Durable Growth

CNU 22: The redemption of Ebenezer Howard

Walkable residential in Buffalo

Walkable residential in Buffalo

A couple of posts back, in my effort to educate a commenter about the breadth of urbanist study, I noted that Ebenezer Howard was a difficult person to place in the history of urbanism.  Although never a professional planner, Howard nonetheless made significant contributions.  But at the same time, he became known, at least in some circles, as the father of suburbia.  He’s a contradictory figure who deserves a closer look.

My initial introduction to Howard was largely negative.  It may be that my early readings about urbanism, perhaps highlighted by James Howard Kunstler, weren’t in the mainstream, but my initial impressions of Howard and his book “Garden Cities of To-morrow: Experiments in Urban Planning” were derogatory.  But over time, I learned that the reality was more complex.

Howard (1850-1928) was career stenographer who spent much of his leisure time considering the problems of the city.  As did others of the same era, he decided that the urban problems were insurmountable.

In place of city life, he proposed mixed demographic towns a train ride away from the urban cores.  His towns were to be moderately dense, walkable communities, permanently separated from the city by dedicated agricultural preserves.  He believed that his garden cities would be healthier places for people to live, largely because of a renewed connection to nature.

Initially, his ideas were implemented much as he had envisioned.  Hampstead Heath, north of London, was developed in line with the concepts he laid out, as were many of the streetcar suburbs in the U.S.  (I have a cousin who recently lived contentedly in Hampstead Heath for several years.  I regret that I was unable to visit her during those years.)

But with the end of World War II, nearly two decades after Howard’s death, his concepts began to be distorted.  Levittown on Long Island is generally considered the death knell for Howard’s garden cities, with Levittown’s absence of walkability, transit orientation, and agricultural buffers.  Despite the lack of historical precedent (the fact that causes StrongTowns to describe suburbia as an “experiment”), the Levittown configuration quickly spread and became the default land-use form for much of the U.S.

And with that spread, the reputation of Ebenezer Howard declined, at least among the authors with whom I began my urbanist readings.

My first hint that Howard’s reputation might not be beyond redemption came in Ross Chapin’s book “Pocket Neighborhoods”.  Chapin made a good argument that his small, clustered homes with common grounds and communal buildings were consistent, albeit on a small scale, with Howard’s ideal.

But it was at CNU 22, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism held in Buffalo in early June, that the reputation of Ebenezer Howard was fully expunged of guilt for Levittown and its spawn.

First, Andres Duany, in partnership with Professor Emily Talen, proposed a unified theory of urbanism based on Howard’s “Garden Cities of To-morrow”.  He also noted that Howard’s masterwork, unlike any other book on urbanism of which Duany knew, has never been out of print since its initial publishing.

I’m still not sure I accept the Duany/Talen unified theory.  In particular, the effort to align it with a unified theory of economics seems a dubious pairing.  I’d like to think that urbanism deserves a better partner than the “dismal science”.   But it was nonetheless significant that Duany and Talen harkened all the way back to Howard to find a complete urbanist strategy that they found worth of emulation.

An even more significant endorsement of Howard at CNU 22 came from architect Robert A.M. Stern who used the conference to launch his most recent book “Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City”.  (It was an odd book to push at a conference.  At 14 pounds, it was presumably of interest only to the attendees who didn’t need to check bags on their way home.)

Stern and his co-authors trace the garden suburb concept throughout history, including Howard in the lineage, and try to prove that the garden suburb still has a role in the modern world, particularly if configured more along the Howard lines than the Levittown model.

Ultimately, it was my personal knowledge of organizations that gave me a framework for grasping Howard.  As many of us know who have worked with organizations, whether public, private, or non-profit, sometimes we toss out proposals that seem inspired and on-point, only to have others, well-intended but confused, distort the implementation until we regret having raised the idea.  It’s the nature of organizations.

My final decision is to view Howard in that light.  He was truly concerned about the urban form and put forth ideas that were worthy and have stood the test of time.   Perhaps we can criticize him for his naiveté for failing to foresee that his ideas might be corrupted into a less-beneficent form, but that’s a criticism that can, with equal justification, be leveled at many of us.

At the bottom line, Howard was a dilettante, but a dilettante who put forth ideas that have stood the test of time.  I can only wish that some of us do as half as well.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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