Sir Ebenezer Howard OBE, 29 Jan 1850 – 1 May 1928, was an English urban planner and founder of the garden city movement. Howard was born in Fore Street, City of London, the son of Ebenezer Howard 1818–1900, a baker, and Ann née Tow, born 1818. He was sent to schools in Suffolk and Hertfordshire. Howard left school at 15 and began working as a stenographer in London. Howard subsequently had several clerical jobs, including one with Dr Parker of the City Temple.
In 1871, influenced partly by a farming uncle, Howard emigrated with two friends to America. He went to Nebraska, and after his farming efforts failed, discovered he did not wish to be a farmer. He then relocated to Chicago and worked as a reporter for the courts and newspapers. Howard arrived in Chicago just after the great fire of 1871, which destroyed most of the central business district, and witnessed the regeneration of the city and the growth of its suburbs. In the US he became acquainted with, and admired, poets Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Howard began to ponder ways to improve the quality of life.
By 1876 he was back in England, where he found a job with Hansard, which produces the official written record of Parliament, and he spent the rest of his life in this occupation. Howard’s time in parliament exposed him to ideas about social reform, and helped inspire his ideas for the Garden City. In August 1879 he married Eliza Ann Bills. Howard has been described as a humble and practical inventor who used his spare time to create outlines of new cities. It was the social milieu of the 1800s which led Howard to consider the social problems of the time and try to find alternatives. Howard mingled with free thinkers, anarchists and socialists, whose revolutionary and reforming ideas greatly influenced him.
Following the death of his wife Eliza Ann Bills (1853–1904) in 1907 he married Edith Annie Hayward (1864–1941), who ended her days as Edith, Lady Howard, and with whom he is buried in Letchworth Cemetery.
Howard read widely, including Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel, Looking Backward, and Henry George’s economic treatise, Progress and Poverty, and thought much about social issues. He disliked the way modern cities were being developed and thought people should live in places that should combine the best aspects of both cities and the countryside.
The only publication he wrote in his life was titled To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, which was significantly revised in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow. Garden Cities of To-morrow was based on ideas of social and urban reform. Garden Cities were to avoid the downfalls of industrial cities of the time such as urban poverty, overcrowding, low wages, dirty alleys with no drainage, poorly ventilated houses, toxic substances, dust, carbon gases, infectious disease and lack of interaction with nature. This book offered a vision of towns free of slums and enjoying the benefits of both town (such as opportunity, amusement and good wages) and country (such as beauty, fresh air and low rents). He illustrated the idea with his famous Three Magnets diagram, which addressed the question ‘Where will the people go?’, the choices being ‘Town’, ‘Country’ or ‘Town-Country’.
Garden Cities of Tomorrow proposed that society be reorganised with networks of garden cities that would break the strong hold of capitalism and lead to cooperative socialism. It proposed the creation of new suburban towns of limited size, planned in advance, and surrounded by a permanent belt of agricultural land.
These Garden cities were used as the model for many suburbs. Howard believed that such Garden Cities were the perfect blend of city and nature. Howard believed that a new civilisation could be found by marrying the town and the country. The towns would be largely independent, managed by the citizens who had an economic interest in them, and financed by ground rents on the Georgist model. The land on which they were to be built was to be owned by a group of trustees and leased to the citizens.
While many believe the diagrams and designs in Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow to be a physical plan for the perfect garden city, Howard notes these to be merely suggestive as each city should be planned to be organised as per the needs of the people and their environment. Howard never intended for garden cities to be circular like his diagrams.
By his association with Henry Harvey Vivian and the co-partnership housing movement his ideas attracted enough attention and funding to begin Letchworth Garden City, a suburban garden city 37 miles north of London. In 1901, under the guidance of Henry Vivian, a new co-partnership housing development venture was started in the London Borough of Ealing that was to become the Brentham Garden Suburb, now a conservation area. A second garden city, Welwyn Garden City, was started after World War I.
His acquaintance with German architects Hermann Muthesius and Bruno Taut resulted in the application of humane design principles in many large housing projects built in the Weimar Republic. Hermann Muthesius also played an important role in the creation of Germany’s first garden city of Hellerau in 1909, the only German garden city where Howard’s ideas were thoroughly adopted.
The creation of Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City were influential for the development of “New Towns” after World War II by the British government. This produced more than 30 communities, the first being Stevenage, Hertfordshire (about halfway between Letchworth and Welwyn), and the last (and largest) being Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Howard’s ideas also influenced other planners such as Frederick Law Olmsted II and Clarence Perry.
In 1913 Howard founded the ‘Garden Cities and Town Planning Association’ – presently the International Federation for Housing and Planning. Its goal was to promote the concept of planned housing and to improve the general standard of the profession by the international exchange of knowledge and experience.
Howard is buried in a modest grave in Letchworth Cemetery with his second wife Edith Annie, Lady Howard.
Letchworth was developed and owned by a company called First Garden City, Ltd which was formed in 1903, based on the ideas of Howard. After Howard’s book was published he worked to gain financial support to bring his ideas into reality, Howard ran lectures on Garden Cities and began the Garden City Association. The Garden City Association collected money from supporters, his supporters tended to be people who were impressed by the social justice element of the Garden City. The Letchworth estate which was agricultural land, was purchased from 15 individual owners. The Letchworth estate lies on a train line and is only 35 miles from London, making commuting possible.
The original land on which Letchworth was built cost the First Garden City, Ltd £160,378 and covered 3826 acres. However, more land was purchased and the property increased to 4710 acres. The Letchworth garden city was to sustain a population of between 30,000 and 35,000 people, and would be laid out as Howard explained in his book. There would be a central town, agricultural belt, shops, factories, residences, civic centres and open spaces, this division of land for specific purposes is now referred to as zoning and is an important practice within town planning.
Howard constructed Letchworth as an example of how the Garden City could be achieved, and hoped that in its success many other towns would be built emulating the same ideals. Some criticisms of Letchworth exist, claims that it is too spacious and there are few architecturally impressive designs. However, it can be argued the space is what makes Letchworth pleasant, and the architecture, while not highly impressive and uniform, has consistency of colour and is satisfying to the needs of the people.
Welwyn Garden City was an area of woodlands and open fields before the garden city was constructed. Welwyn Garden City was Howard’s second Garden City after Letchworth. Howard purchased the land with £5000 borrowed from friends. Welwyn Garden City is only 20 miles from London, and captured the charm of the countryside and managed to stay unspoiled by urbanisation. The architecture in Welwyn has been described as pleasant, and the residential cottages with their wide roads and open spaces make Welwyn Garden City a refreshing picture when compared to London of the time.
After 10 years of existence Welwyn Garden City had a population of 10,000, with well-established residential, industrial and commercial zones. In 1930 the health of Welwyn Garden City inhabitants was considered greater than those living in London, as Welwyn Garden City recorded lower death rates and infant mortality rates. The increased health in Welwyn Garden City was understood to be due to the principles of the Garden City.
It could be argued that Welwyn Garden City fell short of Howard’s ideals, Howard wanted investors to invest for the sake of philanthropy, but investors wanted returns and local democracy failed with an exclusive government group formed. Finally, Welwyn Garden City was marketed as a middle class commuter suburb, entirely disrespecting the garden city ideals of a self-reliant city.
Howard was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1924 and a Knight Bachelor in 1927.
His great-granddaughter is the actor, dancer and TV personality Una Stubbs; other direct descendants of Howard include his cricket manager grandson Geoffrey Howard, as well as another great-granddaughter, the poet and publisher Joy Bernadine Howard.