Professor’s new book explores the history of garden cities

Monday, 14 March 2016

Professor Steve Ward

Stephen V. Ward, Professor of Planning at Oxford Brookes explores the roots behind garden cities first established in the early 1900s, in his new book published today (14 March).

The title of the book The Peaceful Path: Building Garden Cities and New Towns, is taken from the visionary book written by Ebenezer Howard in 1898 To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. A shorthand writer and failed inventor, Ebenezer became known as a social land reformer. He proposed a new way of providing cheap and healthy homes, workplaces and green spaces in balance in cohesive new communities, underpinned by radical ideas about collective land ownership. 

Although they show important differences, Howard’s vision paved the way for the ‘new’ garden cities being promoted by private developers today, and had a major international impact, influencing innovative planned settlements from Scandinavia to the United States, from Russia to Australia. 

Professor Stephen Ward said: “I have made studying the garden city movement into one of my major research themes. In this book I honour the special place that Hertfordshire occupies on the peaceful path, beginning with the development of its two garden cities in Letchworth and Welwyn, developed from 1903 and 1920 by Howard and his associates. 

There is so much debate over whether today’s new garden cities can ever make a real impact, whether they will have the same high environmental standards as the early housing projects, whether they’re just headline-grabbing gimmicks or they can actually become something worthwhile. I observe the continued debate and interest in garden cities with much fascination.

Professor Stephen Ward, School of the Built Environment, Oxford Brookes University

“Both slowly achieved most of his aims and also emerged as havens for liberal-minded, creative, largely temperate communities. 

“I also look at what was a dynamic era of new thinking, when the New Towns programme was created by the post-war British Government as an alternative way of realising Howard’s vision. Faster development was enabled of New Towns that met real social needs at Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead and elsewhere. By 2011, over a quarter of Hertfordshire’s population lived in its garden cities and New Towns.”

Stephen’s book also looks at the contemporary relevance of Howard’s vision. With the Government facing an ongoing housing crisis in the UK, including rising property prices in London and other areas, the idea of the garden city is proving more and more popular, not least in Oxfordshire. 

He continues: “There is so much debate over whether today’s new garden cities can ever make a real impact, whether they will have the same high environmental standards as the early housing projects, whether they’re just headline-grabbing gimmicks or they can actually become something worthwhile. I observe the continued debate and interest in garden cities with much fascination.”

At the end of February, Stephen, a former President of the International Planning History Society, attended a conference on Innovations in Spatial Planning in Erkner (Berlin), Germany held at the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space.

Organised by the Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning (IRS), the University of Stuttgart and TU Berlin, Stephen gave a historical perspective on innovation and knowledge circulation in planning, using Howard’s great nineteenth century innovation as one of his examples.

The Peaceful Path: Building Garden Cities and New Towns is published by Hertfordshire Publications, an imprint of UH Press and is now available to order from local bookshops or you can order online directly from UH Press.

At the end of 2014 it was announced that Bicester, in Oxfordshire would be the Government’s second new garden city with plans for up to 13,000 new homes. You can read Professor Stephen Ward’s article on this and garden cities in Research Forum the University’s research magazine.

More information about Planning at Oxford Brookes and the School of the Built Environment can be found on the website.