A century on, the ideas behind the creation of garden cities in England still sound enormously sensible. Imagine a developer today creating a city and only felling one tree in the process! The following excerpt from Wikipedia shows how significant the movement was. Replace ‘Cheap Cottages’ with ‘Cheap Eco-Friendly cottages’ and the whole idea seems as sensible as it was 100 years ago. Unless – like John Betjeman – you dislike ‘earnest health freaks’.
In 1898, the social reformer Ebenezer Howard wrote a book entitled Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (later republished as Garden Cities of Tomorrow), in which he advocated the construction of a new kind of town, summed up in his Three Magnets diagram as combining the advantages of cities and the countryside while eliminating their disadvantages. Industry would be kept separate from residential areas– such zoning was a new idea at the time– and trees and open spaces would prevail everywhere. His ideas were mocked in the press but struck a chord with many, especially members of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Quakers.
A competition was held to find a town design which could translate Howard’s ideas into reality, and September 1903 the company “First Garden City Ltd.” was formed, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin were appointed architects, and 16 km² of land outside Hitchin were purchased for building. In keeping with the ideals only one tree was felled during the entire initial construction phase of the town, and an area devoted to agriculture surrounding the town was included in the plan – the first “Green Belt“.
In 1905, and again in 1907, the company held the Cheap Cottages Exhibitions, contests to build inexpensive housing, which attracted some 60,000 visitors and had a significant effect on planning and urban design in the UK, pioneering and popularising such concepts as pre-fabrication, the use of new building materials, and front and back gardens. The Exhibitions were sponsored by the Daily Mail, and their popularity was significant in the development that newspaper’s launching of the Ideal Home Exhibition (which has more recently become the Ideal Home Show) – the first of which took place the year after the second Cheap Cottages Exhibition.
Railway companies often ran excursions to the town, bringing people to marvel at the social experiment and sometimes to mock it: Letchworth’s founding citizens, attracted by the promise of a better life, were often caricatured by outsiders as idealistic and otherworldly. John Betjeman in his poems Group Life: LetchworthHuxley Hall painted Letchworth people as earnest health freaks.