Garden Cities for To-morrow

The announcement that Lord Wolfson, the chief executive of Next, is offering a cool quarter of a million pounds to encourage the design of a new generation of garden cities is an interesting development.

A laudable enough sentiment but a realistic one? Ebenezer Howard, author of Garden Cities of To-morrow and father of the garden city movement, didn’t come up with his revolutionary concept because he was hoping to provide the country with a new economic engine.

Having seen first-hand the misery of urban slums in Victorian London and the unregulated industrial development of nineteenth century America, it was primarily the appalling and unsanitary living conditions of unplanned towns that drove Howard to develop his utopian dream of a community that combined the best of town and country.

I have lived in Letchworth Garden City – the world’s first garden city and the physical manifestation of Howard’s vision – for the past dozen years. What is more I live in a house that was built in 1905 (for the princely sum of £150) specifically to provide attractive, functional and affordable houses for workers.

But if I look at my neighbours I don’t see hoards of craftsmen bustling off to a different part of town every morning to work in a wide variety of small businesses.

Yes things are made and businesses can thrive in Letchworth but, in a direct challenge to Howard’s vision of a bustling, self-sustaining community, the sometimes quirky homes that line Letchworth’s streets aren’t now full of artisans toiling in local enterprises.

More often the town’s arts and crafts homes are owned by accountants and lawyers, IT specialists and engineers – people who work elsewhere and use Letchworth as a peaceful nest to return to each night.

Letchworth is a pleasant, leafy place to live but it is not somewhere that I would characterise as a throbbing economic engine. The town’s proximity to London means that I, like many, many of my fellow residents, am a daily commuter into the City.

And this is perhaps the biggest obstacles to anyone who hopes to win this year’s Wolfson Economics Prize – how do you build somewhere with “inspirational architectural ideas” and “innovative infrastructure” that is far enough from a major city to stop it being a commuter dormitory but still has the vim and vigour to provide genuine economic growth?
At Nesta we are looking at this question too.

To give but a handful of examples: we’ve thought about economic benefits of rural broadband connectivity versus construction; explored the future of urban mobility; debated the types of social innovation needed in growing cities; backed digital and non-digital local public services; worked with Arup to imagine our future urbanites; asked if young people and empty buildings could transform high streets;  invited ideas to make our public parks sustainable; backed ‘hyperlocal’ news services for local communities; and have joined up with Bloomberg Philanthropies to run a Mayor’s Challenge in Europe.

Maybe the answer is in new types of housing; maybe in types of services; maybe it’s an entirely new model. Or maybe it’s Cricklewood’s mobile townhall.


Simon Morrison

Simon Morrison

Simon Morrison

Deputy Chief Executive

Simon deputised for the Chief Executive, liaising with his fellow Executives, our Trustee Board, external stakeholders and suppliers to help ensure that our organisation ran smoothly.

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