Tag Archives: landscape history

13 May

Part III Ebenezer Howard – A Working Man w/ Dreams

I don’t intend for this blog post to cite all of Ebenezer Howards ideas for a utopian society, there are plenty of authors with a lot more credentials than I who have written extensively about Howard, but I do want to describe the building of the first garden city and how similar Howards’ experience of trying to build a dream in the real world is to my (and others) experiences trying to build a dream in the real world.

Howard had this great plan, a plan he had spend many many unpaid hours creating because he really thought that he had ideas that would be of untold value to the world. So there is our first similarity…I have known a few very dedicated designers, myself included, that have dedicated huge amounts of uncompensated time towards projects that are meant to be “gifts” to humanity…or at the very least, improvements that would help move us in the right directions, socially and environmentally. So at this point in reading Howard’s story, I feel an understanding of the man that I didn’t have when I was younger because I have been, and have close colleagues who have been, in this situation…high hopes, intense dedication, and no meaningful client or financing. Sound familiar?

After years of painstakingly putting his soul into his plans he had to go out and find the people who could actually finance the building of the first Garden City. Time to make this plan a reality!!!!!

Howard was a man who was not very well connected, but did believe he had a lead on an organization that would certainly be interested, if not downright thrilled, with the idea of backing his project….the organized Victorian Radicals, or the “Cooperative” Movement as they were also known. They would certainly be interested, Howard thought, because he was, after all, designing a City to fit all their ideals. (I’m not going to go into their ideals, let’s just say, the cooperative movement and Howards’ plans could not have been more suited to each other)

Surely they would jump at the chance to get on board…and they didn’t even have to pay him for all the pre design concept work (yes, another designer giving up his intellectual property for free…but that’s for another blog post)…he had already done that part.

But guess what…although the people at the head of their organization were convinced by Howards Plans and formally behind him, they could not get the support of the rest of the cooperative movement because the individual chapters of the movement didn’t want to focus on one unified project. They all had their own little projects, chapter by chapter, that they were working on. Now remember, these are people who fundamentally are espousing the importance of COOPERATION!! It makes me think that they were asking themselves “who is this Ebenezer guy think he is anyway? He’s just some guy who has some plans and ideas, we don’t need him, we are doing our own thing. ” Which is not very cooperative of them is it? But, very typical from my experience. It does seem that “cooperation” is an idea that everyone agrees on abstractly, but then the reality so often is more like…sure, cooperation sounds great, as long as everyone cooperates to help me do exactly what I want to do…am I right?

Looking back it makes you want to say…hey…this “Ebenezer guy” is going to be written about for centuries for his ground breaking ideas…don’t you wish you would have gotten on board? But it also reminds me of the fragmented idealists of today, who all have their eyes on their own sub interest, their own backyard, their own small project. It just seems to be human nature, and I’ve struggled with the ramifications of both the pro’s and con’s of this arrangement. It is disheartening though that in 100 years, cooperation still hasn’t found a way to cooperate a large improvement in the foundations of society. When the times get tough I find that the idea of every man for himself is still an overriding force, which of course, goes to the most basic of our essential motivations…fear.

So anyway, I digress…on back to Howard. It was a huge disappointment I imagine, that he now had to solely rely on the investments of the business sector, which, with no balance of support from the cooperative movement, inevitably ended up steering the design away from his ideas of a balance of cooperation and the free market, and towards an end where the financial gains of the few outweigh the needs of the many…the exact situation the Garden City was supposed to correct (and that many of us are still trying to correct).

But what choice did Ebenezer have? He could give up, or he could try to go forward with the project so that the basic ideas of the Garden City could get some mainstream exposure, and he believed that would cause a huge surge of support form the masses. Maybe, he probably thought, maybe the next one, the 2nd garden city will be more attractive to the cooperative movement because he would have by then, he hoped, an example City that, although not a perfect representation of his ideal plan, would have enough of the essence as to create momentum and a progressively better and better Garden City in the real world.

Again, at this point, I have to say, this sounds totally familiar. I can hear my own voice telling a client… realistically, if you can’t do absolutely everything you want to in this fantastic plan, if you at least get it built with one major advance, and if the project is a success financially with that one great environmental benefit, then the next developer that comes along will look at your project as a positive example of what can be done and maybe build on that with something similar because of all the great publicity your project will get, and with something even one step closer to your ideals. If you try to undertake everything in your plan, and you don’t succeed financially, other developers will look at your project and use it as an example of what not to do and will be put off of trying ANY new environmental design integration. One successful step at a time is necessary to help the movement forward, I have been known to say.

How did Howards first Garden City get started then? He did end up having to depend financially mostly on a few wealthy businessmen who dominated the actual construction of the city towards the interests of their own and other business interests. So after getting financial backing, the next thing to do was to hire an architectural firm…. cont. in part IV of the series, coming soon!

02 Apr

Part I – Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City 1898

Part I Thoughts on Ebenezer Howard – the inventor of the Garden City 1890′s and how nothing has changed for dreamers in over 100 years.

Recently I’ve been re-familiarizing myself with some of the Landscape Architecture and City Planning pioneers. At this point in my life and career I have a new respect and understanding of the designers in our history books. They are much more real to me now as actual relatable people just like you and I, which is both liberating and slightly disillusioning. Let me explain what I mean.

Ebenezer Howard was the inventor of the Iconic “Garden City” in 1898. Every Landscape Architecture and City Planning student has been exposed to his ideas as a matter of course. I remember hearing this name, Ebenezer…even his name sounded like something from a time so long ago as to render it irrelevant. When you are 22 years old the understanding of time is very skewed…for some reason the year 1900 seemed farther away when I was 22 than it does now. It is funny how that works isn’t it? Yet, his name was in a history book, so this man is famous, a preeminently successful human being…right? Well that is how the 22 year old me related to him…the older me now sees a man who struggled, worked hard, and didn’t get everything right the first time, or have anything work out simple and easy. I’m sure there were plenty of times when he probably questioned what he was doing, or felt discouraged or impatient, nervous or unsure, tired and stressed, just like you and me. He was a regular guy.

This time around, when I was re-reading about his “Garden City” ideas, I have to admit that I was startled by how real this person has become to me, because I now KNOW him. I don’t mean I know the actual Ebenezer Howard, I mean I know people exactly like him, thinking very similar things to him, struggling against the financial hurdles of funding projects that todays designers believe will help improve society.

I started seeing many similarities between this man and his world, from over 100 year ago, and the people and world I know today. Ebenezer Howard, far from being some abstract historical character, might as well be “enter colleagues name here”. Hey! I KNOW THIS GUY! I’VE WORKED WITH THIS GUY! It is quite a revelation and has really changed my perspective on both the past and the future. This new perspective has inspired me to write this multi part blog post so that I can share with you my observations about the way old problems are todays problems, how designers now are the same as designers 100 years ago, and that if you feel disheartened or discouraged about your own projects, remembering Howard and his journey to becoming the “inventor of the Garden City” will give you hope, inspiration and a connection to both the past, and the future.