Proof You Can Build New Homes AND Keep England Green! as an Exhibition on the Enduring Legacy of Our Garden Cities Opens

Article excerpt

Byline: by Harry Mount

THERE'S nothing new in seething rows over where to build houses in our green and pleasant -- but extremely overcrowded -- land. As the Government battles to introduce new planning reforms, it could do worse than look at the brilliant Edwardian solution to the problem: the garden city.

We like to think of Britain as the spiritual home of old buildings, the ancient castle and the country house. But we forget that, just over a century ago, we invented a revolutionary modern urban movement that influenced new towns from Finland to Virginia, from Hong Kong to Germany.

And, it's worth adding, the Daily Mail played a powerful part in backing that movement; so powerful, in fact, that the new developments were soon referred to as 'the Daily Mail Towns'.

A new exhibition at London's Garden Museum explains the story behind the birth of the garden city. The concept was dreamt up by the Victorian social visionary Sir Ebenezer Howard, who wrote about the ideal city in his 1898 book, Garden Cities Of Tomorrow.

Horrified by the squalor of Victorian city slums, Howard envisaged a utopia where people would live in cities that were in perfect harmony with nature.

That didn't mean Howard was a head-in-the-clouds, impractical philosopher. He realised that cities were ideal for social opportunity, amusement and high wages. But he also could see no reason why those advantages shouldn't be combined with the joys of the country: the beauty of nature, fresh air and an abundance of water, woods and meadows.

And so, in 1903, he founded the first garden city in the world -- Letchworth in Hertfordshire, 34 miles outside London. With architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, he set about turning 3,800 acres of land into a healthy mixture of city and countryside, built on radial boulevards, with a high proportion of parks and open spaces.

The Garden City should be of a limited size, Howard said, surrounded by a green belt of agricultural land, with a careful combination of factories, shops and homes. The idea was that the new cities shouldn't be commuter towns, but would provide employment themselves, with people walking to work through the gardens and parks threaded through the streets.

There was to be no government interference; the land, owned by trustees, was leased to the citizens, who then managed the town themselves. Within a decade, Letchworth was self-supporting.

YET TO build his garden cities, Howard needed backing. And that's where the Mail came in. Lord Northcliffe, who as Alfred Harmsworth launched the newspaper in 1896, supported Howard from the beginning, giving him [pounds sterling]1,000 of seed capital in 1902. The Mail also provided the garden cities with free advertising space.

Lord Northcliffe encouraged his younger brother, Cecil Harmsworth, to join the movement, too. In time, Cecil Harmsworth became President of the Association of Garden Cities, from 1911 to 1919, as well as an avid fan of Howard, calling him a 'practical idealist'.

Cecil Harmsworth keenly supported not only the building of Letchworth, but also the second project: Welwyn Garden City, also in Hertfordshire, which was begun in 1920 by architects Louis de Soissons and A.W. Kenyon.

Two years later, Cecil encouraged the Mail to back the Daily Mail Model Village in Welwyn. The village had an Italian villa and a model dairy, alongside ground-breaking designs, including labour-saving houses and steel-framed homes with double walls, for insulation. …