Garden suburbs - a blueprint for sustainable cities today?

Issue date: 09 July 2009


Yesterday's To-morrow by Stephen E Hunt Could the Garden suburbs of yesterday provide us with a blueprint for sustainable and sociable communities today? A librarian, with a sideline interest in Green Romanticism, from the University of the West of England has published a fascinating pamphlet that identifies close links between the ambitions of the Garden City movements with eco-towns proposed today.

Dr Stephen Hunt explains, “In 1909, the Bristol Garden Suburb Limited was set up to implement the ideas Ebenezer Howard popularised in To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to ReelReform, first published in 1898. Garden-City principles inspired promising developments at Shirehampton, Sea Mills and Keynsham chocolate factory, but were diluted in the construction of Bristol's interwar housing estates at Knowle West and Bedminster, Hillfields, Southmead, Horfield, Speedwell and St Annes. Today it's timely to revisit Howard's ideas in the light of several topics of green chatter – transition towns, peak oil and Gordon Brown's intention to promote the construction of eco-towns.

“I'm interested in how the ideas of Ebenezer Howard focused on getting the environment right through good design, good public transport and work opportunities close to homes leading to sociable and integrated communities. The Garden suburbs were a reaction against industrial slums and back to back housing. In the early part of the 20th century a movement strongly influenced by designers like William Morris to create cities with all the facilities in one place where everyone can walk to work and where cities were to be created on a human scale was a radical concept. In Bristol we can see how parts of the city have evolved using garden city principles.

“In Bristol the movement was lead by Elizabeth Sturge and Eliza Dunbar who planned a modest version of cities designed using the Garden City principles like Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. The principles echo many of our concerns today with emphasis placed on creating affordable, high quality homes in a healthy environment. Quality of life was central to the plans with avoidance of over crowding and pollution, factories were welcomed so long as they were “fitted with up to date appliances for the prevention of smoke and fumes emanating therefrom.” Pubs, seen as the scourge of the working classes, were omitted from these suburbs but this backfired as alcohol was sold from vehicles to make up for a lack of meeting places.

“Shirehampton was Bristol's first garden suburb, but unfortunately plans did not reach completion because the war interrupted construction. The suburbs created in the aftermath of the First World War were a much diluted version as homes for heroes were built. Sadly for the City the First World War interrupted plans to build.

The interwar period created an urgency to build and this resulted in a loss of individuality as construction was scaled up to meet demands. This can be seen when comparing the beautiful Arts and Crafts influenced houses in Passage Leaze in Shirehampton with more standardised design used for the interwar council housing elsewhere in the area . This scaling up for mass produced housing resulted in some bad planning that took some elements of the garden suburb idea but crucial infrastructure elements were entirely omitted.”

Dr Hunt traces the history of development and the radical pioneers who influenced the development of large swathes of Bristol. “In the end as so often is the case expediency and finance resulted in much of the suburbs built after the war retaining only the low density and spacious gardens advocated by the Garden City movement. Infrastructure is key to successful development and this is something that could still usefully influence today's planning. Pioneers like Howard and other social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century were idealistic and in some cases realised their ideals. The visionary foresight of ideas like non separation of workplace and home, integrated environments, self sufficient communities with good local amenities in well designed houses with spacious gardens is idealism that we could learn much from.

“Current strategists working on the eco towns idea would do well to look to practical community based strategies for making localities sustainable and integrated as we plan for the coming decades beyond peak oil reserves. Today Ebenezer Howard's legacy and impact remains controversial and there is much wisdom to be gained from looking back to the eco towns most prominent historical prototype – the Garden City.
Dr Stephen Hunt belongs to the Bristol Radical History Group (BRHG) who publish a range of pamphlets investigating quirky aspects of Bristol's history.

Since 2006 Bristol RHG has organised a range of history events; staging walks, talks, gigs, reconstructions, films, exhibitions, trips through the archives and fireside story telling.
To obtain a copy of Yesterday's Tomorrow Bristol's Garden Suburbs go to http://www.brh.org.uk
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