Food and garden cities in principle and practice

Susan Parham, July 2016


Earlier in 2016 I published a think piece on Food, utopian traditions and the garden city where I prefigured a second piece on the theme of food and garden cities. This would reflect on how Howard's food ideas had played out once Letchworth began to be developed - and how these ideas have influenced planning and design thinking today. Much of this analysis is drawn from my recent book, Food and Urbanism (Bloomsbury, 2915) where I explored Howard's ideas in depth. In my previous think piece I came to the conclusion that food was a profound influence on the ways that Howard wanted physical space to be designed and people to live together. Here I consider some of the specific experiences of food in the garden city that Howard's ideas gave rise to and briefly look at 'where to next?'

Garden cities as productive food space

As I noted in my previous think piece, a central feature of Howard's ideas for the garden city were socialised food features from the urban centre to the peri-urban edge, and in into the greenbelt-based rural surroundings of each garden city settlement. Howard's proposals included some of the garden city's houses having common gardens and co-operative kitchens (Howard, 1902: 54) and the improvement of land not in use for building, where fruit trees could be planted or a dairy set up (as Dr Mervyn Miller has explained, in Parsons and Schuyler, 2002: 106). The Garden City programme (written and diagrammatic) also proposed allotment areas around the settlement's edges, and this would occur within a broader, productive agricultural greenbelt. The greenbelt was not just a landscape setting to look at or enjoy recreation time in, but a productive place in its own right that would return both food and farm rental income to the town, as well as dealing with its food waste. As I explained in my previous think piece these ideas owed a debt to nineteenth century utopian models but Howard's integration of food into his Garden City vision and practical plans was notably holistic by comparison.

Howard resisted the blurring of his city ideals including for food in later suburban interpretations of the garden city model (Dentith, 2000: 20). Unlike many later suburban developers, he was particularly concerned with the possibilities for agricultural production in close vicinity of garden city settlements for reasons we might now say were about ensuring a 'sustainable food system'. Howard stressed the local nature of some proportion of the food system, it's direct economic value, and it's health benefits, writing that ‘Every farmer now has a market close to his door. There are 30,000 townspeople to be fed… and this is a market which the rent he contributes will help to build up’ (Howard, 1902: 12). Howard argued that Garden Cities would advance healthy living not just because houses would be well sited, but ‘because the gardens and surrounding agricultural belt will supply fresh and pure food and milk in place of the transit-soiled articles to which the average dweller in an ordinary city is condemned’ (Purdom, 1925, in Cherry, 1972: 136).

Howard had also proposed a ring of allotments around the edge of the settlement - some of these still exist in Letchworth - as well as shared community vegetable gardens and generous private gardens with space for fruit and vegetable growing. These growing space ideas were influential. Places including Helsinki which were influenced by Garden City ideas, saw this influence flow on into the allotment movement and the establishment of allotment gardens in the early 20th century, particularly to deal with food shortages (Lento, 2006: 198).

The productive agricultural greenbelts proposed by Howard were not just a landscape setting for his Garden Cities but a highly practical, food-centred component of the economic base underlying these settlements. It is notable that Howard saw urban food waste (and human waste for that matter) going back into the countryside around these settlements to enrich the soil (ibid: 13-14). Presciently, Howard proposed electrically powered transit arrangements which would keep the ‘smoke fiend…well within bounds’ and allow produce to be sent to more distant markets (Howard, 1902: 6). As I said in my last piece food was to be moved around by rail and canal rather than by road. At the same time Howard did not expect Garden Cities to be completely self sufficient in food (Ward, 2002: 228), rather, townspeople would be perfectly free to get their foodstuffs from any part of the world [but] consider vegetables and fruit. Farmers, except near towns, do not often grow them now. Why? Chiefly because of the difficulty and uncertainty of a market, and the high charges for freight and commission...[but by] placing producer and consumer in such close association…the combination of town and country is not only healthful, but economic (Howard, 1902: 12).

Howard challenged the idea that continuous growth and increasing scale should be the measure of a city's success and this was a food issue. For Howard (1902: 9), the greenbelt around the Garden City helped ensure its 'bounded' quality, and as noted above, was of immense practical use in maintaining a productive spatial, environmental and economic relationship in food terms with the town it served. As I wrote in Food and Urbanism, we continue to have problems of urban sprawl, loss of agricultural land and diminishing food security – undoubtedly more so given climate change. So Howard's ideas about the close interplay of food production and consumption are still really pertinent in making good places today.

Howard's ideas about food were also influential in other elements of the garden city including food shopping. For instance, Howard developed the idea of a Crystal Palace, which was conceived as a large covered circular arcade ringing the City’s central park. This is shown at the centre of his diagrammatic illustration of the urban functions required for a new Garden City. I think this perhaps demonstrates most clearly in his work late nineteenth century aspirations for food (and other) consumption elevated to its most civilised, convivial levels. Howard, in fact, described the Crystal Palace as in part given over to ‘that class of shopping which requires the joy of deliberation and selection’ (Howard, 1902: 4). As a form it is thought to have contributed to the idea of the ‘covered collective retail space’ of the regional shopping mall (Ward, 2002: 229) so was an extremely influential in how food shopping space is organised today. While shown in the famous garden city diagrams, an actual Crystal Palace was not built in Letchworth or Welwyn, the first two garden city settlements, although at a stretch it might be suggested Welwyn's Howard Centre next to the railway station owes it a conceptual debt.

In Parker and Unwin’s plan for Letchworth Garden City, instead, shopping ‘parades’ with food shops, cafes and restaurants were built in the town centre; while Louis de Soisson’s 1920s master plan for Welwyn Garden City showed a town divided into four by railway lines, with each area boasting its own local food shops (Miller, in Parsons and Schuyler, 2002: 125). Barry Parker’s 1927-29 plan for the municipalised Garden City of Wythenshawe in Greater Manchester, meanwhile, included neighbourhood shops and plans for a major town centre (Miller, 2010: 84). Unwin’s proposals for Hampstead Garden Suburb also included two shopping parades but these failed to be translated into Edward Lutyens plan: instead a 1930s development called The Market Place was built ‘astride a diversion to the major roadway of the A1’ (Miller, 2010: 65) to make good this absence.

Communal cooking and dining

Another important area in relation to food was related to housing: there were two housing schemes in Letchworth that Howard promoted (and in one case lived in) where kitchen provision, food preparation and dining were socialised to some extent. As I discussed at some length in the previous think piece, these ideas owed a considerable debt to the American 'material feminists' utopian proposals for 'kitchenless' houses and apartment buildings, with domestic services including food socialised at a building, communal or even town wide scale. Within the Garden City movement, interest in collective housekeeping saw kitchenless houses built as co-operative quadrangles at Letchworth, Welwyn Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb (Ravetz: 1989: 192). Barry Parker's plans for schemes based partly on the design of university quadrangles, which in turn reflected monastic design sources, would have common rooms in which cooking and serving meals would replace the 'thirty or forty little scrap dinners' of individual housewives and do so considerably better and more cheaply (Davey, 2008: 106). Raymond Unwin similarly proposed communal laundry, cooking and dinning rooms in the design of some dwelling units, rather more prosaically to reduce expenditure (Jackson, 1985).

The two examples of such socialised food space in Letchworth: Homesgarth and Meadow Green Way Cottages, were somewhat different from one another in character and purpose. According to Buder (1990), Homesgarth was conceived as a shared set of twenty-four small, but high quality, apartments for middle class residents who would be expected to eat together communally in a large dining hall on 'inexpensive nutritious meals' if they so chose, with food prepared by domestic staff employed for the purpose. They could also undertake 'light cooking' in small kitchens provided in individual flats. Plans for Homesgarth were announced very early in the life of Letchworth Garden City, in 1906; the architect, H. Clapham Lander, was engaged and the building itself opened in 1911. Based on a Cambridge quadrangle, the flats, common kitchen, and other shared facilities were arranged around the quadrangle's sides.

Homesgarth was expected to demonstrate the utility of such a communal living model for middle class families. However, the experiment did not last as increasing dissatisfaction with the quality and price charged for communal dining, and the capacity to cook in private flats together undercut the savings communal dining had originally promised and thus the desire to maintain the communal nature of the place. Howard and his wife lived there until 1920 when they left Letchworth.

At Meadow Way Green by contrast, promoted by the philanthropic Misses Pym and Dewe and designed by Courtenay M. Crickmer, there was again a communal dining hall and a well equipped shared kitchen where meals were prepared and cleaned up by a hired cook. The scheme was designed to house single, professional women and midday meals had to be taken in the communal dining room as a condition of tenancy. Tenants also had to take a turn in organising the catering for two weeks at a time: planning menus, ordering food and keeping accounts (Pearson and White, 1988: 113). Despite the effort "the pleasant atmosphere of the dining room, the cheap meals and the convenience of the arrangement ensured it survived" as a cooperative until the post Second World War period (ibid).

So how do things look today - and where to next?

Today in Letchworth and Welwyn food - judged according to Howard's vision -  presents a mixed picture. We can see that some of the socialised foodways and foodspaces he envisioned did not come to pass, or have not survived, while others have been retained in a partial or vestigial form or been reconfigured. In 2016, much of the way food is produced, distributed, sold and consumed is fairly close to the more mainstream food arrangements that might be experienced in any comparably sized town in the United Kingdom. Instead of the Crystal Palace and individual food shops, there are supermarkets designed on a suburban model in the town and on the periphery, which are mostly visited by car, and sell food from far afield. It seems likely fewer people are directly involved in growing vegetables and fruit themselves than Howard envisaged. There are no longer any cooperative flats with communal kitchens and dining halls.

There are some elements, though, that Howard would have approved of in my view; especially on the food growing side. Among these is the local Standalone Farm, owned by the town, that offers food related education opportunities, as well as operating as a commercial venture providing income to the townspeople. The recently developed communal food plot jointly created by the Royal Horticultural Society and the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation in the town centre near The Wynd area is another very positive example modelling a productive community garden. There are also a number of community food gardens sprinkled through the town serving groups of houses; many individual private gardens retain sufficient space for food growing; there are a substantial number of allotments available to residents, and a very active gardeners association formed in 1906 so some food culture is alive and well.

It may well be argued that contemporary lives don't allow for the kind of food spaces and activities that Howard wrote about and showed so influentially in his diagrams.  My wider research on food and place suggests that many of Howard's ideas about food are being taken up or rediscovered by people wanting to make more sustainable settlements and food systems today, even if they are not aware of the connections to the garden city. So I don't think these food ideas - from city centres to rural surroundings, from productive green space to cooperative food provisioning, from individual local food shops to lively cafes - can be dismissed as just of historic interest or an exercise in nostalgia. It seems to me that we could do some very useful work to celebrate those who have continued to pursue Howard's food vision - physical, social, economic and environmental - and look for practical ways to get that kind of thinking and practice back into the mainstream of town making today.

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