Why garden cities are streets ahead

As George Osborne plans a new garden city at Ebbsfleet, Sarah Rutherford hopes he'll remember the progressive ideals upon which these urban utopias were founded

In promoting Ebbsfleet and the concept of the garden city, George Osborne is an unlikely successor to the father of the garden city, Ebenezer Howard. A century after the genesis of the garden city, would Howard, "the garden city geyser", as George Bernard Shaw labelled his campaigning friend, have approved of Osborne and his plans?

Howard was a man of the people, from a humble background, passionate to improve the lot of the working family; our Osborne has been labelled one of those Etonian posh boys who doesn't know the price of a pint of milk. But Howard was not afraid to call on the rich and influential in the cause of implementing his vision to provide a sustainable, planned settlement in which anyone would be pleased to live and work.

Howard's vision was precise: to create a town for healthy living, with industry for its residents, of a size for a full social life but not larger. Land zoning was a key feature for the housing, industry, civic centre and open spaces. He saw it surrounded by a rural belt held for the community. It was a self-sustaining, visionary town. Only two true garden cities were built in England, first at Letchworth, started in the 1900s, then Welwyn, begun in the 1920s. But the concept was so influential and attractive it quickly went global, and many were built worldwide.

So can Osborne possibly hope to follow this precedent and make a success of it? Do he and his advisers understand the concept properly? Do they realise that a garden city is more than just a bunch of nice houses in cherry tree-lined streets? It is a vision: a sustainable, vibrant community of bricks and mortar and work, with social and political aspects, not just a dormitory suburb where commuting is the only option to make a living. There are three things Osborne needs to get right. Firstly, have a vision for the place. Don't just let housing developers swamp the place with ticky-tacky boxes on the edge of an existing town. Start from scratch. Set up a development corporation with visionary planners and designers who know how to plan properly for the facilities and industry of a full town and give people what they would like to live in. Why are garden cities so popular to live in? They have pleasing buildings in appealing materials and styles, plenty of open space to offset the necessary industry, and a civic core residents want to use.

The garden city of Letchworth was envisioned by Ebenezer Howard The garden city of Letchworth was envisioned by Ebenezer Howard (Alamy) Secondly, make it sustainable. Give Ebbsfleet the means to support itself. The employment opportunities must be practical, varied and attractive, with good transport links to the rest of the country. In Letchworth and Welwyn, iconic, pioneering and, yes, even attractive, industrial buildings were commissioned by the industrialists who ran Spirella Corsets and Shredded Wheat, who were major employers in the respective garden cities.

Finally, give it a heart. Howard's garden city worked as a self-sufficient town with a social purpose. Ebbsfleet needs a sufficient mass and mix of residents to create and enjoy the social, political, educational and cultural ingredients of a vibrant community. Letchworth was mocked for some of its early residents,who had alternative ideas about ways of living. George Orwell derided it for attracting socialists and communists, along with "every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England". By the end of the War to End All Wars, Letchworth had matured and its residents were a valued part of Britain's war effort.

First garden city in almost 100 years to be built in Ebbsfleet, confirms Chancellor George Osborne

Is our Osborne up to fulfilling this utopian vision? He is hardly another William Morris or Ebenezer Howard, but if he can call upon some of his rich chums to back this venture he will be following in Howard's footsteps. In 1903, Howard's vision did not offer a very secure investment to the average investor, but he attracted enough influential men of means with an interest in the scheme and more than ordinary nerve and resolution, who were willing to invest, and in the first year more than £100,000 was raised to kick-start Letchworth.

So remember, George, a garden city isn't just gardens or houses, it's much more. Go for it, but for goodness sake do it with vision!

Dr Sarah Rutherford is the author of 'Garden Cities' (Shire Publications, £6.99)

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Property search
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk