David Cameron’s Garden City Delusion

March 19, 2012

David Cameron wants us to resurrect the garden cities movement, retooled for the twenty-first century. But he misunderstands what that movement stood for and the kind of places that the visionaries behind it wanted to create.

Speaking to the Institution of Civil Engineers today, he argued that “Some people feel we’ve lost the art of creating great places with the right social and environmental infrastructure.” Despite admitting that “mistakes were made in the [post-war] new towns, with the state deciding arrogantly what people ought to like” he then expressed what some would see as a startling admiration for the garden cities movement.

Name-checking Hampstead Garden Suburb, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, he described them as “not perfect, but popular – green, planned, secure, with gardens, places to play and characterful houses; not just car-dominated concrete grids.”

The context is government plans to ease planning restrictions and to build a set of new towns, using quality of life factors and environmentalism as a foil. Hence, the government is launching a consultation on “how to apply the principles of garden cities to areas with high potential growth, in places people want to live.”

Part of this rhetoric is a sales pitch to (largely) foreign investors, whom Cameron is courting to buy up stretches of British roads, the power grid and information infrastructure. Stressing the “determination” and “vision” of the government is code for promising such investors that their interests will be protected over the long-term.

As Cameron argued today, “Government has a duty to provide a framework in which demand can be met and which attracts investors – pensions funds and sovereign wealth funds – because they can rely upon fair returns.” Instead of “a world in which too much investment has been high-risk and short-term” Cameron is offering investors long-term profits at very little risk.

The story that he is spinning in order to push through such plans relies heavily on history. The speech was bookended with references to the Victorians, who left such a bold engineering legacy and governed with “confidence and ambition” – as well as a social Darwinist zeal to penalise the poor and dominate the lesser races of the world. But it is the vision of the Victorians that he celebrates, and attempts to bask in.

Yet the garden cities movement actually sits far better in a very different historical tradition. Its founder, who was certainly a visionary, was a man named Ebenezer Howard. Drawing on the ideas of conscience-stricken industrialists like Robert Owen, Howard went further than earlier reformers who sought to create model settlements for industrial workers. Instead, Howard possessed a vision of civilizational revolution through planning.

But this planning was to be highly localised. Not localised in the sense of the coalition’s “Localisation Act” which merely allows multinational corporations to hoodwink local communities by devolving responsibility for large projects onto their shoulders, but localised in the tradition of anarchists like Peter Kropotkin or Proudhon.

Howard had no time for commuter towns. His ideal was a marriage of town and country, with radically participatory democracy and public ownership of the town’s parks and gardens. And it was a deeply horticultural vision. As historian George McKay writes in his book ‘Radical Gardening’, “The combination of generous garden and extensive communal spaces would foster a cooperative practice of living, as opposed to the atomising effects of the old life.” The town would sit within a broader “garden” with a belt of food producing small-holdings protected in perpetuity.

ImageInstead of generating the kind of community (presumably) envisaged by Cameron, Howard’s project at Letchworth attracted “avowedly political residents like feminists and suffragettes, socialists, anarchists, simple-lifers, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, and the entire panoply of highly interesting and extremely intelligent people who usually went under the general sobriquet of ‘cranks'”

In idealising the Garden Cities for their security, greenness and architectural qualities, Cameron is reading history backwards. The driver behind the garden cities was not security, or manufacturing quaint housing, but a deep and widely held political impulse to transcend Victorian norms and construct a socially progressive alternative – without class divisions, pollution, more democracy and allowing the freedom to adopt individualised lifestyles.

In that sense, using them as a reference point and exemplar of Victorian vision is well off the mark, unless there is far more to David Cameron than his accompanying rhetoric about mass privatisation of British infrastructure suggests.

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