Garden city points the way

When Letchworth Garden City was founded a century ago, the first inhabitants voted overwhelmingly for keeping the place ‘dry’. Sure, there was a pub, the Skittles Inn, but it did not serve any alcohol. Regular votes were held over the years but it was not until 1957 that drinkers finally had their way, voting by a three to one majority to be allowed to consume something other than the sickly Cydrax, a non alcoholic apple wine and Bournville drinking chocolate.

Even now, the town has such a well-ordered feel to it that it seemed unnecessary to lock up a bike when popping into the baker’s for a sandwich. The carefully laid out town centre, has a comfortable, relaxed fifties style, rather like the England of bicycling vicars and old ladies in hats hankered after by John Major, whose Huntingdon constituency was not that far away. The restored Art Deco cinema may be showing the new version of Charlie’s Angels but its fading sign assures cinemagoers in the stiff language of the post war period that ‘refreshments will be served throughout the performance’

Indeed, Michael Winner, a scion of the town, dropped back recently and found ‘everyone was polite, everyone was smiling’. However, Letchworth, which is celebrating its centenary this year, is more than just a retro town dominated by nostalgia. It is the result of an early 20th century planning experiment that offers important lessons for the new communities being created by John Prescott around the south east.

Letchworth was the first of the Garden Cities and undoubtedly has been the most successful. It was first conceived by the visionary social reformer, Ebenezer Howard, whose 1898 book, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, in effect created the concept of town planning and set out his plans for integrated communities which was healthy and affordable.

Howard was not the first to have the idea of creating decent urban housing to get people out of the cramped and disease-ridden inner cities. In the 1830s, the man behind the establishment of the Metropolitan railway, the world’s first underground line, Charles Pearson, was busy promoting the notion of building housing estates deep into the countryside where land was cheaper than in the City and connecting them with the centre by rail lines.

There had, too, been company towns like Port Sunlight near Liverpool and Bournville in Birmingham, built by philanthropic entrepreneurs to house their workers in decent conditions.

But Letchworth was different from these earlier experiments as it involved the creation of a whole community. Howard had a vision of a town which would combine the best elements of both the country and the city, operating as a business with the profits from the rent being ploughed back into the community – a kind of ‘not for profit’ development company.

Although his proposals for a garden city were to bear fruit in, first, Letchworth and then Welwyn, his original idea was even more ambitious: a central city connected with others through green areas, all sharing facilities. Indeed, Howard’s concept was part of a wider social vision, based on the common ownership of land, but interestingly he was forced to tone down his socialist ideals in order to be able to raise capital to build Letchworth. In 1900 Howard, who spent many years working for Hansard, the Parliamentary record, managed to create a Garden City Pioneer Company and obtain land between Hitchin and Baldock, secretly buying it off the individual estate owners without revealing his overall plan. The first sod was turned on a muddy October day in 1903 and the town, which Howard envisaged would eventually house 30,000 people, grew steadily until the second world war, largely on the principles established by Howard.

Wandering round Letchworth, it is easy to see some of the key pointers to its success. Unlike the banal sameness of most council estates – and indeed much of the output of the big private housebuilders like Barratt and Wimpey – most of the cottages are individual, different from their neighbours. The houses are quite rustic in feel, with heavily sloping roofs, some thatched, and connected through windy lanes or tucked into little cul-de-sacs. The main thoroughfares are spacious, with large green verges and pavements set back from the road, rather like American suburbia much of which was influenced by Howard’s thinking.

Most important, the houses, each with a garden, were built to a high standard which means that even eighty or ninety years later, they still look good. The pioneering architects such as Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, who built the first homes in the Letchworth plan, designed attractive houses that were built to last, and which had to comply with high standards set by the Garden City company. As Unwin later wrote, ‘That every house should have its garden and should be so placed and planned that all its rooms should be flooded with light and sunshine, unblocked by other houses or by its own projections, were the main ideals. It was necessary to break away from the customary type of street with its endless rows of houses, cramped in frontage [and] hideous in appearance from the street.’

Crucially, too, Howard ensured that buildings for industry, where the residents could live, was included in the design. In Letchworth, one of the most attractive of these is the recently refurbished Spirella building, which housed a corset company until the by-then unfashionable business went bust in 1979. It recently reopened as a modern business complex, home to 24 businesses as well as a conference centre after a recent £11m refurbishment.

Unfortunately, the lessons of Letchworth were not learnt by many subsequent planners who created the hard to let council estates and the brash New Towns of the post war years like Harlow and Crawley which have decayed so rapidly. The rundown council estates were often built to the cheapest possible standard using unconventional building methods which quickly proved unpopular. Moreover, they consisted entirely of council owned housing, rather than having the mix of tenures and uses that crucially underpinned the Letchworth experiment.

The New Towns and satellite council estates built on the periphery of existing towns were catastrophic mistakes because they attempted to do the impossible, creating homes for thousand of unemployed or low income people, away from existing facilities with little green space and on the cheap. Such large concentrations of poor people, with few facilities and little connection with the outside world were doomed to fail because they ignored the carefully thought out principles applied to successful experiments such as Letchworth.

However, Letchworth is by no means perfect. Howard failed to make provision for cars, and he did not realise that offices would become as important as factories as sources of employment and therefore did not include any in his plan. But his town centre, where people live above the still successful and pleasant shops is a triumph for the concept of mixed use, intermingling residential with retail space.

Is there any chance of the new communities being envisaged by John Prescott in Ashford, Milton Keynes, the London – Cambridge corridor and Thames Gateway being as successful as Letchworth? A timely report about the Bournville estate by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Neighbourhoods that work: a study of the Bournville estate, Birmingham published last week [note to sub July 9] shows that a high quality environment is the key to a successful community. The report found that despite the estate having 40 per cent social housing tenants, it provides a stable and pleasant environment thanks to the overall planning framework, the good quality architecture and the involvement of the community in the management of the neighbourhood.

None of this is rocket science, but much of it has been ignored in the past, resulting in hard to let estates and rundown neighbourhoods. There are some promising signs that these new communities will be different from the past mistakes. Great efforts are being made to ensure there are good transport links and in Ashford, for example, the local chief executive is trying to ensure the new housing is a beacon of good environmental and transport practice, with, for example, a great emphasis on ensuring that there are alternatives to the car.

Although Prescott is keen to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, his schemes, which will be a mix of social and private housing, will always be under financial pressure. He should realise that while high quality may mean greater initial costs, these will be repaid by the long term absence of vandalism and social decay. Indeed, it would do Prescott no harm to drop in on Letchworth to show what a coherent plan and strategy can achieve, all thanks to a man who was born in 1850.

Do’s and Don’ts for Mr Prescott’s new communities

Dos

  • Build to a high standard
  • Give the community a say in design and the management of the neighbourhood
  • Have a coherent overall planning framework
  • Mix up tenures and uses
  • Provide good transport links
  • Create a socially mixed community
  • Make sure there is a pleasant environment with lots of green space
  • Use proven designs that reduce crime

Don’ts

  • Scrimp on design and building materials
  • Build huge rows similar housing
  • Make car the only form of access
  • Use unproven building techniques or design features
  • Neglect the importance of good management
  • Create isolate communities
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