Letchworth Garden City

Project – Letchworth, UK

1903 onwards

www.letchworth.com

Letchworth Garden City started in 1903 in Hertfordshire, UK was one of the first new towns and is an early example of urban planning considered alongside strategies of community management and economic sustainability. The brainchild of Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) it was based on ideas first disseminated in his book, To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898) reissued as Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902), which outlined a model for self-sustaining towns combining the convenience of urban life with the advantages of a countryside location, surrounded by an agricultural greenbelt that provided jobs and food. The book generated a lot of interest, enabling Howard to found the Garden Cities Association in 1899 and raise enough money for Letchworth to be delivered entirely by private enterprise.

Although now best known for the design principles of the Garden City, Howard's most radical contribution is probably in the way he developed the social and economic structures of the Garden City. He formed a company, First Garden City Ltd (FGC), to construct the town with the intention that residents would purchase the estate after seven years. However, FGC remained in ownership until 1945 and following two Acts of Parliament the residents have been able to keep control of their land, with the estate now being owned by Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation. FGC originally leased plots for homes and farms with rental income being invested back into the town. Since all citizens were shareholders, they had a say in how the money was used. The company faced many challenges, not least the creation of new homes, and its single most effective marketing strategy was the staging of a national housing design competition and exhibition in 1905 for the design of an innovative home for no more than £150.

Today, the community management of Letchworth still broadly follows Howard's principle of 'rate-rent', where residents pay for their services (rates) and those who invested in the initial development receive a return (rent), which is this case is reinvested back into the town. This system has enabled the Heritage Foundation to develop a range of services and amenities including a hospital, museum, parks, minibus and shopmobility service, whilst also operating a number of businesses to supplement its income. Recently, the town has reached its target population of 30 000 and has also paid off its debts. With the system finally breaking-even, Letchworth has partly fulfilled Howard's original vision by becoming economically self-sustaining.

After Letchworth, Howard established Welwyn Garden City in 1920 and since then the garden city movement has been hugely influential in the UK and around the world, though mainly for its formal characteristics and not its social innovations. Letchworth was also pioneering for its two schemes, Meadow Way Green and Homesgarth, which included co-operative housekeeping arrangements that challenged traditional ideas of domestic work. Homesgarth, built between 1909-1913, was a thirty-two flat housing development designed for professional people looking to reduce the burden of housework. Meals were cooked in a central kitchen and could either be taken in your own flat or a communal dining room. Howard himself was a great advocate of such co-operative schemes, living in Homesgarth until his move to Welwyn Garden City.

Other Work

Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow, 2nd edn. (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1902).

References About

Iain Borden, 'Social space and cooperative housekeeping in the English garden city: [Homesgarth, Letchworth]', Journal of architectural and planning research, 16 (1999), 242-257.

Robert Fishman, 'Ebenezer Howard', in Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), pp. 23-90.

Dolores Hayden, 'Cooperative Housekeeping', in The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American American Homes, Neighbourhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982).

Barbara McFarlane, 'Homes Fit for Heroines: Housing in the Twenties', in Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment, ed. by Matrix (London: Pluto Press, 1984), pp. 26-36.

Standish Meacham, Regaining Paradise: Englishness and the Early Garden City Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

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