Character and Cities of To-morrow

September 14, 2020

Joanne Preston writes about the wider resurgence in garden city ideas that have resulted from the co-option of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas to promote the neoliberal principles of privatization and devolution of power (and responsibilities) from central government to local communities.


Ebbsfleet Garden City in Kent is set to become the prototype for a new generation of garden cities to be built in the UK. The development of fifteen thousand new homes, on greenbelt land, follows Ebenezer Howard’s typological and economic model encompassing the private development and community stewardship of greenbelt land that was once publicly owned. The town’s development will be in part funded by the state but managed by an Urban Development Corporation, a group appointed by central government but outside of the usual planning mechanisms. This is the latest example of a wider resurgence in garden city ideas that have resulted from the co-option of Howard’s ideas, by consecutive UK governments, to promote the neoliberal principles of privatization and devolution of power (and responsibilities) from central government to local communities.

The drive toward new garden cities was explicitly promoted in the 2012 Localism Bill that was enforced as part of the austerity measures following the recent financial crisis. Under the Localism Bill, a redrafting of national planning policy saw the introduction of a community tier of neighborhood planning and the recommendation that authorities meet the overwhelming demand for affordable housing by applying “garden city principles” to construct new “locally planned, large-scale developments.”1

The governments’ localism rhetoric drew on an image of the garden city that is bound up with the aspirational middle-class ideals of a green and healthy neighborhood built of affordable family homes and stewarded by members of its heteronormative, homogeneous community. In reality, a heavily aestheticized version of Howard’s ideas is being used to relieve the state of the responsibility to provide public services. Under the guise of “localism,” it is the task of co-operatives, mutuals, charities, and social enterprises to deliver plentiful affordable housing, adequate community spaces, and services to maintain the public realm.

Howard’s garden city vision, outlined in his 1898 text To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform2 was part of the wider dissemination of utopian discourse associated with a reconnection to community and domestic ideals, which claimed to offer a retreat from the “threatening by-products of capitalism [and progress] destitution, urban squalor, materialism, prostitution, crime, and class conflict.”3 In this context, the proposal for a network of “social cities” was presented as a movement toward social progress4—ideas that have been since discredited by academics but generally prevail.5 The marketing of Howard’s vision in this way has, through history, made it a useful political tool for appeasing the emerging middle classes. As a result, the garden city model has significantly influenced UK housing policy and the semi-detached suburban housing types are as thoroughly embedded into the British countryside today, as they are the British class system.

As early as 1913, as part of the Rural Land Program, the state drew on elements from the garden city model to provide social housing for those relatively better off members of society. The architectural historian Mark Swenarton notes how new, low-density housing was built a “safe” distance from the city for those who were financially able, enabling the lower social class to be moved into the vacated city dwelling they left behind and the demolition of the subsequently empty, overcrowded, and unsanitary slum dwellings.6 The economic viability of the rural land program’s model relied on the state’s development and rental of suburban, garden city style housing to those more able to help themselves.

Counter to the garden cities portrayal as a socially progressive urban model, the UK-wide mass-house-building schemes that adopted these ideas have, through history, increased inequality by expediting upward social mobility for households in a more stable disposition while leaving further behind other, already marginalized, members of society. This effect has been exasperated more recently by consecutive governments drive toward home ownership—a key point of difference between the original garden city model, which relied on the “pepper-potting” style integration of a mix of rental and ownership properties, and the version that now forms the majority of suburban sprawl.

Policies such as Margaret Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” passed in 1980, whereby state-owned social housing is still sold to tenants at a fraction of its value, disproportionately benefit those from a more stable financial background, who have afforded to invest and therefore taken advantage of unprecedented increases in house prices. The shift toward owner occupation as the dominant tenure in the UK has led to a contagious spread of pseudo garden city housing estates, which although built by the welfare-state, now house communities that conform to the logic and politics of capital investment through homeownership.

If a resurgence in garden city thinking will (once again) form the communities of tomorrow, then it is important to acknowledge that our inherited understanding of it has evolved from a heavily controlled history. The garden cities we know of today and tomorrow are based on the co-option of the aesthetic, typological characteristics of this model and signify a radical departure from the utopian vision, once hailed as “social cities.”

In support of localism, this aestheticized and politicized version of Howard’s garden city model is being employed, thus associating a new and radically dangerous political movement with a historic set of unthreatening, community, and social ideals. And while this inherited understanding of its character is used to signify future garden city style developments as seemingly desirable kinds of places to live; the historic operation of garden city principles at Welwyn Garden City, the second of two of Howards original garden cities to be built in the UK, highlights points of difference between the ideas projected through localist rhetoric and the real impact of these ideals on a specific community and place.

The Welwyn Garden City Estate Management Scheme

In Welwyn Garden City, an Estate Management Scheme (1972) is enforced.7 Introduced following the 1969 Leasehold Reform Bill that allowed leaseholders to purchase the freehold to their properties, this piece of legislation claims to maintain and enhance the garden city’s “amenities and values” by applying a set of restrictions more usually associated with leasehold contracts to freehold properties in the town. These strict rules, which regulate the aesthetic alterations and maintenance of properties, cover issues ranging from the acceptable height and tidiness of a garden hedge, to the permitted color palette for external paintwork.

The ambition for maintaining consistency in the character of individual houses in Welwyn Garden City is an expression of the desire, by those with the loudest voices in the neighborhood, to maintain a homogeneous community. A local media campaign highlighted the “good neighborly” aspect of preserving the garden city’s character—attributing the expression individual personal taste with the characteristics of selfishness and ignorance—putting pressure on residents to comply with the Estate Management Scheme and encouraging the continued vigilance and social exclusion of households who did not.8

The conservation of your environment requires continuing vigilance and attention to detail, lest it be spoilt by the selfish, ignorant, and uncaring. The attractiveness of an area will very quickly be eroded by failure on the part of only a few households to maintain their property adequately or by ill-considered “improvements” or alterations.
—An extract, taken from a 1973 leaflet distributed to residents

The policy’s wording blurs the line between dictating the aesthetic choices applied to individual houses and more general rules about acceptable forms of personal and social life. In 1972 following its introduction, the WGC Liberal Association, argued that the scheme, which gave authorities the powers to investigate “moral lapses as well as breaches of law” and “areas of behavior that are of public concern,” was unlawful and amounted to dictatorship.9

Mock Chimneys and Plastic Windows

The Welwyn Garden City Estate Management Scheme was redrafted and republicized, as recently as 2008, and the archaic policy still functions as a catalyst for an exclusionary form of urbanism, underpinned by a similar rhetoric of community “vigilance” today. While the legal responsibility for enforcing the policy falls on the local planning authority, it is the town’s “watchdog,” The Welwyn Garden City Society—a local vigilante group of largely middle-class retirees—who ensure that garden city “values” are upheld.

The group actively police Welwyn by periodically photographing the frontages of houses and recording evidence of any aesthetic changes that are deemed to counter the Garden City’s “desirable” character. These photographic “mugshots,” of offending UPVC windows and cars that are parked illegally on grass verges, are reported to the local planning authority for review and form visual evidence to support Estate Management Scheme enforcement decisions. Action is taken against residents who are a deemed to have broken the aesthetic codes of conduct, either in the form of fines or through an order to undo or put “right” the criminal characteristic alterations.

If Garden City “values” are to underpin future housing developments in the UK, it is important to unpack exactly which values are key and how they are instilled and maintained. A publication distributed to Welwyn Garden City residents, explaining the importance of the Estate Management Scheme, focuses on property valuations—claiming that preserving the special character of the town ensures its financial, neighborhood, and visual value.

Property valuations are often determined by the setting in which properties are located. Quite simply, inappropriate development, poor quality alterations to buildings of the special character of the environment will lead in turn to the lowering of neighborhood values both in visual and economic terms.10
—An extract, taken from Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, “Estate Management Scheme Leaflet” (2008)

In interviews I conducted with key members of the Welwyn Garden City Society, they claimed their campaign to be about much more than property values, but admitted that leaving the Estate Management Scheme would be an act of “vandalism” on the town, as the policy prevents the “questionable choices of some residents” matters of taste, such as “pebble dash facades,” the erection of “mock chimneys” and replacement of glass windows with “UPVC” (a form of cheaper plastic windows), that are “creeping” in to the Garden City and devaluing the surrounding properties.11

Localism claimed to give “ordinary people” “more power over what happens in their neighborhood” by bypassing usual methods of democracy, giving the impression that it affords greater individual freedom and choice.12 However, the community stewardship model at Welwyn Garden City and the subsequently increased emphasis on community “vigilance” militates against this, revealing how those who do not contribute to a specific set of financial and social “values” bound up with the aesthetics of the garden city typology are actively excluded from the community. This highlights the danger that localism leads to the self-policing of communities, making difficult the existence of anything other than the status quo—toward conservatism rather than innovation—through the framing of such “other” members of the community as “suspect.”

The impact of the characterization of this typology has been explored by the feminist theorists Leonore Davidoff et al., who described the social and emotional effect of garden city style developments through the concept of the “Beau Ideal.”13 These writers argued that, embedded within the monotonous repartition and the inflexibility of these cloned dwellings, there was a set of heteronormative constraints and “moral” community codes of conduct, which kept women tied to domesticity and “safely” away from the labor market and the opportunity for independence it offered.

The goings on at Welwyn Garden City support this criticism and the infiltration of garden city characteristics, and their promotion of the ideological commodification, and subsequent privatization of UK housing, is an example of architectural “othering.” The combined use of policies and the suburban housing characteristics to support “nuclear families” maintains the status quo by making invisible and therefore “less viable” alternative ways of living—whether that be households with single parents, those with working mothers, or larger families living under one roof.

Lampposts and Grass Verges

In Welwyn Garden City, the excessive monitoring of local character—both the urban character and personality characteristics of residents—goes beyond the policing of individual dwellings and extends to the treatment of the wider urban environment. Concern for the character of the public realm has increased since the council’s austerity-driven funding cuts, which have led to a decline in the maintenance of grass verges in the town. The Welwyn Garden City society argue that, while to the county council grass verges are “things,” in a garden city they are part of the town’s “essential design and appeal.”14 Similarly, the Society claims that cuts to the funding of street lighting, resulting in the original “pagoda” style lamppost being replaced with a mix of modern styles, is damaging to the town as residents are “condemned to live in an identikit lighting land.”15

Formed as a distinct geographical area and separated from neighboring towns by greenbelt land, the garden city model seems to amplify the sentiment that tax-funded public services are inadequate and can be better provided by residents, who share a financial stake in the continued upward social mobility of the community. The territorial nature of the garden city model, with its residents who are keen to emphasize its exclusively wholesome character as a celebratory point of difference from other places, is echoed in the Society’s assertion that general “concepts such as ‘public interest’ and ‘proportionate’ have little meaning in a garden city, which depends on so much of its appeal on detail.”16 Here, the garden city model is deemed, by the loudest members of its community, to be exclusive and therefore outside the usual remit of state provision and democratic decision-making.

In Welwyn Garden City some residents have responded to these grievances by taking it upon themselves to cut and maintain the grass verges, while increasing the vigilance and condemnation of those who cause damage by parking their cars on top of them. Here, it is easy to see how this urban model leads to the gradual erosion of the state through the privatization of the public realm by residents, who are keen to maximize the return on their investment of home ownership by paying personally for the upkeep of their local area—either financially out of their own pocket or through their time and labor. In other words, the garden city model offers the chance for residents to literally “buy” into membership of community through their investment of time, money, and labor, while stigmatizing those without the resources or willingness to get involved.

Garden Cities of Tomorrow

While garden city designs and community stewardship models claim to give greater freedom and choice to individuals, in reality, an overwhelming emphasis is placed on community censorship and vigilance. Thus it vilifies, excludes, and disempowers those who don’t comply with the set of community ideals and moral codes of conduct associated with the aesthetics of the garden city vernacular.

If social, economic, and community “values” relate through the character of urban places, then seemingly benign and desirable garden city characteristics reinforce deeper ideological and class divisions. This challenges the image of community cohesion projected through “localism” rhetoric—where at a national level—garden city ideas and designs are used as dangerous vehicles for an exclusionary form of urbanism, ultimately leading to the unjust domination of already marginalized members of the community, by those who already have the property, capital, and network to benefit.

1 DCLG, Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England (November 21, 2011), 8,
2 Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-morrow (London: Routledge, 2013).
3 Leonore Davidoff, Jean L’Esperance, and Howard Newby, “Landscape with Figures,” Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley, eds., The Rights and Wrongs of Women (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976) and Chris Webster, “Gated Cities of To-morrow,” Town Planning Review 72, no. 2 (2001): 172–3.
4 As argued by William Morris; William Morris, News from Nowhere (London: Routledge, 1890).
5 Davidoff, L’Esperance, and Newby, “Landscape with Figures,” and Webster, “Gated Cities of To-morrow,” 149–170.
6 Mark Swenarton, Homes Fit for Heroes (London: Ashgate, 1981), 34–5.
7 Commission for the New Towns, “Management Scheme for WGC” (June 7, 1973), 1.
8 Maurice de Soissons, WGC: A Town Designed for Healthy Living (Cambridge: Companies, 1988), 192–3.
9 Letter in the Times Herald Newspaper, “Liberals Hold an Emergency Meeting on NTC Proposals,” (November 5, 1971).
10 Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, “Estate Management Scheme Leaflet” (2008).
11 Interview between author and members of The Welwyn Garden City Society, Welwyn Garden City, March 20, 2014.
12 David Cameron, “Speech on Infrastructure” (London, March 19, 2012).
13 Davidoff, L’Esperance, Newby, “Landscape with Figures,” 173.
14 S. O’Reilly, email to MP Grant Shapps, “Planning Issues,” March 20, 2014.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.