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.
Hope this 3 part series got you interested in Ebenezer Howard and sparks your interest to learn more about his story.