Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928)

Ebenezer Howard was a major figure in the history of town planning, recognised internationally for inspiring the ‘garden city’ movement.

Howard was born in London in 1850, the son of a baker. He left school at 15 and worked as an office clerk until 1871, when he left for Chicago. After five years he returned to London and worked for the rest of his career preparing the official record of debates in the British Parliament, a job that gave him valuable knowledge of politics and reform.

He published his ideas in To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), later revised as Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902). In this book he suggested that people should not need to choose between town or country but be able to live in ‘town-country’ with the best of both. His work was a reaction against overcrowding in industrial cities and the unplanned sprawl of suburbs, influenced by thinkers such as William Morris and the factory villages of philanthropic industrialists.

His primary concept was a city that gave residents gardens, trees and public open space. It was a complete community where people both lived and worked, not a ‘dormitory’ for commuters. It had excellent facilities, including provision for the poor and less able, and a green belt to prevent expansion. Howard also promoted mechanisms for managing each city as a democratic corporation of occupiers. In 1899, he founded the Garden Cities Association (now the Town and Country Planning Association), which continues to campaign for humane and sustainable environments.

Two garden cities were built with Howard’s involvement, north of London: Letchworth, begun in 1903, and Welwyn Garden City, begun in 1920. They promoted a neo-vernacular architectural style influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Numerous smaller garden suburbs and garden villages were built, of which the earliest were Bentham in south-east London and New Earswick near York. Garden cities and garden suburbs evolved worldwide, including European settlements such as Wekerle at Budapest, Nikiszowiec Settlement (in Katowice) Poland, Puerta de Sagunto in Spain and Marga Garden City (Senftenberg), Hellerau (Dreden) and Margarethenhőhe (Essen) in Germany.

Howard died at Letchworth in 1928, a year after he was knighted. From 1946, the British government established a series of ‘New Towns’ inspired by his philosophy, including Milton Keynes which fulfilled his vision of a network of garden towns around a central garden city and now has a quarter of a million inhabitants.