From the Palestinian West Bank to apartheid townships the Garden City model has been continuously twisted into suburban anomalies across the globe
116 years since Ebenezer Howard published his seminal book ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’, his highly influential satellite city model is moving once more towards the top of the British housing agenda. One manifestation of this tendency is that David Rudlin of URBED and his team have just won the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize for ‘Uxcester’ Garden City. The economics prize, which at £250,000 is second only to the Nobel Prize in value, saw 279 entrants submitting proposals for a new Garden City, with the proviso that their plans should be visionary, economically viable and popular. The award’s theme responds to the British Government’s plans to build a wave of Garden Cities across southern England.
‘Le Corbusier turned his nose up at the provincial Garden City but it retained an influence on his urban schemes’
While it has, in its purest form, inspired a few successful iterations – such as the quaint Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities in Hertfordshire – the principled but out-dated Garden City model persists to be twisted woefully into all manner of suburban anomalies across the globe. Howard’s vision was socialist at its core. An idealised world of light and air, the Garden City model countered the squalid urban living conditions and selfish motivations of industrial society. The vision, which advocated neat zoning and efficient connections in virgin urban centres, was a forerunner of mainstream modernism, influencing generations of 20th Century architects, planners and developers as they attempted to reconnect humanity with nature, decongest cities, and rebuild after World War II. Le Corbusier turned his nose up at the provincial Garden City but it retained an influence on his urban schemes – he famously announced his Ville Radieuse as a ‘vertical Garden City’.
However, laudable notions of a communal city were quickly forgotten as the Garden City’s mutant progeny, and the often interchangeable idea of the ‘garden suburb’, became a lucrative development model driven by consumption, which led to some of the most socially and culturally isolating examples of urban human habitat the world has seen. The model failed to improve the lives of the urban poor and instead deepened social and spatial division between wealthy suburban peripheries and declining cores. As such, it’s been a favourite tool of segregationist regimes.
In South Africa, after the establishment of the affluent, Garden City-inspired development of Pinelands near Cape Town in the early 1920s, the City Council began building Garden Cities as a means to plan and expand the city. In the early 1950s the infamous suburbs of the Cape Flats were laid out. These racially segregated neighbourhoods were the result of the apartheid government’s love of all things homogeneous and suburban. The neat greenbelts of Howard’s vision became buffer zones between white, black, and mixed race communities, with suburban roads circling back on each other to ensure isolated, easy-to-subdue suburbs. The lack of social and green infrastructure implemented by the apartheid government’s stripped-down Garden City for ‘non-White’ neighbourhoods, combined with decades of economic marginalisation, have left the Cape Flats with enduringly severe challenges related to gangsterism, violence and drug abuse.
The garden suburb also has a long history in Israel and Palestine. The ideals of the Garden City and of Zionism share common objectives such as communal land ownership and collective agricultural settlement. Many garden suburbs were developed before World War I as Jewish satellites to Palestinian cities. These grew with Jewish immigration and the 1948 creation of Israel. Aspects of the Garden City model became a powerful tool used to implement Israel’s widely condemned settlement building, in a way similar to South Africa’s apartheid government’s loose appropriation of the model to deepen urban segregation. In the case of the West Bank settlement of Efrat for example, a self-proclaimed ‘Garden City’ in the desert, the hill-top settlement used a utopian vision of a lushly planted city as a incentive for increased settlement and expansion.
‘A static, inward looking city is created, devoid of cultural complexity, diversity and tradition.’
Despite historical garden suburbs having had limited success in realising Howard’s radical vision, many cities use the term ‘Garden City’ as a branding strategy to attract growth and investment by playing on its positive connotations. For example, Malaysia’s new administrative centre Putrajaya claims to surpass Howard’s original concept in both scale and complexity. But while ambitious manicured gardens, a giant artificial lake and palatial complexes set in parklands might resemble a city in a garden they have limited true reference to Howard’s vision. Instead a static, inward looking city is created, devoid of cultural complexity, diversity and tradition. Putrajaya is perhaps more luxury golf estate and less city.
The UK must think critically about plans to construct new Garden Cities on the periphery of major cities. The model has been shown to be highly unsuitable in many global contexts; it represents planning at its most dictatorial, where little room exists for responsive and flexible growth. Instead of inclusive communities, interpretations of the Garden City model are responsible for inward-looking, exclusive, and homogeneous neighbourhoods with limited public space. In reaction to this, growing numbers of suburban residents in the USA – the home of edge sprawl – are returning to city centres. Garden Cities risk being little more than commuter traps where the pull of the city far outweighs the market-town centres of these inauthentic and often nostalgic suburbs. Global cities and planning authorities need to shed empty developer-led branding approaches to housing people sustainably.
Alternatives are not hard to find. The City of London – the historic financial district at London’s core – housed only 7,375 people in 2011, while its commercial office vacancy rate has increased 100% compared to 1998; imagine how useful all that empty office space in the most connected part of the city could be if converted into affordable rental stock. Changing settlement patterns due to increased environmental awareness, urban life, opportunities and connectivity have marked the end of the suburban moment. Garden City evangelists have got it wrong: it’s the city that is the solution and it’s the ever-sprawling garden suburb that is the problem.
About the Author
Guy Trangoš is a researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, a partnership of the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg and Gauteng provincial and local governments.
The opening image shows Har Homa under construction