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What Is the Garden City Movement?

3 minute read

Born as a reaction to the crowded, dirty conditions in turn-of-the-century London and other industrial cities, the Garden City movement offers an idealized planned community designed to join elements of town and country.

One of the many progressive reformers who sought ways to alleviate the grim conditions of late 19th century urban slums, Ebenezer Howard saw the future of cities in a series of brand-new, rationally designed, and highly organized, highly regulated cities that combined the most favored aspects of urban and rural living. Howard developed the concept of the Garden City as a solution to urban problems and, at the same time, introduced the idea of master planning to modern city leaders. His seminal book, To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, published in 1898 and later reissued as Garden Cities of To-morrow, provides a detailed blueprint for the ideal city.

Howard organized his concept of an ideal city around radial streets and ample green space. Howard's plan shows a 6,000-acre site housing a maximum of 32,000 people, replete with public parks and green spaces. The design seeks to marry the pleasant and healthy natural elements of the countryside with the cultural amenities and social and economic benefits of the city. Unlike the later 'Garden Suburb,' the Garden City, as described by Lewis Mumford, is designed to be economically and socially vibrant, "not a suburb but the antithesis of a suburb: not a rural retreat, but a more integrated foundation for an effective urban life." A large central park would be surrounded by a 'crystal palace' shopping arcade, then a ring of homes, surrounded by factories, then a greenbelt. Howard did note that, despite the diagrams in his book, each city should be organized according to its own needs and geography.

When one Garden City reaches capacity, another would be planned nearby, creating a small network of independent but adjacent communities. The outer band around the city would be reserved as agricultural land. The Garden City's land is divided by uses, heralding the advent of functional zoning. Howard's plan later influenced New York City's 1961 zoning resolution, which discouraged density and height in the city.

After founding the Garden Cities Association in 1899, Howard raised funding to build the first Garden City, Letchworth, north of London. Despite some variations from Howard's original design, Letchworth served as a model for future communities. Although Howard envisioned Garden Cities as cooperatively owned entities controlled by the residents, his recruitment of investors to fund the project meant that profit was always a prominent motive. Howard later built Welwyn Garden City. Located just 20 miles north of London, Welwyn didn't fulfill Howard's original vision of an economically self-sufficient town, but rather became a middle-class suburb with many residents commuting to London.

An unapologetic booster of progress and technological advancement, Howard believed that urban design could shape human behavior and improve social well-being. While his model did not immediately gain the government support Howard had hoped for, it can be said he pioneered the concept of the modern planned community. The Garden City inspired the New Towns movement, which also sought an alternative to deteriorating conditions in Britain's industrial urban centers. Walt Disney's original vision for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), which would have housed 20,000 residents, drew heavily on Howard's design and ideas. Today, Howard's principles continue to influence modern planning and influence the design of developments around the world. New Urbanism and similar movements echo Howard's emphasis on public parks and facilities, walkable hubs, accessible transportation, and jobs within easy reach of homes as important components of healthy cities.

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