The garden city

Gary Shapcott on the idea of a garden city

Gary Shapcott

Last updated:
18 Jan 2021

CANBERRA, the ‘bush capital’, long ago departed from the ‘garden city’ ideas of the Griffins and has become instead a metropolis of motordom and endlessly sprawling suburbs. The motor car and the property developer rule. Is it too late to dream of – or even heaven forbid to plan for – a city that actually does represent what the garden city movement stood for? And do the ideas of ‘the city in the garden’ (Ebenezer Howard) and ‘the city in the region’ (Lewis Mumford) give us the best picture of what good urban development looks like in a climate-challenged future? Let’s have a look, as I try to apply these ideas to the Canberra of today – just a mud map, in less than 1000 words.

The garden city paradigm. Starting point? Population growth is managed in accordance with the principle of ‘cellular growth’. ‘Cellular growth’ of a city entails planned dispersal of population in small, relatively self-contained urban centres, precincts or quarters. ‘Self-contained’ means containing workplaces, housing, community amenities … everything that allows and encourages residents to do most things they need to do in a day within their own quarter (think village). It entails in some cases – where you have the water, the topography etc – the building of satellite cities on a co-ordinated regional plan, with fast rail being the primary transport link. It’s about grouping highly individualised urban quarters in a way that unites them while retaining their uniqueness, just as the individual cells in an organism form the ‘unity’ that is an organism.

For each urban quarter (think Tuggeranong, Woden, Civic etc), population growth is controlled and each quarter is not allowed to grow to a point where red lights start flashing: too many cars, walking and cycling are inhibited, buildings are too close to allow adequate sunlight, community gardens, community facilities, playgrounds for children etc. Yet garden city quarters are not low density. Increases in population density are achieved via terrace housing, co-housing, three-storey apartment blocks, and some high-rise. Detached, single-dwelling housing is strictly limited. Every detached house has at the very least a secondary residence for use by the old or the young. The compactness of its built form aids the walkable scale of the quarter.

Each quarter is defined, fully encircled, by a boundary – preferably a green belt but a main road or railway can be part of the boundary – which completely separates it from other quarters and from surrounding forests. A greenbelt should be, if possible, a permanent agricultural greenbelt, several kilometres wide, in some form of ownership that does not allow subsequent private development. As a ‘hydrated landscape’ (Mulloon Institute idea), using treated stormwater, sewerage and greywater from the city, this would be a barrier to fire, provide local jobs (lots if organic, labour intensive market gardens), and give us some food security (Julian Cribb idea).

Note well: Greenbelts or main roads or railways or tramways are not allowed to criss-cross a quarter, destroying the walkability of the quarter. Major transport corridors touch the street network of the quarter at a tangent on the outskirts and, to be clear, the public activity centre of the quarter is located near the periphery of the quarter, near the main transport link (be it road or rail) so that both residents of the quarter and commuters from other quarters can easily walk to it. The internal street network of the quarter is designed to facilitate internal circulation but to discourage through traffic.

Main roads can serve as boundaries of quarters as well as connecting links between quarters, a key principle of the Radburn Plan, but the space, the surface area, given over to the motor car (roads, parking lots, driveways, garages) is drastically reduced. Motor traffic is barred from key areas of each quarter, creating pedestrian squares surrounded by markets and other venues that facilitate civic meeting and association, especially at night – without the alcohol. Something like Fyshwick Market, with the Lifeline bookshop but without the car park in the middle, should be accessible by foot to everyone in a quarter, including in the evening.

Segregated and extensive rights of way for pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit have as much place as rights of way for the motor car. The latter is not allowed to become the dominant transport mode.

A sense of limits prevails: limits to population growth, limits to horizontal (new suburbs) and vertical (high-rise towers) expansion of the city. City growth is managed by decentralisation and regional federations. Planning, not ‘market forces’, determines the way the city grows. Heritage is respected. Sites are reserved, permanently, for local churches, community centres, public squares, meeting halls, public libraries, bookshops, marketplaces, market gardens and orchards, schools, playgrounds for children and parks for everyone and all of these are kept in permanent municipal ownership to ensure low rents (where applicable). The aim is to keep such facilities in areas of the quarter that are accessible on foot and lively, that is, areas that would be high rent if left to ‘market forces’.

A key element in the garden city paradigm is building quality: fresh air and sunlight, pleasant aspect and so on. Today we talk about structural integrity, energy efficiency, water efficiency, low toxicity, adaptability to different life stages, resistance to termites and so on. Building in Canberra, and Australia as a whole, has a long way to go on all these measures.

Though the adoption of its ideas has been limited principally to the London region – Letchworth, Welwyn, and the new towns that were built after the Greater London Plan of 1944 and the New Towns Act of 1946 – the relevance of the garden city movement has not diminished. In our climate-challenged time, it is the kind of thinking we desperately need.

References: Lewis Mumford 1961, The city in history (Harcourt Inc); Ebenezer Howard 1902, Garden cities of tomorrow (S. Sonnenschein & Co., London); Peter Hall 2002, Cities of tomorrow, (Blackwell Publishing). Lewis Mumford’s The city in history is over 600 pages long; a big read but well worth it. I’ve made a few notes to give you the flavour of it; 13 pages but an easy read, just notes and quotes. You can download the .pdf below (for free).

To answer the questions raised in this roundtable (a town planning agenda), first look at the (highly stylised) image of a garden city below.

The garden city is an agglomeration of separate precincts, each precinct having a maximum of about 32,000 people in it (Howard’s figure). Population growth in a precinct is never allowed to take the form of sprawl into the surrounding greenbelt, which would result in the merging of precincts and the formlessness of ‘megalopolis’ so detested by both Howard and Mumford. Endless horizontal expansion of a precinct also threatens its walkability. And no, there is no city development along the major transport corridors connecting precincts, for the same reason.

See for some great tips on how to create a walkable precinct.

Infill in a precinct is high quality, environmentally sustainable medium density housing in the garden city plan and, yes, it is best placed as near as possible to activity centres (shops, offices, schools, other workplaces).

The only ‘greenfield’ development in the garden city plan is the creation of new precincts but only if these are connected by mass transit to the rest of the agglomeration (and not car-dependent) and only if there is enough water in the region, the new sites do not encroach on arable land or threaten biodiversity and only if there is enough employment in the region for an increased population. ‘Growth for growth’s sake’ is not part of the garden city vision. Mumford in fact co-located the ideas of unlimited population expansion and unlimited city growth with the idea of an indefinitely expanding economy, the fantasy of endless, unlimited economic growth. Both arose and grew in strength together as part of the rise of capitalism in Europe from the 1600s. Population growth can and must be controlled if a city is to remain sustainable – that is the correct statement on population and must form part of any town planning agenda. Yes, there is such a thing as sustainable population growth; it is allowing population growth until it reaches the limits of sustainability in any particular area. Then it must be stopped and a ‘city full’ sign put up, an idea that is anathema to capitalism. Mumford is worth quoting on this:

“[By the end of the 1500s in Europe] … the notion of limits disappeared––limits on numbers, limits on wealth, limits on population growth, limits on urban expansion: on the contrary, quantitative expansion became predominant. The merchant cannot be too rich; the state cannot possess too much territory; the city cannot become too big. Success in life was identified with expansion. This superstition still retains its hold in the notion of an indefinitely expanding economy.”

— Lewis Mumford 1961, The city in history (Harcourt Inc), p. 366