The garden city movement is a method of urban planning that was initiated in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the United Kingdom. Garden cities were intended to be planned, self-contained communities surrounded by "greenbelts", containing proportionate areas of residences, industry, and agriculture.
Inspired by the utopian novel Looking Backward and Henry George's work Progress and Poverty, Howard published his book To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898 (which was reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow). His idealised garden city would house 32,000 people on a site of 6,000 acres (2,400 ha), planned on a concentric pattern with open spaces, public parks and six radial boulevards, 120 ft (37 m) wide, extending from the centre. The garden city would be self-sufficient and when it reached full population, another garden city would be developed nearby. Howard envisaged a cluster of several garden cities as satellites of a central city of 58,000 people, linked by road and rail.
Howard’s book To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform sold enough copies to result in a second edition, Garden Cities of To-morrow. This success provided him the support necessary to pursue the chance to bring his vision into reality. Howard believed that all people agreed the overcrowding and deterioration of cities was one of the troubling issues of their time. He quotes a number of respected thinkers and their disdain of cities. Howard’s garden city concept combined the town and country in order to provide the working class an alternative to working on farms or ‘crowded, unhealthy cities’.
To build a garden city, Howard needed money to buy land. He decided to get funding from "gentlemen of responsible position and undoubted probity and honour". He founded the Garden City Association (later known as the Town and Country Planning Association or TCPA), which created First Garden City, Ltd. in 1899 to create the garden city of Letchworth. However, these donors would collect interest on their investment if the garden city generated profits through rents or, as Fishman calls the process, ‘philanthropic land speculation’.
Howard tried to include working class cooperative organisations, which included over two million members, but could not win their financial support. Because he had to rely only on the wealthy investors of First Garden City, Howard had to make concessions to his plan, such as eliminating the cooperative ownership scheme with no landlords, short-term rent increases, and hiring architects who did not agree with his rigid design plans.
In 1904, Raymond Unwin, a noted architect and town planner, along with his partner Barry Parker, won the competition run by First Garden City Ltd. to plan Letchworth, an area 34 miles outside London. Unwin and Parker planned the town in the centre of the Letchworth estate with Howard’s large agricultural greenbelt surrounding the town, and they shared Howard’s notion that the working class deserved better and more affordable housing. However, the architects ignored Howard’s symmetric design, instead replacing it with a more ‘organic’ design.
Letchworth slowly attracted more residents because it was able to attract manufacturers through low taxes, low rents and more space. Despite Howard’s best efforts, the home prices in this garden city could not remain affordable for blue-collar workers to live in. The populations comprised mostly skilled middle class workers. After a decade, the First Garden City became profitable and started paying dividends to its investors. Although many viewed Letchworth as a success, it did not immediately inspire government investment into the next line of garden cities.
In reference to the lack of government support for garden cities, Frederic James Osborn, a colleague of Howard and his eventual successor at the Garden City Association, recalled him saying, "The only way to get anything done is to do it yourself." Likely in frustration, Howard bought land at Welwyn to house the second garden city in 1919. The purchase was at auction, with money Howard desperately and successfully borrowed from friends. The Welwyn Garden City Corporation was formed to oversee the construction. But Welwyn did not become self-sustaining because it was only 20 miles from London.
Even until the end of the 1930s, Letchworth and Welwyn remained as the only existing garden cities. However, the movement did succeed in emphasizing the need for urban planning policies that eventually led to the New Town movement.
The concept was adopted again in England after World War II, when the New Towns Act caused the development of many new communities based on Howard's egalitarian ideas.