Walking around the First Garden City, Letchworth

Professor Dong-Ho Shin, PhD., Hannam University, Korea

In the summer of 2017, I was very much excited to be able to actually visit and see the first Garden City, Letchworth Garden City. In early 2017, while I was planning a research trip to Cambridge, England, I noticed the garden cities of Letchworth and Welwyn were located on the way to Cambridge from London. Therefore, I decided to make trips to the cities. In fact, it was going to be my first trip to the cities since I head the term “Garden City” for the first time in my life thirty years ago. It was when I was a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

During the years of teaching urban planning at my present job in Korea for the last 20 years, I have been studying Ebenezer Howard and garden cities. While I was teaching courses related to urban planning and development, I often spent a few weeks talking about Garden Cities. Indeed, I have written an academic paper in a Korean academic journal in relation to Howard’s thoughts and the Garden City movement. While I was doing that, I was very happy as I was disseminating Howard’s idea, on the one hand. On the other hand, however, I was uncomfortable as I was not so confident with what I was teaching because I was unsure with what I knew. This was very much true as I indeed did not have any chance to personally experience Garden Cities. Nor did I have chance to talk with anyone who was believed to have full understanding on Garden Cities.  

While I was planning my trip to Letchworth Garden City, I was expecting to find out some clues to questions which have been in my mind for many years. My questions included “which of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas have been applied to the designs of the first Garden City?” My questions continued; “were the main features of Howard’s Garden City being maintained to the present in Letchworth and, if so, how many of the features and in what ways could they be maintained?”

With such questions in mind, I looked into journal articles, other written materials, maps and web pages not only to understand Howard and Garden Cities better, but also to know the local geography of Letchworth, in order to find out where to visit and whom to meet. While I was doing these I was very happy to find out that there were organizations such as the International Garden Cities Institute (IGCI), International Garden Cities Exhibition (IGCE) and monuments such as Howard Park. I was also very happy to know that people, such as Dr Susan Parham and David Ames, were available to meet me. It seemed that Susan was an academician who conducts research on Garden Cities while David was working on preserving Howard’s legacy in Letchworth and also on operating the International Garden Cities Exhibition and the International Garden Cities Institute. In fact, both of them were eager to disseminate Howard’s ideas to the world, including my country, Korea. I was fortunately connected to them by the Internet and able to make appointments for interviews, during my visits to Letchworth in 2017.

My first visit to Letchworth

As I had secured enough funds for making multiple trips to England, I planned two trips: one for the late July and another for early October 2017. During my first trip, I was obliged to do field research for a few other cities, such as Cambridge, London, Liverpool, etc. as well. Therefore, I did not have much time for Letchworth.

Instead, I was fortunate as I was able to hear about various urban issues, such as the Docklands and other urban development in London, as well as Letchworth, from Susan. During the trip, I also spent a few hours walking around Letchworth. I took off from the Letchworth Garden City rail station and started to walk along Station Road. Without knowing the local geography, I just walked through the city, simply wanting to look for Howard’s legacy. While I was walking, I was looking around here and there. When I arrived at the front of the Job Centre, I approached a senior person to ask how long he was living in the city and whether he was concerned about the concept of the “garden city.” I was told that he had been living there for forty years and did know and care about concept of the garden city.

By walking down along the road, I ended up in Howard Park, which reminded me of the fact that I was in the first garden city. I was delighted in the landscape along Station Road and Norton Way South, but also enjoyed seeing other monumental places, including Howard Park, the Mrs. Howard Memorial Hall and the Garden City Social Centre. I was busy taking photos from the park, the Hall and the Centre, to show to my students back in Korea. When I arrived at the gate of the International Garden Cities Institute and Exhibition, I was impressed with the design of the building, the thickly thatched roof and pure white-painted walls. Sadly, I was unable to get inside and see the interior of the building. I’d have liked to be able to talk to someone about the building and the Institute’s activities.

After taking a few photos from the building and gardens of the Institute I kept walking along Pixmore Way. On the Way, I was impressed with the beauty of the houses built in rows on both sides of the Way. At that moment, I was very tired of walking, my feet were sore, and I was somewhat bored with similar types of houses, even if they were pretty. However, I did not stop walking along Pixmore Way, expecting to find more concrete evidences of Howard’s thoughts. In fact, I was not fully satisfied with what I had seen by that time. I eventually ended up in the Broadway Gardens, where I was finally satisfied by finding out the core concepts of Howard’s Garden City, the central park and the boulevard! The Broadway Gardens were exactly as I had imagined them from my readings on Garden Cities.

When I arrived at the starting point of Broadway near the station, I felt I had seen most of the main features of Letchworth that I was going to find. It did not take a long time to find out how Howard’s ideas had been applied to Letchworth and how many of the original features were being maintained. I was also able to imagine how much the citizens were caring for maintaining Howard’s intentions applied to Letchworth. I was very happy, as I was able to accomplish as much as I wanted in such a short time. However, the trip left me with a strong desire to meet David Ames and Susan Parham to get some answers to my remaining question, “what are the ways of maintaining Howard’s ideas in Letchworth?”

My return visit

Hoping to answer the question, I made another visit to Letchworth in early October, 2017. At this time I was supposed to meet David and Susan at the Institute building. Since I had an appointment with David there in the early morning and did not want to be late for the meeting, I was going to arrive there much earlier than the promised time. As it was my second time visiting, my journey from the station to the Institute was comfortable and enjoyable. I was also familiar not only with the landscape along Station Road, but also with other monumental places, including Howard Park, Mrs Howard Centre, etc. As I met David at the Institute, I was introduced to the inside of the building which was originally Barry Parker’s Drawing Office. While the house outside looked very historic, the interior was very neat and informative. It was very interesting to see various pictures, drawings, maps, interior designs, including office layouts and furniture and other illustrations exhibited on the walls.

After having a look on the walls and around the structure inside the building, I had a meeting with David to talk about the life of Howard and his contribution to Letchworth. I was also told about the contribution of famous architects, such as Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, to the formation of the city. Among the many stories that I heard from David during the conversation, which lasted for more than an hour, the most interesting one was that the development activities of the city have been successfully regulated by a community organization so that Howard’s legacy was retained in Letchworth. In fact, the city has developed and been operating institutional mechanisms to enforce the regulations. The Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, on behalf of the community, receives development proposals, reviews them and makes decisions on them. I was surprised to hear that the organization dealt with more than 800 development applications a year. I was also very much impressed with the fact that the citizens of Letchworth continued to maintain a strong will to preserve the spirit of the garden city throughout the past century. They were wise enough to create mechanisms for controlling development activities and also ready to accept the social, cultural and economic costs required for such development regulations.

It was also very nice to know that the British government were flexible enough to allow Letchworth to practice such mechanisms and regulations applicable to only a few Garden Cities. I thought that even if Howard proposed a good idea, such as the Garden City concept, as Letchworth had been demonstrating, the mechanisms of controlling alterations were not devised and if they were not relevantly practiced, we may not be able to see Letchworth in its present form. I believe that the institutions and mechanisms of Letchworth all together represent the social, political and cultural power of Britain, which not many other countries of the world can imitate. I was confident to say therefore, that it was really worthwhile for me to make personal visits to Letchworth and meet people such as David and Susan. I also learned a lot from their hospitality and commitment shown to me.

My learnings and applications from my visit

Now I am back to my job in Korea. Reminding me of the IGCI’s efforts to disseminate the Garden City concept to the world, and knowing Howard’s ideas have made great impacts on urban development in many countries, I asked myself “has the garden city concept made any impacts on Korean urbanization,”and if so “what are the major characteristics of Korean cities that resulted from the impacts of Howard’s garden city?”

At first glance, I cannot come up with many thoughts. It is true that, even though we in Korea talk about the term “Garden City” often, we are not serious about applying the concept into Korea’s urban planning. I think we use the word simply as rhetoric. Since Korea is a very high-density society, urban lands are very precious and expensive. Therefore, it is very hard to create Garden Cities, as a Garden City requires a lot of spacious gardens, green streets and public parks.

Having said that, I can point out a few of the Garden City characteristics from Korean urbanization: firstly, the greenbelt in Korea, which was introduced to control urban expansion. In the early 1970s, the Korean government designated greenbelt areas in big cities, including Seoul and Busan. While most Korean cities were surround by mountainous areas, these areas, i.e., outskirts of urban centres, were included in greenbelt. Development activities in these greenbelts were prohibited, based on a law of controlling greenbelt areas. At present, there is a broad consensus among Korean urban planners in the belief that the greenbelt has indeed contributed to preserving scarce urban lands and the quality of urban air in general.

Other than the greenbelt, Howard’s Garden City concept is less apparent in Korea. Korea indeed does not have any city designed by specifically applying Howard’s ideas and developed to make a Garden City similar to the first British Garden City, Letchworth. Nor does it have anything similar to other countries’ Garden Cities or Suburbs, such as Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City; Reston, Virginia in the United States, and Den-en Toshi, Tokyo, in Japan. Korean urban planners and architects do love to use the term, “Garden City.” However, they rarely apply the term into practice unfortunately. Although Korea’s new administrative capital, Saejong, was created only a decade ago; even if planners who were involved in creating the city often promised to design the city as a Garden City, the city has not been created to provide many characteristics of Howard’s Garden City. The city in fact is full of skyscrapers of apartment buildings and maintains a goal to become one half a million population city by 2030. I believe that there would be very few people who can find Howard’s ideas in either the present or the proposed future for Saejong.

After having experience with Letchworth Garden City and interviews with the experts, such as Susan and David, I am very happy, as I believe I can teach about Garden Cities with a stronger confidence in the future. Such confidence in fact provided me with a challenge to write a paper on Garden City concepts applied into the practices and academia of Korean urban planning. In addition, my experience with the city has suggested to me the idea of creating a Korean Garden City to make an exemplar of Howard’s Garden City. I’d like to say thank you to all of the people who are committed to make Letchworth happen and maintain its characteristics, including Ebenezer Howard, Barry Parker, David Ames and Susan Parham.