What Was the Garden City Movement?

The Digswell Viaduct, near Welwyn Garden City.
The Digswell Viaduct, near Welwyn Garden City.

The garden city movement was a concept introduced by British author Sir Ebenezer Howard. It is a theory of urban design which seeks to establishment small cities that not only have impeccable planning and excellent amenities, but also emphasize the natural beauty of the countryside. The concept was intended to enable the residents of a city to better connect with nature and avoid crippling congestion.


The theory of the garden city movement was fronted by Sir Ebenezer Howard, an English writer who wrote about the idea in his 1898 publication, “To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform,” which was later reissued as, “Garden Cities of To-morrow” in 1902. At the time of the initial publication, Sir Howard’s hometown, London, was plagued by congestion and overcrowding as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Thousands of people were migrating from the rural areas into cities in order to seek employment and other opportunities. In his book, Howard claimed that one way to manage the large rural-urban migration was to create small cities with proper planning. He believed small cities could have the same amenities as big cities but would have more rural areas with a higher emphasis placed on the environment.

Early Development

After his initial publication, Howard began to seek funding to help actualize his theory. His book had been rather successful, and brought several interested parties to invest in the actualization of building the first garden city. In 1899, Howard and his business associates incorporated the First Garden City, Ltd and in 1904 broke ground for their pioneering project, the garden city of Letchworth. The project was a great success with low taxes and increased space attracting manufacturers who set up shop in Letchworth. The project became profitable after a decade and even began issuing dividends to shareholders. After Letchworth’s success, Howard incorporated another company to begin his second project. This project was named Welwyn and was located on the outskirts of London. Welwyn never attained the success of Letchworth, a setback attributed to its proximity to the nation’s capital, London.

Later Applications

After the death of Sir Howard on May 1st, 1928, the British government began to note the significance garden cities had in urban planning. After the Second World War, the government passed the "New Towns Act legislation" which set up the "New Town Development Corporations" with the task of developing new towns. The legislation was primarily based on Sir Howard’s Garden City concept and oversaw the establishment of 15 new cities in England, as well as a few in Scotland and Wales.

The concept of garden cities was also embraced in the United States where many garden cities were constructed based on Sir Howard’s principles including the Garden City in New York, Woodbourne in Boston, Buckingham in Virginia, and Jackson Heights in Queens, New York among others. The concept of garden cities has spread in most major cities in the world including Lima, Peru where the “Residencial San Felipe” was established as a garden city, and in Cape Town, South Africa which has seen the construction of a garden city known as Pinelands.


While Sir Howard’s concept of garden cities has been embraced all over the world, it has attracted some critics who see the concept as damaging to the economy as well as being destructive to the natural beauty of the countryside. Other urban planners have also criticized garden city plans for their automobile dependency.


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