While a number of solutions have been proposed over the years to combat the UK’s ongoing housing crisis, one model that policymakers continually return to is the concept of the garden city, which was first proposed by Ebenezer Howard in 1898.
He envisioned garden cities as an antidote to the overcrowding and industrial pollution of rapidly expanding Victorian London – holistically planned new settlements that would combine the best the city and the countryside had to offer, with high-quality, affordable housing as well as employment opportunities and thriving communities. One of the key principles was the community ownership of land.
The land for the first garden city, at Letchworth in Hertfordshire, was bought in 1903, and the land for a second, at Welwyn, in 1919. The concept continued to be developed in the post-war period of the 1940s, when the New Towns Act of 1946 designated the building of 32 new towns across the country. As of 2014, plans for a new generation of 21st-century garden cities are underway.
However, many garden cities are in fact more polluted than other types of urban development due to their reliance on cars. Data from the ONS shows that an average of 70% of new town residents use their car to get to work, compared to the average for England of 63% and the London average of just 31% of residents.
It‘s clear that there are a number of myths surrounding garden cities that we need to addressed to gain a more realistic perspective on their suitability as long-term solutions to our housing needs:
1. All garden cities are true to Howard’s original vision
Howard’s vision was to bring together the best elements of town and country via self-contained communities surrounded by green belts, with proportionate areas of residences, industry and agriculture. Importantly, Howard’s vision was for these towns to be self-sustained, with ample local employment opportunities. But these fundamental principles are missing in recent proposals for new towns. Are these new styles of garden city at risk of becoming suburban dormitory towns?
2. We can continue to build sustainably in low-density settlements
‘Garden city’ has a pastoral connotation that distracts from more important questions about how we are going to live in the future. With 371 people per square kilometre in England and Wales alone, the UK is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe; land is an increasingly scarce and valuable resource. Yet Garden cities are by definition low-density, consume large amounts of green space, and will inevitably deplete agricultural land.
3. Garden cities are environmentally sustainable
The relative low density of garden cities, including new towns, brings with it excessive dependence on cars and buses. Research shows that around half of the population of new towns work outside their local district and most use their car to travel to work. Other criticisms aimed at these settlements are their often unattractive and poorly designed town centres, and their pockets of high levels of deprivation, which often lead to a rise in crime and antisocial behaviour.
4. Garden cities alone will solve the housing shortage
Under current plans, garden cities will only provide a fraction of the accommodation we need to meet our housing shortfall. Building 20 garden cities with 30,000 inhabitants, each at an average household size of 2.4 persons, would only provide 250,000 units – the equivalent of just one year’s worth of house building needed each year in England.