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UK Politics

Could it be the answer to our housing crisis? Why garden cities have a rosy future

Urban visions such as Letchworth and Welwyn caused such a stir that even Lenin was impressed. Now the idea is experiencing a renaissance

It may come as uncomfortable surprise to politicians and think tanks espousing the virtues of the garden city that a certain Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a big fan of the idea too.

The father of the Russian revolution took up the cause during an unlikely visit to Letchworth in Hertfordshire in 1907 where he was able to experience at first hand Ebenezer Howard's utopian vision of a teetotal, hedge-lined idyll in the green and pleasant land of the English Home Counties.

Lenin and his exiled Bolshevik architect Vladimir Semyonov took the concept home and put it into practice in Stalingrad and elsewhere. Yet whilst the blueprint was to spread around the world from China to Brazil the true garden city - based on the principals of social ownership and personal self-improvement - struggled to make it far beyond Welwyn and later with the advent of the post war new towns, Milton Keynes - a conurbation now best known for its concrete cows and roundabouts.

Today the Policy Exchange think tank urged whichever party won the next election to commit itself to creating at least one new garden city as part of a programme of building 1.5m homes to solve Britain's housing crisis. It is an idea rapidly coming back into fashion.

Nick Clegg is a supporter as is planning minister Nick Boles. The Treasury too is believed to back the concept as a potential powerful engine of growth whilst Ed Miliband promised to build a generation of garden cities and new towns in his conference speech.

Even Prime Minister David Cameron envisioned future communities “green, planned, secure, with gardens” as the way to create affordable new homes - before rowing back from the idea, his opponents say, amid fears of stoking a Nimby backlash among voters in the Tory shires.

Philip Ross, of the Garden City Movement and a former mayor of Letchworth, is delighted that politicians are coming round to his way of thinking but fears they may be talking more about a nostalgic architectural aesthetic than the idealistic future-world laid out by Howard.

“There is a special ingredient that turns homes, factories and offices into a community and that is participation, citizenship and a sense of place,” he said. “We want to win the argument first about what a garden city is. You cannot let developers build gated communities in the countryside and just call them garden cities. There has to be a strong set of social principles,” he added.

The movement has outlined a dozen core ideas which it believes could underpin the creation of new communities in 200 Ministry of Defence sites currently being sold off by the Government. Among the principles are shared wealth and property, an emphasis on the environment, fair trade and urban agriculture.

It is a vision that would have proved easily recognisable to Howard, the great grandfather of the actress Una Stubbs. Born in London he emigrated to America to start a farm in the 1870s where he was greatly moved by efforts to rebuild Chicago in the wake of the great fire.

He returned to London where he spent the rest of his professional life as a Parliamentary reporter for Hansard. An Esperanto-speaker, he was influenced by the sentiment of the politicians whose words he dutifully transcribed but more significantly by author Edward Bellamy's then hugely popular Rip van Winkle-esque vision of a future socialist America Looking Backward. Howard's own book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow offered a vision of small scale communities mirroring those of the factory philanthropists in York, Liverpool and Birmingham but not tied to the job.

Instead residents would share the riches of the urban economy and private ownership whilst enjoying the slum-free advantages of fresh air and nature.

In the pine woods of the Tinto Hills in Lanarkshire a community inspired by the ideals of Robert Owen is well on the way to realising the first true garden city  for more than a century. The hopeful founders of Owenstown have been told they must wait three months for a decision by local planners on whether they can press ahead with the first of the proposed 3,000 factory-built, energy-efficient new homes on the 2,000 acre site purchased through a co-operative.

Project co-ordinator Martyn Greene said South Lanarkshire had indicated that the answer was likely to be no - bad news for the 1,500 potential residents and businesses that had applied to move there. It is planned that every house will be affordable because there will be no developers cut and all will have access to an allotment.

“The ethos is about giving people a job and a home and the option of a better life,” he said. The project takes as its inspiration from Mondragon, a co-operative community founded in the Basque country by a catholic priest after the civil war.

Its success, particularly through Spain's economic crisis, is testament to the potential of the garden city movement, said Mr Greene who plans to replicate a similar dynamism in the chillier climes of Scotland. “I think what we are doing is something that Ebenezer Howard would be pleased with,” he said.

Utopian beginnings: Socialist ideals falter


The prototype for Ebenezer Howard’s utopian vision founded in 1899 was intended as a place where blue collar workers could live alongside more affluent sections of society in sober harmony. Its only pub, The Skittles, sold no alcoholic beverages, and the city rapidly became unaffordable to the working class.


The second garden city was modelled on its Hertfordshire neighbour. Laid out in 1920 it is a series of tree-lined boulevards leading to a neo-Georgian town centre. Its founders intended that all residents would shop at a single store although this was to prove unpopular and impractical. 

Brentham Garden Suburb

The original London garden suburb built between 1901-1915. It comprises more than 600 homes many in the arts and crafts style. Notable residents included Fred Perry and England cricket captain Mike Brearley.

Hampstead Garden Suburb

Designed by the architects of Letchworth with its central square built by Sir Edwin Lutyens, this purpose-built north London suburb adopted the visual characteristics but not the socialist values embodied in the original garden cities. Now one of the wealthiest areas in London.

Milton Keynes

Buckinghamshire new town built in 1967. Modernist architecture and grid road system was combined with the more popular open spaces of the garden city movement. Famous for its Concrete Cows which created by Canadian artist Liz Leyh in 1978.