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Editorial View: Beyond the historic panacea of the Garden City

Could Howard’s Garden City and Rudlin’s winning proposal for the Wilson Prize give crucial hints to come out of the housing crisis?

Every town-planning module for architecture students begins (and possibly ends) with the Garden City. Yet though Ebenezer Howard’s famous ‘Three Magnets’ diagram is now 116 years old, the notion of combining the better attributes of town and country in a socially reformed, neatly zoned, quasi Utopian city-on-the-hill still has a pervasive appeal. In Howard’s original vision there was room for all, even an insane asylum and ‘home for inebriates’ strategically corralled in a green belt between the city centre and an outer rim of allotments.

The vision, minus the inebriates, has resurfaced again in the recent award of the Wolfson Prize, an economics prize worth £250,000 that called for a modern reconceptualisation of the Garden City, with the usual provisos of viability and sustainability.

In part, the prize was a response to the UK government’s sudden enthusiasm for Howard’s Victorian values, now seen as the ideal planning proposition and panacea. Earlier this year the Coalition pledged that ‘Communities with new ideas for garden cities will receive support to turn their ambitions into reality.’ Plans for schemes of at least 1,500 homes and (crucially) with the backing of local residents will be helped by packages of brokerage and funding, thus neatly circumventing the little local difficulties that tend to be encountered when trying to build at scale in England’s green and pleasant land.

Yet while the government’s stated aim is to build 250,000 new homes between 2015 and 2020 through this new initiative, housing charity Shelter claims that to address the current housing crisis the UK needs to be building 250,000 new homes per year. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that this latest notion of DIY Garden Cities is simply a convenient fig leaf that barely conceals a more profound and terrifying structural crisis.

‘Beyond the agreeable leafiness, Howard’s vision was underscored by radical economic principles’

‘Today, the term Garden City has become a mere byword for a reasonably popular, leafy, unobtrusive new development’, writes Ben Clark, ‘which greatly distracts from the issue at hand’. Beyond the agreeable leafiness, Howard’s vision was underscored by radical economic principles, using rising land values to benefit the community, which have long since been consciously uncoupled from the Garden City brand. How, then, can it rediscover its relevance?

David Rudlin’s winning proposal for the Wolfson Prize might offer some clues. Underpinning the physical proposal, which naturally draws on Howard’s original diagrams, it also aims to shift discourse away from the non-solution of haphazardly building more, to a more systematic understanding of the way in which land distributes wealth, taking London’s great estates as a model of virtuous economic stewardship over time. But as Clark points out ‘Until some of these solutions are brought to fruition, we will be in a state of perpetual housing crisis and perpetual cycles of boom and bust no matter how many houses we build.’

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