The UK government revives Ebenezer Howard’s utopian garden city every few years in order to address the housing crisis and create new communities. New Towns, eco-towns, and garden cities are some of the ways that the UK government has tried to address the housing crisis.
Instead of just using this romantic language, we should look closer at the ideals of garden cities and how they can help make Ebbsfleet a successful development.
My colleague Michael Edwards predicted the current problems of the Thames Gateway, where Ebbsfleet is located. The area has a dominant private development that does not provide local employment or walkable communities.
Ebenezer Howard’s utopian vision
He stressed the importance of returning to funding principles that are similar to those used in the Garden City model, which allows development trusts to retain their freeholds. This model is based on infrastructure and services and shifts the focus from short-term returns toward a relationship between collective landowners and residents.
History teaches us many lessons.
The garden city has not been a successful model despite its influence in the first half of the 20th century. It led to some important settlements being established in the UK, the US, and other parts of the world. Similar utopian dreams, with decent housing and a well-designed center, were realized after World War II. William Beveridge, a British reformer, famously described them as having “no shops, no gardens, and few roads.”
It’s easy to think that lessons learned in the past would be used for the next generation of housing. Even the post-war plans, which were inspired by the garden cities of the interwar period, failed to plan new housing with respect to transportation, employment, and public services, such as schools and shops. Although UK government reports tried to learn from both the positive and negative aspects of these reports, they were also criticized in more recent reports for lacking a feeling of community.
The challenges in creating new communities include:
The spatial separation of newcomers from older residents.
The lack of social infrastructure such as schools and doctor’s offices.
The difficulties that come with long commutes, such as the lower incomes and strains this puts on families.
Ruth Durant discovered this in her study on Burnt Oak, a suburb of London.
The early post-war towns were also criticized for the slow development of services such as health care, higher education, cultural facilities, and decent shops. However, some towns did better in terms of providing local employment due to people moving into the cities to take up jobs that were linked to their homes. As the industrial economy changed, the benefits of such a connection between home and workplace (one of garden cities’ tenets) decreased over time.
The challenges of today are different. The people today live a more fragmented and mobile life and are less likely to be tied down to a place, as they were in the past. The risk is that communities will disappear because people are so transient.
However, increased mobility and social interactions don’t need to be mutually incompatible. A lack of mobility can be the most damaging thing to a community. Both work and leisure should be easily accessible. With the advent of internet and grassroots activism, connections are more easily able to cross space. It has enabled movements like the transition network to flourish, which brings communities together around sustainability issues.