Think of the world’s great cities and the word “plan” does not come readily to mind. Most show scant signs of intelligent organisation, their organic growth resembling ivy spreading alongside a footpath, directed by whim as much as by geography.
Social scientists now recognise that along with establishing a physical space, cities need to accommodate environmental and social systems such as schools, transport, housing, employment and sanitary requirements.
In the International Encyclopaedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Robert Freestone, from Sydney’s University of New South Wales, writes that: “On balance, urban planning initiatives have meant that a significant proportion of humanity on every continent found itself living in better circumstances at the end of the twentieth century than at the beginning.”
In the same book, Naomi Carmon, from the Israel Institute of Technology, writes that the aim of early city planning initiatives was to “make the city and its neighbourhoods safe, sanitary, economically efficient, and socially attractive”.
The prominent figure at the beginning this city planning movement, Carmon suggests, is Ebenezer Howard, whose 1902 book, Garden City of Tomorrow, “influenced 20th-century urban planning more than any other publication”.
In his 1982 book, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, author Robert Fishman says, “Of the three planners discussed here, Ebenezer Howard is the least known and the most influential.”
“If Howard’s achievements continue to grow in importance,’ he adds, “Howard the man remains virtually unknown.”
The man was born in London, England, on 29 January 1850, but in 1871 emigrated to the US, where he tried, but failed, to make a go at farming in Nebraska.
He’d left school at 15 and found work in London as a stenographer, so when his US farming efforts were unsuccessful, he moved to Chicago and returned to shorthand as a court reporter and newspaper stenographer. When he returned to London in 1876 he worked for the Hansard company as a Parliamentary reporter.
Max Steuer, writing in the June 2000 edition of the British Journal of Sociology, in a paper titled “A hundred years of town planning and the influence of Ebenezer Howard”, says Howard “had no particular educational background, but always took an interest in social movements”.
The idea for which Howard is renowned is his scheme for “garden cities”, several of which were built and exist in Britain and the US, along with many of the principles he established being adopted around the world.
A 2019 paper by Dragica Gataric from the University of Belgrade, in Serbia, says Howard “proposed the establishment of a new city type in order to remove/reduce the differences between rural and urban settlements”.
Gataric says Howard envisioned these garden cities as environmentally friendly places with the economic and cultural advantages of city life as well as ecological advantages of rural areas.
Howard planned his garden city in fine detail, down to the number of inhabitants – about 32,000 – and layout. There was to be six boulevards radiating out from a city centre, circular in shape with park and public buildings, dividing the city into six equal housing units, each of which including a school and about 5000 inhabitants. Factories, workshops, warehouses, and the like would be located along the city’s periphery, alongside a circular railroad that would surround the city.
Gataric says Howard introduced zoning into the city planning process, such as industrial, residential, public space and green areas, “with the idea that they should be spatially separated units”.
If the garden city was to reach its capacities by its spatial and demographic development, she says, a new garden city would be built on the outskirts of that home city.
“The city would be surrounded by a ‘spatial wall’ – a green belt (intended for agriculture and recreation), whose function would be to limit population and spatial expansion (urban growth), as well as to provide the urban population with immediate proximity to greenery and the agricultural environment. It would also be a sports and recreation zone.”
Howard continued as a Hansard reporter for all of his working life. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1924.
He died on 1 May 1928 in one of his own creations, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, England.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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