Food economy and Garden City legacy: Letchworth Garden City in our present day Part 1

Author: Amelie Andre
Edited by Susan Parham
December 2019


In 2016, Associate Professor Susan Parham shared two Think Pieces for the International Garden City Institute (IGCI) about the food legacy of the Garden City Movement and delved into its radical roots (Parham, 2016a, 2016b). As the conclusion left a door ajar on the current picture of food in Letchworth and Welwyn, this is a timely occasion to report outcomes of recent research about the food economy in Letchworth Garden City, which began in November 2017.  From the start of the journey until  November 2018, connections between community, land stewardship and food-related locations have been investigated through a mapping project and interactions with local actors. This allowed to understand the current context of food in Letchworth Garden City and to help support an efficient, healthy and sustainable local food economy.

This text is the first out of four documents. Three following ‘Think Pieces’ will be published on the IGCI website within the next few months. Altogether these four texts cover the topics and the findings that emerged during the industry placement in the first year of the research. These outcomes were practically oriented and were also the initial inputs and springboard for the further development of the project, which is a doctoral research project currently ongoing. As a start, this first text highlights some reflections of Howard’s food vision with our contemporary concerns and emergencies, in regard to the wider global context in which this study is embedded. The second text will focus on the food offer in Letchworth Garden City at the time of the first year of the research, investigating scopes of partnerships and networks. The third document explores the identity of the town and underlines how the town’s legacy shapes consciousnesses in regard to food. The fourth and last document to be published interrogates challenges and opportunities for the democratic structure of governance in Letchworth Garden City in relation to food.

Before reporting on the research’s findings that emerged, the first document details two key notions that help clarify the background of the study. The next section focuses on the signification of the food economy and how and why it was constructed to investigate the research’s topic. The second part situates the study within the global food economy context and identifies underlying challenges to relate them with Garden City features, embodied in the world’s first Garden City, Letchworth in England.

Food Economy

The definition of food economy for this research project is strongly connected with Howard’s holistic food vision within the Garden Cities. In his first book published in 1898, the different food-chain stages are practically described as a strategic economic resource that contributes to the social and financial prosperity of the town. The ‘local option’ (Howard, 1898, p.73) and the local market were detailed as a loop from production (ibid, p.18), to waste management (p.17 & p. 25) including transportation (p. 25), transformation (p.18), and retail (p.33). Moreover, defenders of the Garden City movement associated the local community with food practices: common gardens (p.15), agricultural co-operatives (Adams, 1905, p.32), and collective kitchens (Purdom, 1913, p.11). These were suggested as way of emancipation for townspeople, providing a reduction of labour at home and at work by mustering strengths to accomplish tasks. Hence, relationships between different food stages and the benefits from community engagement are two crucial elements to understand food economy in Garden City context.

Furthermore, investigation within the literature explored a combination of concepts to support the contemporary notions related to food economy (Winter, 2003; Miralles, Dentoni, & Pascucci, 2017). As a result, I use in this research the term food economy to refer to the direct benefits for local people of the financial, cultural, environmental, and social outcomes revolving around the different food-supply stages, from production to waste management. This includes supply transformation and transportation, retail and consumption. I would also arguing that food economy must entail social, environmental and health dividends in addition to economic practicality (Lang, Barling, & Caraher, 2009).

The various food-economy implementations embrace various perspectives, from worldwide dynamic trade to community-based realisations. A succinct picture of the global food system provides relevant background and information on key-issues to be addressed today, which can be roughly summarised as feeding everyone healthily in a sustainable way that minimises environmental damage. The second part of the paper will steer towards reflections between these issues and the Garden City food-economy’s main features.

Why studying Garden City and Food Economy is relevant today?

Food-system issues in the present day

The wider food system issues and their impacts on environment and health provide a framework to interrogate the particular features of Letchworth Garden City. From the time of Letchworth Garden City’s construction starting in 1903 to our present day, a phenomenal change occurred. In the second part of the 20th century, the industrial realm took over and allowed for decisive technical transformation and substantial economic development, which led to the so-called agricultural green revolution and the expansion of agribusiness (Krebs, 2013). However, this productivist model, based on industrialisation of food and characterised by high-yield production and short-term return, causes environmental costs (Pretty, Ball, Lang, & Morison, 2005; Kirschenmann, 2008), notably due to intensive monoculture, use of chemical pesticides, and increasingly large land-fields (Marchais, 2010). The industrial food system is indeed one of the major human activities that can impact the environment, notably by causing greenhouse gas emissions due to oil-dependent food production, transportation and consumption (Pretty et al., 2005; Pawlak, 2008) These aspects of the modern food system are in part accountable for the major environment crisis that introduces this new millennium, including biodiversity loss (FAO, 2019) and tangible changing climate towards a global warming (FAO, 2008; UN, 2019).

Besides, if some aspects of the modern food system are identified as factors of tangible climate change as previously described, food systems’ stability suffers from climate alteration too: food security (yields, quantity, growth) and food safety (uncertainty, quality of goods, control of disease) are challenged (Vermeulen, Campbell, & Ingram, 2012). Environmental disasters, such as droughts and floods (FAO, 2008) lead to higher prices for staple food where the population is already in the direst need and vulnerable. It is argued that food production high yields are unevenly distributed in the world (Gardner, 2013). Some are overfed quantity-wise (although nutritional quality may be poor) because of a current mainstream food supply that is somewhat efficient for consumers in terms of affordable and effortless access to unhealthy food (Cummins, 2002; Lake & Townshend, 2006; Mikkelsen, 2011). Nevertheless, the low price of food does not reflects the embodied energy in its production that is paid in environmental costs: soils’ impoverishment (Pretty et al., 2005), biodiversity loss and influence on climate change (FAO, 2009). Moreover, these upshots also have serious impacts on human health and the considerable portion of the world population that remains malnourished (FAO, IFAD, & WFP, 2015).

News relentlessly reminds us that ecosystems are at stake and that we are facing an upsetting anthropogenic global warming. We seek to minimise the dramatic figures with alternative systems. Urban agriculture, local governance, short food supply networks, co-operatives, and collective food approaches (Howard, 1902; Adams, 1905; Purdom, 1913) were central in the Garden City model and are interestingly still emphasised today as relevant food solutions for cities (Dion & Laurent, 2015).

Reflections from the early 20th century: Garden City food legacy

Some contemporary food questions stated above reflect on the very history of Letchworth. Howard’s foremost goal was to create a new society (Beevers, 1988; Buder, 1990) in a healthy environment (Howard, 1898; Standish, 1999) where land use was envisioned as a strategic resource for the benefit of the community. This section explores the Garden City food features in the world’s first Garden City and highlights a 120 -year parallel in the pursuit of a sustainable food economy today.

Feeding cities always was a predominant concern for century-old settlements (Parham, 1992, 2005, 2012; Steel, 2008; Howe, Bohn, & Viljoen, 2012; Imbert, 2017) although was not expressed by our ancestors as a food planning aspect before the 19th century (Vitiello & Brinkley, 2014), period during which the theorisation of spatiality originates. This new discipline ‘urbanism’ was devised around the 1910s to distance itself from the ‘urban art’ and was acknowledged as an analytical science that meets the needs of the new industrial society’s cities (Choay, 1965). Few planners during the 18th and 19th century engaged with a holistic vision of the food system, strongly based on agriculture (Schumann, 2003; Vitiello & Brinkley, 2014) and Sir Ebenezer Howard was one of them. Theoretician of the Garden City movement, he shared in his books (Howard, 1898, 1902) a vision for new cities of 32.000 inhabitants where food was planned as a strategic economic resource. Bounded by a productive agrarian greenbelt, numerous allotments, markets, private gardens and orchards provide an opportunity to grow food locally and offer to the residents a reliable and local food supply. However, self-sufficiency for Garden City is not a core principle, or even a Garden City prerogative, as it can be sometimes understood (ibid, p.18, p.24). The food system in Howard’s vision can rather be compared to short food-supply network within broader context of food supply trade. This highlights the pioneering role of Letchworth Garden City regarding the prevalence of food as an economic and social base for the local community.

A photograph of a vegetarian restaurant taken in 1908 in Letchworth Garden City. The “Simple Life Hotel” (GCC, 2019) suggests the awareness of early resident of the world’s first Garden City that food and food ethics mattered. Orwell described sarcastically the regular customers as “sandal wearers” (Orwell, 1937; Tidy, 2015, 2018) and this perhaps reminds us current disagreement between different philosophical streams regarding food. Contemporary approaches regarding food systems differ, from the green revolution techno-optimists (Krebs, 2013) to the advocates of local food networks (Pretty et al., 2005). So, what can we learn from the Garden City movement in terms of food economy for our present benefit and what are the food features that can be found in Letchworth Garden City? These are the questions on which the next Think Pieces to be published will bring an overview, following key themes that emerged during the first year of the research on which this think piece is based.

Early key findings and emerging themes

Three main topics emerged from exploring Letchworth Garden City over 2017 and 2018 through observation, participation, meetings, reading, and a food mapping project. These topics are the food availability, the identity of the town, and the specific governance structure in Letchworth inherited form the early 20th century.

The next and second ‘Think Piece’ to be published will provide the historical backdrop of the food vision depicted by Howard and his peers and will provide an overview of the current food availability in Letchworth Garden City. These are the direct results of the mapping project undertaken for the research. A third text will demonstrate some evidence of the various aspects of the Garden City identities. Food shaped the physical features of the town, with a fair proportion of available land to grow food, but Garden City also shaped ideas revolving around food from the start until today. Interests and goals may be diverse amongst food-related organisations, but Garden City legacy is to be a common thread mentioned by few of them. The fourth and last text to be published will explore the impact of the specific governance of Letchworth Garden City on land stewardship, landscape and urban layouts.

Limitations in the current global food system in terms of community inclusion and equity, food distribution and environmental emergency constitute the background for the study. Matching elements between Howard’s guidelines and today’s options to tackle food issues are means to interrogate Garden City features that would be insightful and suitable for the present day. Letchworth, the world’s first Garden City provides a perfect case-study from its origins to the observable aspects of Howard’s legacy today. If you want to know more about food and Letchworth Garden City in our present day, please catch up here for the next Think Piece. 


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