Food, utopian traditions and the Garden City

Dr Susan Parham on how food was a key element of the historic vision for Garden Cities

As I explored at a recent University of Hertfordshire conference at the Spirella Ballroom (Utopia: Experiments in Perfection, November 2015), the connections between food, utopia and Garden Cities run deep. In this first of two linked think pieces about Garden Cities and food I look at some of the utopian influences on Ebenezer Howard’s ideas about food, and begin to explore the food aspects he envisioned for the Garden City. In the second think piece, I delve in more detail into how Howard’s food related ideas played out in the Garden City in practical terms over time and what they might teach us today.

Ebenezer Howard talked a lot about food in his Peaceful Path to Real Reform of 1898, and in this he was influenced by utopian proposals for more conscious relationships to food from kitchens to whole settlements. Many radical utopian ideas for communal living and food arrangements were represented in theoretical and literary ways in the 19th century but sometimes also in practical schemes, and this is where food came in to its own. In the mid to latter part of the century, utopian food designs and plans emerged, from the scale of the dwelling to whole towns, like Marie Howland’s proposals for the Pacific Colony of Topolobampo in Mexico designed in 1885. The American ‘material feminists’ including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, proposed designs that would usher in more democratic, egalitarian, and collective communities. Their designs and polemics covered entire settlements (urban, suburban and rural), ‘kitchenless’ apartments and cottages, communal kitchens and dining rooms, the distribution of ready meals and the use of labour-saving devices which were originally developed for industrial and commercial settings.

From France, Charles Fourier’s idea of the collective ‘phalansterie’ settlement was widely influential on utopian thinking and practice: in it food production and consumption was to be socialised and communal. Fourier developed the idea of sociable ‘gastrosophy’ (which he defined in opposition to the ‘bourgeois’ market-led gastronomy). As the writer, Jane Levi (2015) points out, gastrosophy ‘encapsulated a complete understanding of food production, cookery, and health, using all of these to make the world a better place by pleasurably and harmlessly realizing one’s own desires and sharing them with others’. And who wouldn’t want to eat Fourier’s favourite cake (the reportedly delicious mirliton) in the new world he dubbed ‘Harmony’?

Fourier’s ideas about shared food production and consumption were pursued in co-operative settlements started by the so-called ‘Fourierists’ and  ‘Associationists’ in the USA. Communal kitchens and dining rooms were often a feature in the settlements these groups established, as was a focus on rural production of their own food. Likewise, the mid 19th Century ‘Amana Inspirationist’ communities in Iowa (drawn from Swiss German immigrants) focused their communal settlements on farming, and developed communal food arrangements where, according to Dolores Hayden (1982), groups of Amana women worked in ‘Kuchenbas’: kitchen houses which became social hubs. Similarly influenced by Fourier, Jean-Baptiste André Godin’s ‘Familistère’ development at Guise in Picardy also included collective kitchens and community dining rooms – and as a built scheme became a widely influential, practical example of ‘industrial utopianism’ sponsored by an enlightened industrialist and with collective food aspects. 


All of this acts as a backdrop to the development of Garden Cities, in food terms. In his book Ebenezer Howard developed a highly practical, extremely integrated food vision for the Garden City and its surrounding peri-urban and rural areas. He saw each Garden City (and the wider constellation of Garden City settlements he envisioned as the ‘sociable city’) as able to deal very positively with food – spatially, socially and economically.

In a substantial section of A Peaceful Path To Real Reform (1898), Howard explained how food played a critical role in positively linking food producers, distributors, retailers and consumers. On the growing side he proposed an agricultural greenbelt of farms, dairies, orchards, allotments and smallholdings on the urban edges, as well as vegetable growing in the town’s abundant private gardens. The town was a ready market for fresh, wholesome, locally produced food and food waste would go back to enrich the soil in the productive green belt. Land not yet in use for building could be improved by fruit tree planting and dairying. Rents from farms would help fund community services through the unique value capture model. Food would be moved by electric rail and canal (avoiding the smoke fiend).

On the retailing side, a town centre ‘Crystal Palace’ proposal prefigured today’s shopping mall and from its earliest days the town attracted those interested in social improvement with a utopian flavour, like vegetarianism and temperance, as famously reflected in the alcohol free Skittles Inn. Domestic architecture could also reflect this radicalism about food. There were at least two examples of socialised housing designs with communal dining arrangements. These were Homesgarth, which Howard helped bring into being and where he lived for a time, and Meadow Way Green cottages, which he helped sponsor. In their radical food planning both show strong connections to utopian ideas that influenced them.

More broadly, many of Howard’s food ideas were prescient ones that demonstrate how once radical or derided ideas can end up altering mainstream assumptions. In my second think piece on this theme I will reflect on how Howard’s food ideas played out once Letchworth began to be developed - and have influenced planning and design thinking today. Just as Howard recognised his debt to utopian food proposals and practices, we still have things to learn about how Howard’s food ideas for shaping buildings and place can contribute to sustainable new Garden Cities (and other settlements) today.