. Well-appointed quiet residential housing estates, public pools, fitness centres, a cinema and an auditorium were to be built, but most was scrapped by project end. In typical Garden City design, the central square was large and surrounded by straight avenues with the Grand Avenue planned as a busy shopping street.
Looking to Africa, the Garden City was brought to British Colonies by colonials who had observed the success of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. In South Africa, Pinelands in Cape Town, was one of the earliest development schemes modelled on Garden City principles. Built in the wake of the First World War and the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918, Pinelands development was partly inspired by the realisation poor housing, social conditions and infrastructure had contributed to the devastating death toll the Spanish Flu had inflicted on South Africa. Founder, Richard Stuttaford, put forward his own money to ensure Pinelands broke ground and architect Albert J. Thompson, who worked on the inaugural Garden City in Letchworth, was contracted to realise the Garden City vision.
Across the pond, Radburn, New Jersey was set to be the ‘town for the motor age’. Billed as the ‘first major innovation’ since the garden cities, Radburn was inspired by Letchworth and Welwyn. In Garden City fashion, Radburn was set to be self-sufficient, with residential, commercial, and industrial districts supplying the needs of others. Residential housing was to be laid out in cul-de-sac clusters, with every home having planned access to parklands and separated pedestrian walkways to promote safety and healthy living. The project was devastated by the 1929 stock market crash, with only one quarter of the planned design being realised. The owner, The City Housing Corporation, was declared bankrupt in 1934, leaving Radburn incomplete. It was however named a National Historic Landmark in 2005, having influenced the ‘new town’ movement in post war America and Britain.
Den-en-Chofu was Japan’s first Garden Suburb. Constructed during the 1920’s in the then outskirts of southern Tokyo, Den-en-Chofu was developed to provide housing for rail commuters. In 1907 Eiichi Shibusawa bought land to create a garden suburb inspired by Letchworth. Shibusawa contracted a British town planner to design the suburb with tree-lined streets and incorporated parkland and radiating straight roads from the commuter station. Largely surviving the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the garden suburb solidified its reputation as a viable urban plan, drawing people out of the city centre and to the new garden suburb. Today, Den-en-Chofu is one of Japan’s best-known high-class residential areas offering housing to wealthy commuters.
Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City truly has seen worldwide adoption. In every continent except Antarctica there are urban developments inspired by Howard’s vision of the urban utopia.
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