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Green City, Part 3: Arduously greening large cities? Or rescue the countryside through new garden cities? Ebenezer Howard developed a city model at the end of the 19th century that is becoming more attractive in the face of climate change, gridlock and digitalisation.

By Thomas Wagner

“The fact that more than 50 % of the world’s population lives in cities has become an excuse for ignoring rural areas,” said architect Rem Koolhaas in 2020 in his exhibition “Countryside, The Future”. With Koolhaas, one of the most distinguished theorists of urban transformation expressed surprise at how massively everything had changed in the countryside. Koolhaas’ surprise at the death of villages and the urban sprawl of the countryside can also be summed up as follows: under the influence of global warming, mass consumption and new technologies, the growing cities are sucking the countryside dry.

View of the exhibition “Countryside, The Future” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which addressed urgent environmental, political, and socioeconomic issues through the lens of architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, Director of AMO, the think tank of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), © AMO, Photo by Laurin Ghinitoiu

Aircraft and garden city usher in a new era

The unrestrained expansion and further densification of cities, combined with mass individual mobility, are the sign of an economically unleashed modernity. The worst consequences are currently to be corrected under catchwords such as “Smart City” and “Green City”. Does this require more paternalism? Or does a change of perspective promise more success? “At the beginning of the 20th century,” Lewis Mumford wrote in 1945 in his preface to Sir Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”, “two great new inventions took place before our eyes: the aeroplane and the garden city; both ushered in a new age: The aeroplane gave man wings, and the garden city promised him a better home when he came down to earth again.”

In the meantime, mobility has increased at a breathtaking rate, and not only in the air. As for the “homestead”, working and living, little has changed in many parts of the world in the proliferation of metropolises and megacities. In response, “rural areas” are supposed to become more attractive. whether it’s jobs and pay, better transport links or better digital infrastructure. This is helped by the fact that agricultural and industrial production are no longer as fundamentally different as they were more than a hundred years ago. One is amazed to discover that some of the aspects can be found in Ebenezer Howard’s concept of “Garden Cities of Tomorrow” from 1898. They are also suitable for advancing the current debate on a “Green City”.

Green City – the ndion series
We have to rethink the city: housing shortage, expansion of e-mobility, desolation of inner cities – cities are facing great challenges, cities should become greener.
What can urban concepts look like in the future? And where can we already find innovative ideas for rethinking cities? That is what the ndion series “Green City” asks. We take a look back at the past, at tomorrow’s mobility concepts and at the design of inner cities.

City and country are magnets that attract people

Howard analyses the situation at the end of the 19th century and draws concrete conclusions from it without wanting to impose an urban planning concept. The “practical idealist” (Mumford) describes a political and moral problem that has not only not been solved to this day, but has been further intensified by population growth, migration and climate change. The punch line: Howard sees city and country as “magnets” to which he wants to add a third, city-country. To slow down the growth of cities and stop the decline of the countryside, he therefore proposes the creation of new, symmetrical, self-complete and manageable cities of limited size.

Combining the advantages of city and country life

In such cities in the revitalised countryside, he believed he had found a magnet that would unite the advantages of country life with those of city life and exclude the disadvantages of both. This magnet, Howard believed, would attract people. If in the enthusiasm of his idealism Howard had wrongly portrayed urban magnet and rural magnet as equally strong, contradicting his own assumption that the big city was sucking the countryside dry, the forces of attraction have since changed fundamentally with climate change and digitalisation. That Howard’s contemporaries, according to Julius Posener, apparently “did not desire fresh air” with the same vigour with which they wanted “gin palaces and the many other urban amenities” seems to have changed, to say the least. The evidence that living in a garden city is as varied, diverse and exciting as living in the crowded metropolis can now be made on economic grounds, among others. Especially since Howard’s concept is based on the economic independence of the new type of city. In addition, unlike smart control measures such as traffic management and temporary entry bans in the city, nothing is imposed “from above”. The redistribution of population and the emergence of communities more embedded in nature only works if the garden city proves to be more attractive than life in urban agglomerations.

Together with the construction of the Hellerau furniture workshops, the garden city of Hellerau was built in 1909 according to the plans of Richard Riemerschmid. Photo: Frank Exß (DML-BY)

Green belts, which set limits to the expansion of the city, are only a side effect. Howard’s principle was quite successful. This is evidenced not only by the two cities founded in England – Letchworth (1903) and Welwyn (1919). In Germany alone, where there was an active garden city movement in the first years of the 20th century, more than a dozen garden cities were founded, but often only as suburbs.

Garden City
Garden City of Welwyn (England), photo by Knella Green, 1958, © Welwyn Garden City Heritage Trust archive

A city, not a village

That Howard was concerned with reconciling town and country is shown not least by the fact that a garden city is supposed to be a town and not a village: The “Crystal Palace” in the centre is as much an urban element as a meeting place as the “Great Avenue”, which divides the residential area into an inner and an outer belt, is an urban complex surrounded by terraced houses. To think that Howard wanted to turn the country into a huge allotment garden site is to misunderstand his intention. To what extent individual realised garden cities correspond to his ideal is another matter. Frederic Osborn, secretary of the Howard Cottage Society since 1912 in the “Letchworth Garden City” founded by Howard, was appalled not only by the shapeless monstrosity of large cities, but also by the idea of a well-greened and ventilated inhospitableness. In his preface to the 1946 edition, he therefore insists on making a strict distinction between “garden city” and “garden suburb”.

In search of a community

It is important to see: Howard has developed more than an alternative urban model. He has tried to depict the essence of a balanced community and drawn conclusions from it. He has seen what steps are needed in a society that is contradictory in its aims (today one would add: divided or torn) in order to strengthen (within manageable units) the sense of community and, if possible, to realise a vital community. If in Howard’s time there was above all the overpopulated cosmopolitan city that wasted the time, energy and money of its inhabitants because goods and people had to be transported over enormous distances in and out of the city, today such dependencies have become even more pronounced. Whether dormitory towns on the periphery, suburbs that have degenerated into social hotspots, megacities have not only continued to grow. Due to the social disparities they manifest as well as their inhospitability, they contribute little to the development of a common social life. As far as improving the climate within high-density stone deserts is concerned, green roofs and façades as well as sporadic urban gardening have so far remained the famous drop in the ocean. Nowadays, the image of the city as a stone desert is often contrasted with a kitschy Instagram image. It is suggested that in the countryside, as backward, overdeveloped and impoverished as it may be, there is good, fresh air, intact nature, eternal sunshine over flowering meadows, quiet smog-free nights, in other words everything that is missed in the big cities. The fact is: agriculture has been decoupled from the village; individual industries and camps bear witness to urban sprawl; and here, too, there is often a lack of human community and social activity.

Gartenstadt Ebenezer Howard
The first Garden City concept by Ebenezer Howard, 1902: residential cities are arranged in a ring around the core city and linked to it in a star shape by roads, railways and subways, as well as connected to each other in a ring.© Wikimedia Commons

Small, self-contained units

Howard’s originality is evident in the following proposals: In an undeveloped country or green belt, to be used for agriculture, but at the same time to be a part of the city, whose expansion he would restrict and which would prevent encroachments from other cities from the outside. Furthermore, the entire urban area is to belong to the municipality itself, in perpetuity. The municipality merely puts this land into private hands by leasing it. If the value of the municipal land increases, it is to benefit the municipality itself. Furthermore, the number of inhabitants shall remain limited, which was intended for the area of the town in the first place. Industries capable of providing a livelihood for the majority of the inhabitants are to be established within the city’s grounds. And last but not least: as soon as the grounds and the social possibilities of the foundation are exhausted, new cities are to be founded. In short, Howard sought to grasp the whole problem of urban development, not just the growth of the city in space. His aim was to give new vigour to urban life and spiritual and social impetus to rural life. By viewing the countryside and the city as a single problem, he was far ahead of his time.

Strengthen individuality and public spirit

For Howard, the main difference “between our plan and most of the social reform plans that have been proposed or even attempted to be implemented so far” is this: “All those plans sought to squeeze individuals into a large organisation – individuals who had not yet united into smaller groups, or who had to leave the smaller groups on entering the larger community. My plan, on the other hand, is addressed not only to individuals but equally to co-operatives, factory owners, philanthropic societies and others who are knowledgeable about organisation and have already acted as leaders of organisations, and secures for them conditions which do not impose new restrictions on them but rather guarantee greater freedoms.” It cannot hurt the current discussion on a “Green City” to take another look at the concept of many small garden cities – not least to strengthen individuality and public spirit.

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