Like many socialistic ideas, Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement method of urban planning sounds quintessential in theory, but was impracticable when enacted. Howard truly believed that his plan for the garden city would overtake capitalism and replace it with a new civilization based on mutual cooperation. However, his revolutionary plan for decentralization and cooperative socialism ended after the creation of just two cities, after they did not end up how he had envisioned them to be.
As Robert Fishman detailed in his book Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier, Howard only received a few years of education before he stopped schooling and entered years of poverty working as a farmer. Upon reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Howard was inspired to take action and start planning a ideal community where everyone was employed by the community.
Howard envisioned a city of about 30,000 residents, with a mix of residential neighborhoods and facilities for cultural and industrial activities. He believe that this city would gradually render obsolete the metropolises of the time that dominated entire regions. A defining feature of his city was an abundance of space; thousands of acres of land would surround the city, as Howard believed that “one of the first essential needs of Society and of the individual..is ample space in which to live, to move, and to develop.” However, as land was expensive near central cities like London, and Howard’s plan required thousands of acres, the only places this plan was economically feasible was in the far-removed and less desirable countryside, where land was cheap and abundant. He also later realized that a population of 30,000 people was not large enough to provide the diversity that a true, desirable city would have, but increasing its size or density would ruin his plan.
The largest problem with Howard’s plan, as is with any socialistic plan, is the matter of finances. Initially, he struggled to find investors who would be willing to fund the development of the city, and he was forced to concede many of his original ideas such as adding rent increases and landlords, in order to attain funding. According to Howard’s plan, there would be no taxes because the increase in the value of real estate, and thus increase in the price of rent, would be enough to support the city’s institutions. While he had wanted the garden city to be an economically accessible place to live for people of all social classes, as home prices increased, blue-collar workers could no longer afford to live there and were forced out.
While Howard’s cities of Letchworth and Welwyn ended up being completely adequate places to live, they were not the “oasis of social justice in an unjust society” that he had set out to create, and were a complete failure in terms of the social revolution he had intended to start. Through his unsuccessful garden cities, Howard has set a valuable example of how socialism is not a preferable or even viable alternative to capitalism and democracy.