Lengthy aside: I have a lot of stray thoughts about city size and overreach that I ought to get down into one place. There are many people subscribed to this newsletter that know far more about this topic than I do, but here are my bloggy, top of the dome thoughts on how I think garden cities in particular relate to this; reply with your corrections.
In another world, Ebenezer Howard would be known for the absolute hubris of up and emigrating to the United States to be a farmer, failing miserably, palling up with Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, deciding he didn’t want to be a farmer after all, then coming back to the UK with (a) his tail between his legs and (b) no money.
It’s 1876. Back in London, Howard gets a job with Hansard (the producer of transcriptions from UK Parliament). He’s exposed to ideas and proposals about town planning and social reform that help him develop his own views on How Things Should Be. These coalesce as the Garden City movement, which proposes planned, self-contained communities that would combine town and country living with employment opportunities and strong neighbourhood connections like those he encountered in the US Midwest. (This might be, by the way, one of the first instances of cities-as-meme, or perhaps even cities-as-clickbait: what sort of unhinged maniac wouldn’t drop everything to live in a ‘garden city’?)
This wasn’t just speculative navel-gazing from an enthusiastic outsider. It came to fruition. During Howard’s lifetime several garden cities were built in Hertfordshire. In theory it was a new kind of ‘zoned’ town where industry was separated from residential areas and parks, trees and open spaces were spread throughout—but still a single area within which to live, work and play.
But, as you know, most sentences that start with a smily-faced ‘in theory’ are followed by one beginning with a stink-eyed ‘in practice’. For all the positive aspects of the garden cities project, it could not be described as a complete success when compared to the original aims. Many of the garden cities were instead realised as merely ‘nice’ commuter towns, physically separated from London by the green belt of countryside, with residents making long journeys into the capital for work.
But it’s only a physical separation, and that helps differentiate between the official population of a city and the practical population. Garden cities were designed for residents to live and work in, but a good number of residents spent more of their lives in London, or travelling to and from it, rather than in their actual homes.
This facet of modern living obviously stretches beyond the garden cities. Officially London has just over 9 million residents. In practical terms it is a city of twice that: 18-ish million people, from Ipswich to Bournemouth, linked by a single economy. The houses in Suffolk that are a 90-minute journey from Liverpool Street are effectively as much a part of London as any other place—and the property prices reflect it. Marchetti’s Constant breaks in many places.
Of course remote or tele-working could light a fire under all of this; the prospect of divorcing work from transportation is touched on in the article (which was written pre-Covid, it’s important to state).
Aside from the aside: The marriage of English garden city with American urban theory created Milton Keynes, where I live. I’ve written about this here before, and will likely do so again. Milton Keynes was one of the last new towns to be built in the 1960s and as such it represents the political commitment to social justice and mobility which emerged at the end of the Second World War. This makes it a part of the same social democratic movement which produced the National Health Service and The Open University, not coincidentally also based in Milton Keynes. Despite that, we are mostly known for roundabouts and concrete cows and brazen theft of other cities’ football teams.