Working class bodies in English garden cities

The “garden city” model of urban planning has enjoyed over a century of international renown to date, ranging from Letchworth and Welwyn in the Hertfordshire countryside to as far afield as Brazil and Japan. Its success derives in part from the widespread influence of Sir Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 manifesto To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. In this book, Howard argued for the establishment of planned, small-scale, self-sustaining communities surrounded by a belt of preserved agricultural landscape. British workers were to enjoy the “natural healthfulness” of the countryside without sacrificing the cultural amenities of modern urban life: concerts, theatres, lecture halls, museums, and overall social intercourse. Howard had witnessed the deleterious effects of industrial capitalism on urban working class life, such as overcrowded, unsanitary housing conditions and depopulated rural communities. He therefore argued that workers and factories needed to be removed from the cities and relocated to the countryside in smaller, planned communities, where the benefits of town and country life could be combined.

A diagram of Sir Ebenezer Howard’s garden city concept, published in his 1898 “To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform”. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

The influence of garden cities continues to resonate with urban and regional planning projects today, having a notable influence on the New Towns and New Urbanist movements and healthy city initiatives across the globe. Earlier this year, Theresa May’s Conservative government announced plans for over a dozen new garden towns and villages to address housing shortages and boost local economies. Yet, we must remember that the English garden city movement, catalyzed by the publication of To-morrow, was not altogether altruistic or socially liberating.

Although in many ways a critique of the conditions wrought by industrial capitalism, Howard’s garden city was also a middle class vision of nature and a model for healthy living: an imagined built environment through which the urban working class could be “civilized”, improved and made more efficient workers.  As a product of the nineteenth-century British reformist thought, Howard’s To-morrow reproduced racial and imperialist notions of national health, rooted in middle and upper class fears that the urban working class was physically and socially degenerating in an environment of unnatural urban life and industrial work.  Garden cites were not merely progressive designs for healthier community planning: they were the result of middle class, Anglo-European attempts to civilize the urban working class by resettling them in towns that symbolised the ideal bourgeois built environment.

This is an ironic assertion to levy, as early English garden city movement leaders – men such as Howard and Letchworth planner Sir Raymond Unwin – were usually well versed in the radical ideas of socialist and anti-capitalist thinkers like William Morris and Edward Carpenter in Britain and Edward Bellamy and Henry George in the United States. Morris in particular pointed to the need for accessible natural surroundings and more beautiful, healthier dwellings for the working class. The influence of Morris’s ideas surfaced in the pages of To-morrow and in the early architectural and dwelling guidelines of the first garden city at Letchworth. His socialist politics, however, did not. Howard presented the garden city as an alternative to the political and class strife of his time: the spatial conditions he believed would inspire social contentment and co-operation. By resettling workers in communities offering healthier, more fulfilling housing and surroundings, workers would become more productive, efficient and satisfied with their jobs and enjoy more peaceful relations with factory owners.

Rather than ameliorate class conflict, Howard’s garden city model in many ways reproduced bourgeois conceptions of ideal living by linking his definition of “natural healthfulness” to a nostalgia for English agrarian spaces. While there appears little troubling about a desire to improve urban living conditions, garden city thinkers did not question what constituted a natural built environment for improving British people’s health. Social and environmental historians have illuminated the construction of definitions of “nature” and “health”, arguing that such terms reproduce the perspectives and values of particular social groups in particular historical contexts. For Howard and many early supporters of the garden city movement, the healthfulness of garden cities rested on the view that such communities would restore workers’ relations with the land and preserve the English agrarian village as a symbol of British imperial strength.  When Howard referred to “nature” in To-morrow, he envisioned middle England countryside landscape, shaped by a romantic mythology which posited medieval agrarian villages as innately healthier environments than Late Victorian industrial cities. As a result, the urban working class needed to be returned “back to the land”. Worker bodies had to be improved physically and socially not only to promote each individual’s well-being, but to safeguard the overall health and imperial strength of the British nation. The impetus for the garden city movement was not the objective deterioration of working class health, though the unsanitary and squalid conditions of nineteenth-century industrial cities should not be understated.  The garden city movement was fueled by condescending middle and upper class depictions of urban working class health.

The garden city unveiled in the pages of Howard’s book was a euthenics project: planning an ideal built environment, the design and layout of which would naturally raise the social and physical health of the British working class. The plan of each garden city, Howard wrote, would itself “raise the standard of health and comfort of all true workers of whatever grade” and ensure a “healthy, natural, and economic combination of town and country life”. Resettled workers would be intrinsically moved by the beauty of the town and nearby bucolic spaces and would thereby instinctively become more co-operative with their neighbors and engage in healthy (middle-class) social interactions and activities. This link between ideal living and improved health left the garden city ideal vulnerable to eugenic co-optation. German and French town planners would subsequently build garden cities as “eugenic utopias”; communities for racial hygiene and selective breeding.  The “natural healthfulness” of the garden city environment was created to improve the British race by civilizing the degenerate bodies of the working class.

It should not surprise us, then, that English garden cities, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, would develop in “the same way as the suburbs specifically built to remove the middle classes from their inferiors”; or, to use Robert Fishman’s term, “bourgeois utopias”. However, this process rested on the imagined basis of working class health.  While access to ample open space, parks, and local produce undoubtedly contributed to an improved standard of living for Letchworth and Welwyn residents, from its beginnings garden city planning was a product of middle class visions of health, fueled by presumptions and fears of the innate unhealthiness of working class bodies.

The history of English garden city planning serves as a warning that urban and suburban planning projects are never free from the politics of class, race, and nation.  The Conservative Government’s recent plan for the creation of more garden cities may be rooted in a radical Late Victorian vision, but this vision was dependent on the denigration of urban working class bodies.

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