Garden cities – a paradise lost, or regained?

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Posted on:23-01-15

Ebenezer Howard’s vision of garden cities comprised of a central residential area surrounded by places of work. He suggested that people could live in the centre of each garden city, in nice houses with gardens and then go to work in the factories and industries that would be located along the periphery. Around that, there would be green belts of farmland, which would insulate each garden city from the next. This way, he said, the benefits of rural and urban living would be abundantly available for residents. As soon as each garden city reached its population limit – 32000 people, he said, was appropriate – the next garden city, again based on a nucleus of residence and a cell space of commerce and industry bounded by a cell wall of green fields, could be built. 

Howard’s idea of garden cities was embraced by town planners both in the UK and over the world. These ideas were accepted not only because of the horrors associated with dark, disease spreading inner city slums in places like London, but also because fast growing railway networks enabled people to live in semi-rural suburban towns and efficiently commute to their places of working in cities pulsating with commercial and industrial energy. City planning policies began to actively put in place disincentives on city expansion and promote people moving into the suburbs. A culture of automobile ownership was also encouraged.

 

Yet, a hundred years on, it is interesting to observe how urbanization has actually proceeded, in spite of a universal bias towards embedding the concept of garden cities into the area of habitation planning. First, more than half of all people now stay in cities. Second, in a more significant shift, a large proportion of urban populations live in cities with a population of more than one million-plus. In India, the 2011 census identified 7935 ‘towns’ in India, and estimated that nearly 377 million people stayed in them; about 31.16% of the population. However, of these, 160 million people, nearly 42.6 percent of the urban population lived in just 53 cities, each with a population of more than a million people.

What is it that motivates large numbers of people to move into urban areas, and within them, to prefer those that have large populations? The fact that urban areas provide the scales of economy for efficient production is an obvious one. But if one thinks deeper, is it the intangible energy released through ‘chance encounters’ between people? Urbanisation increases the physical proximity of people. It reduces the space between them, which has its effect on the cost of transportation of goods and services to and fro. But the most important feature from that is the fact that urbanization has the potential to increase the warmth of human contact and allows for greater cross fertilization between ideas.

 Those who favour rural living might recoil from my observations in the first instance. However, at a closer look, there is perhaps not much difference in the human dynamic of rural and urban living. If one goes to villages across India, even those surrounded by rolling farmland, people still tend to live in high density habitations. If these villages were transplanted into urban locations lock stock and barrel, they might not, in terms of density and human interaction, be very different from similar high density urban communities. However, the vital difference lies in the fact that dense urban habitations are awash in a sea of enterprise comprising of similar communities, whereas rural areas are, well, awash in a sea of farmland.

 Yet, urban areas are getting to be increasingly unpleasant to stay in. Is there a way to improve that? My next blog will explore some interesting ideas in transportation.

 

 

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