Social City

A design for small cities which combines the advantages of dense housing with neighbours and services in walking distance, and open space for food production and a rural setting.

Local economies, to quote William Cobbett, “must, of course, have some land”.S74 One way of providing it was explored and described in the first years of the twentieth century by Ebenezer Howard, with his vision of “Garden Cities”. Howard believed that cities can be designed for fresh air, fresh food, and the freedom, sights, sounds and scents of the country. Although people need the jobs and social life provided in towns, they do not have to be forced into choosing between one need and the other. The good city provides both:

Town and country must be married, [to provide] better opportunities of social intercourse than are enjoyed in any crowded city, while yet the beauties of nature may encompass and enfold each dweller therein.S75

The way to achieve this best-of-both-worlds, Howard argued, is to build cities with a dense population, but on a small scale. Cities of 30,000 people living in houses with the narrow twenty-foot (6m) frontage and long 130-foot (40m) gardens which were typical of his day, could be built on a mere 150 acres (61 ha). At the same time, he allowed generous space for boulevards, a Grand Avenue, a large central park, gardens and a “Crystal Palace” complete with winter garden and a shopping centre (see “Detail of Garden City” diagram). When all this is included, the total area of the city is 1,000 acres (445 ha)—still small enough for every part to be easily accessible on foot. No inhabitant is further than 240 yards (220m) from either the Central Park or the start of the countryside outside the town.S76

Detail of Garden City, as drawn by Ebenezer Howard, showing Grand Avenue, Crystal Palace, gardens and access to open country.

Although the scale is small, it is not small enough to sustain the reciprocal cooperation of the parish, whose upper limit is about 5,000. And in fact, Howard’s model suggested groupings of 5,000 in six “quarters”—a well-established subdivision in the medieval period, and approximately the anticipated population intended for the new town of Poundbury in Dorset, which is currently under construction. Howard’s garden cities would be, in that sense, groups of six Poundburies, each with its own green space and food-growing areas, and the whole set of six collectively surrounded by open countryside. Howard then followed through the holonic pattern suggested by this, imagining that each garden city could in turn be in a group of six, surrounding a seventh—somewhat larger (with a population of 58,000), a centre for administration and the more elaborate arts. That pattern of cities could then be extended, with each group set in its own countryside; the cities of 30,000 would have a countryside of at least 5,000 acres (about 2,000 hectares), enough to provide much of their population’s need for food, together with land for forest, water, wildlife and homes for some 2,000 people working in rural trades and agriculture (see “Cluster of Garden Cities” diagram).S77

Ebenezer Howard’s cluster of garden cities, with a large central city, land for local food, water, energy, materials and recreation, and links between them. This image is the starting point for the modern concept of the social city.

The success of the towns inspired by Howard’s principles, however, has been mixed. The first and greatest achievement was that some were actually built. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City were to a large extent based on Howard’s design, and others, such as Hampstead Garden Suburb and New Earswick in the UK, Margaretenhöhe and Römerstadt in Germany, and Radburn in New Jersey were influenced by it. There is no doubt that these are in many ways good places to live. They have space, trees, landscaping and the benefit of outstanding architects such as Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin.S78

But what Howard had in mind was not just a model of town planning. It was revolution, designed to give people a say in their own affairs, to produce local food, to integrate industry within walking distance of where workers lived, to eliminate poverty, to transform the health and nutrition of the population, and to fund their pensions from the incomes earned by the city from rents. The reality, however, has fallen far short of his complex ambition. None of the new towns built under Howard’s influence have actually come close to the original specification. They have been built singly, not as part of a network; the use of local countryside to provide food for the town has not been attempted; they have been built to the wrong scale (often too small, e.g., Römerstadt); or they have been dormitory suburbs with no industry (Hampstead Garden Suburb); and the financial arrangements proposed by Howard have not happened.

The balance between compact residential areas and open areas for gardens has never settled down into anything better than very approximate agreement about what a garden city is. There is nothing compact, for instance, about Hampstead Garden Suburb, which is a standing invitation to drive your Volvo a couple of miles every time you discover that there is no milk in the fridge. As for the Suburb’s town centre, there is an indecisive space of rose-beds surrounded by public buildings without a shop or even a pub—all of which turned out to be a dry run for the architect Edwin Lutyens’ enormous Viceroy’s House and its setting in New Delhi.

Garden city in its local setting, showing road and rail links

In fact, the ambiguity is right there in the design. Even if you do live in a compact street in Howard’s Garden City, you become a mere speck on the landscape as soon as you turn off it into the Grand Avenue. And the only message that people seemed really to agree on—at a time when cars were just beginning and there was an intense desire to get away from the smoke—was that it’s all right to use lots of space.

The selective reading of Howard’s all-embracing vision was inevitable, and it started almost immediately. The title of the first edition of the book, To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, was thought to be too revolutionary, and the second and subsequent editions appeared as Garden Cities of To-Morrow. The beautiful diagram which showed the network of cities was omitted, leaving just a truncated version with a city sitting in the middle, with lots of space round it (see “Garden City in its Local Setting” diagram). Like Small is Beautiful, whose numerous non-readers claim to have got the general gist from the title, Garden Cities of To-Morrow inserted into the public mind the idea that it is about cities with lots of gardens at some undefined time in the future. This conceptoid was then grasped as an excuse for wholesale destruction of cityscapes and for their replacement by “projects” with their characteristic features of concrete, worn grass and communal space in the ‘no man’s land’ between private and public, whose possibilities for crime and local youth mafias have been exploited to much effect.S79

It was against such authoritarian simplifications by the post-war planners—who appealed vaguely to the idea that “gardens”, “cities”, “space” and “community” could be stir-fried together—that Jane Jacobs launched her storming counterattack. She wrote from the point of view of a Jewish mum with a non-negotiable need for a delicatessen within walking distance, along with streets that are well-used and safe, supporting the intricate cultural life of a living city, with a good supply of friendly shops where you can meet neighbours and with whom you could leave your house key if necessary. The use of space needs to be dense enough for people walking along the street to get to meet each other, and for shops and cafés to have potential customers in the vicinity, on foot. And, she added, “compact” does not rule out space for intensely-productive gardens. In place of these very obvious benefits, the massive projects minimised space where it would have been useful—in the flats, in small gardens, or on the threshold between households and street—and maximised space where it wasn’t—in deserted areas whose only value was silence, interrupted at night by the occasional scream (see “Play Space” below).S80

With unintended consequences

A few days after the murder of two sixteen-year-old boys in a playground on the midtown of West Side Manhattan, I paid a morbid visit to the area. The near-by streets were evidently back to normal. Hundreds of children, directly under the eyes of innumerable adults using the sidewalks themselves and looking from windows, were engaged in a vast variety of sidewalk games and whooping pursuits. The sidewalks were dirty, they were too narrow for the demands put upon them, and they needed shade from the sun. But here was no scene of arson, mayhem, or the flourishing of dangerous weapons. In the playground where the night-time murder had occurred, things were apparently back to normal too. Three small boys were setting a fire under a wooden bench. Another was having his head beaten against the concrete. The custodian was absorbed in solemnly and slowly hauling down the American flag.

~ Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961.S81


Howard, then, was misunderstood. But he did rather ask for it. A system designed to be an urban, rural, democratic, food-producing, spacious, compact, poverty-eliminating pension fund is a poor example of the rule that systems work best when they are designed to do one thing well (Relevance). “Compact” is a virtue, and if intense land use is subdivided too much by space, it becomes about as compact as confetti. Poundbury is compact: the town is proper town; the country around it (apart from its close neighbour, Dorchester) is proper country.S82


The social city: attempts to live up to the ideal

It is now widely (but not universally) accepted that the living heart of the city—with shops, workplaces and railway stations—should be within walking, cycling or tram distance of where people live, producing a pattern with relatively small towns, linked to each other along a railway and lightly-used road—like beads on a string. That makes sense for so many reasons that we can be reasonably confident that the model would have been developed even without Howard’s early approximation.S83

Many versions of it have been produced in theory and practice. One “sustainable urban form” (developed by Susan Owens) consists of small settlements of 20,000–30,000 people living within walking distance of the main facilities they need; these small towns would often, but not always, be clustered in groups of around ten, to produce a social city of around 200,000. Another version (by Michael Breheny and Ralph Rookwood) has local centres with a mixture of activities to take pressure off the congested centre of cities, and to reduce the need for transport. Communities are arranged around dense, intensive developments at the centres, to which people can walk, and there is a use of local land for recreation, for storing water, and for growing food and firewood, fertilised with composted waste from the town.S84

The architect Peter Calthorpe’s designs for suburban development in California are based on these principles, with clusters of intense activity within walking distance of where people live; high-density terrace housing keeps distances short, and his towns are separated by accessible food-growing areas in open country, a principle that is now embedded into the General Plan for Sacramento. The principle has also influenced the plans for Stockholm’s “transit villages” and the “Thames Gateway” in the United Kingdom, which has towns on a relatively modest scale strung out along the metro route.S85

We may wonder how relevant these models are to the settled Lean Economy. They imply a large population, transport and energy flows, high material living standards and a thriving market. There is a sense here of finding solutions to problems that are just on the way to going out of date. And yet, there does seem to be a common grammar of village-planning here—urban villages and rural villages alike—akin to Christopher Alexander’s “pattern language” (Lean Building). The principle, for example, of compact living space, distinct from the wide landscape to which it belongs. This isn’t really about a marriage of town and country; it is a chaste in-touch separateness—a dance. Lean food, lean materials, lean defence; all will call for the intense use of local space. For the Lean Economy, compact means compact.S86


Related entries:

Groups and Group Sizes, Modularity.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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