Thursday, 10 December 2015




As we struggle with climate change and finding sustainable alternatives to our dependence on fossil fuels and imported food, it seems like these are problems unique to the 21st century. But, as the saying goes, history repeats itself. 

Bank of England, London c. 1890. Source
Back in the 1890s, the real problem was urbanization. By 1891, about 54% of the population of England was living in cities with over 20,000 people. With rudimentary sanitation, essentially no laws regulating factory emissions, and poor food preservation techniques, living in the city was not very pleasant.

A somewhat eccentric fellow named Ebenezer Howard thought he had a solution to all these problems, and indeed, some of our 21st century problems for that matter. His solution, called the Garden City Movement, called for smaller, self-contained cities. His ideal city would have a population of about 32,000 people, an accessible city-centre, and designated residential and industrial areas. 

Broadway, Letchworth. Source
Howard's dreams were realized in the towns of Letchworth and Welwyn in England. Even today, these towns continue to espouse many of Howard's ideals.  

Because Howard was working before the use cars became widespread, his towns were planned so that everything was accessible by foot. This meant that you could walk to the store, to work, or to the cinema. While some modern critics have called Howard’s Garden Cities glorified suburbs, his plan was clearly to create the anti-suburb – with everything within walking distance. If you needed to get to the town next door, you could rely on public rail transit.

Now, for those of us from Ottawa, this is going to sound quite familiar. Howard’s Garden Cities were surrounded by green belts. These were designed to a) contain the urban sprawl of the city (only meant to hold 32,000 people) and b) provide agricultural land that could be farmed and used to feed the city’s populace. 

The First Garden City Museum, Letchworth. Source
Finally, Howard wanted his Garden Cities to be like co-operatives. Since the land that the town and its facilities sat on would be owned by the town itself, any rents earned would go towards municipal services, instead of into the pocket of a potentially greedy or uncaring landlord.

As Howard wrote in his ‘manifesto’, Garden Cities of To-morrow, “Town and country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization.” While the goal of a new civilization may not have been achieved in his Garden Cities, he certainly allowed for some interesting buildings to be built.

The Cloisters, Letchworth. One of the more striking buildings. Source
While Howard’s project had a slightly different focus than the points I’ve emphasized here, he speaks a lot about land reform and ownership for example, he serves to illustrate my point that we can learn from history to solve today's problems.

I think Howard and his Garden Cities, as well as other examples from history, could teach us some important lessons about living sustainably, without a dependence on cars and Californian strawberries.

Please let me know in the comments what other historic solutions we might be able to draw on! 


  1. Great article, Kate - how very timely considering the discussions happening at COP21 in Paris right now. I have to wonder how the generation that promoted "garden cities" in the face of industrialization would feel about the state of the planet now, if they were still alive today. Green belts are lovely, but how about when the smog gets so thick you can only wait for a strong wind to push it away to somewhere else in the atmosphere? I hope world leaders today think as seriously as Howard did about our planet's future, and continue to push for stronger, more decisive action that will preserve Earth for the generations to come.

    1. Thanks Madeline! I often feel that politicians do not have a good sense of history. If they did, then they would know it's all been done before! If we can't take solutions from the past, then I think the least we can do is learn from their mistakes.