As campaigners continue to battle development in Welwyn Garden City to keep Sir Ebenezer Howard’s vision alive, here are five things you might not know about the renowned urban planner and founder of the garden city movement.
He was inspired by catastrophe
Ebenezer had plenty of inspiration for his movement, part of which came from a tragedy across the Atlantic.
In 1871, at the age of 21, Howard emigrated with two friends to America in the hopes of becoming a farmer.
After his farming efforts in Nebraska failed, he relocated to Chicago to work as a reporter, where he witnessed the aftermath of a devastating fire.
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Howard arrived in the city shortly after the Great Chicago Fire, which killed an estimated 300 people and destroyed most the central business district, leading to regeneration and the growth of suburbs which made his think about how to improve the quality of life for people living in urban areas.
A pandemic influenced his design
While planned celebrations of Welwyn Garden City’s centenary in 2020 were cancelled due to the COVID-19 and national lockdowns, the town was actually designed with another pandemic in mind.
When Ebenezer was planning and building his second garden city in 1919 and 1920, the Spanish Flu was raging across the globe, with the virus going on to kill between 25 to 50 million people.
Howard therefore built wide pavements and designed the town to have the best possible air quality.
Speaking to Diary last year, Welwyn Garden City Centenary Foundation board member, Graeme Bell, believed the founder would understand the delay to celebrations.
“Spanish flu ravaged Europe just ahead of the Welwyn project,” he said.
“The wide boulevards and careful layout of the town emphasise the value of fresh air and healthy living.”
He paid £51,000 for the Welwyn Garden City land
Following the construction of Letchworth in 1903, Howard looked to add to his first garden city and found the perfect land a little more than 15 miles to the south.
The area was woodland and open fields just outside Welwyn village, unspoiled by urbanisation and capturing the charm of the countryside, just what Ebenezer wanted.
In 1919, he bought the 1,458 acres of land for £51,000 at auction, and Welwyn Garden City Limited was set up, with Welwyn Garden City incorporated on April 29, 1920.
It is believed that he also borrowed £5,000 from his friends to help secure the land.
He wanted Welwyn Garden City to be the ‘perfect town’
Ebenezer wanted his town’s to combine the benefits of the city and the countryside, and to avoid the disadvantages of both.
He wanted only the best for Welwyn Garden City, and with the help of architect and town planner Louis de Soissons, he set out to create what he called ‘The Perfect Town’.
The definition of a garden city, as outlined by the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association, does sound idyllic.
“A garden city must be a town designed for healthy living and industry of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life but not larger, surrounded by a rural belt, the whole of the land being in public ownership, or held in trust for the community.”
Howard passed away in Welwyn Garden City on May 1, 1928, aged 78. His descendants have since for their own path and his family includes some recognisable names.
Ebenezer loved cricket and this was passed down his grandson, Geoffrey Howard, who would go on to become a cricketer and win the Ashes with England the 1954-55 series in Australia.
His great-granddaughter is actress and dancer Una Stubbs, while her son, Christian Henson, is a composer, working on television and film soundtracks such as Channel 4 comedy-drama Fresh Meat.