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Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of To-Morrow

This brief excerpt from Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of To-Morrow provides a backdrop for city planning examples such as Greendale and Levittown. Hopefully, the opening quotation: "I will not cease from mental strife/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/Til we have built Jerusalem/In England's green and pleasant land" reminds you of our previous discussions of the City Upon a Hill. We read Howard because so many of our forthcoming discussions of ideal public life are informed by his optimistic, indeed infectious, narrative. I will leave the description of his Garden City to the author, focusing instead on three key points.

The purpose of Howard's plan is to sustain "a healthy, natural, and economic combination of town and country life" through a balance of work and leisure (p. 51). In this goal, Howard reflects the ideal in American public life to establish a harmonious relationship between the machine and garden. Technology, hardly a foe to civilization in Howard's view, is essential to healthy public life: "The smoke fiend is kept well within bounds in Garden City; for all machinery is driven by electric energy" (p. 55). Industry and agriculture coexist in his ideal community - as do city and countryside, utopia and arcadia. Howard's sense of balance - in this case, the concentric circles of the Garden City intersected by broad boulevards - assumes that ideal forms will shape and perfect human functions: "No really sound plan of action is in more need of artificial support than is any sound system of thought" (p. 57).

Commerce in Garden City follows the example of World's Fairs and exhibitions, even with the invocation of a Crystal Palace (popularized in the 1851 London Exposition). In this shopping space - dividing central park from 'excellently built houses' - we discover heterotopia: a physical locale set apart from traditional public life where rules and expectations are suspended. Here, one may depart the outside world and its unpredictable weather to enjoy the artificial joys of shopping and even a Winter Garden. In this heterotopia, citizens may play in commercial worlds of fantasy and experience the transitional space between contradictory notions of the sculpted wilderness and the garden home. Unlike utopia, this heterotopian space of commerce is physical. It is not a vision of reformers; it is a project of planners.

Individualism in Garden city is neatly balanced by the needs and common-sense requirements of the community. Howard emphasizes that municipal authorities control little about housing except their observance of "harmonious departure" from the street line. Beyond the urban core, individuals or groups may construct charitable or philanthropic institutions without government interference. In the greenbelt, farmers and co-operatives may try any system to tend their livestock or grow their crops as they deem useful. As Howard puts it: "This plan, or if the reader be pleased to so term it, this absence of plan, avoids the dangers of stagnation or dead level, and through encouraging individual initiative, permits of the fullest co-operation" (p. 56). Like so many other social planners, Ebenezer Howard's Garden City attempts to balance the forces of control and freedom, machine and garden, through the construction of the village. As we will see in our discussions of postwar public life, the increasing encroachment of the nation state on individual affairs renders his vision more and more difficult to attain.


Howard, E. (1898/1965). Garden cities of to-morrow. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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