Garden Cities – An old solution to a new problem – a return to socialist principles?

Dr Mike Beazley

Director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS)

Urban planning is becoming a bit of theme for this week. I was mulling over the significant housing crisis with a colleague and the recent discussion in the press about a potential return to the concept of garden cities as a means to address this. Garden cities have been a major achievement of the British planning system and widely copied all over the world as examples of planned settlements and a testament to the power of conscious urban planning. The founder of the garden cities movement was Ebenezer Howard who along with colleagues campaigned for the development of both Letchworth (1903) and Welwyn Garden City (1920).


These settlements are still celebrated today as examples of good planning and they had a major impact of course on the development of the new towns in the post-war period following the introduction of the 1946 New Towns Act as part of the impressive legislative planning machinery that was set up at that time.


So although garden cities are over a hundred years old it is interesting to see that the Coalition Government are returning to this idea as part of the answer to the contemporary housing problem to contribute toward promoting large scale house building to alleviate the shortage.


Prime Minister Cameron, Chancellor Osbourne and Deputy Prime Minister Clegg have all been advocating the potential of garden cities – with the Chancellor announcing plans for a new garden city for 15,000 homes in Ebbsfleet in Kent and Deputy Clegg releasing a prospectus outlining plans for three garden cities across the country.

The Town and Country Planning Association (formerly the Garden Cities Association set up by Howard) – the long term advocate of garden cities and new towns and sustainable development see this as an important moment for planning. The key questions that they raise are how to make garden cities a reality again and whether or not the Ministers really understand the whole concept. If you look closely as some of the original garden city principles – they were quite radical for the day and do have a bit of a socialist feel to them. Howard had been very much influenced by Robert Owen (one of the founders of the co-operative movement) and his new community as New Lanark and the Utopian Socialists such as Fourier and Saint-Simon. Some of the key principles are:

  • A fair distribution to the community of the profits that result from new development
  • Strong political support and leadership – with a firm commitment to community engagement
  • A suitable body to manage community assets
  • Mixed tenure homes and housing types – with a majority being affordable
  • Full range of employment opportunities
  • Beautiful and imaginatively designed homes with gardens
  • Development that enhances the natural environment and promotes bio-diversity
  • Opportunities for residents to grow their own food
  • Strong cultural, recreational and shopping facilities in walkable vibrant communities
  • Integrated and accessible transport systems with a focus on public transport as the dominant them


These principles if followed can make exciting and very liveable communities for the future and the Coalition Government is to be applauded for considering going down this route. Although you have to wander however how many of these principles might be sacrificed along the way.




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