A Garden & A City

Anne from I Like has been tagging a few articles recently about the New Towns movement, which has been particularly interesting. On Saturday, I visited Letchworth, an early version of said planned living models, and the world’s first Garden City.

Point the first: it’s a weird place. It’s not like, say Waltham Cross, or Basildon, with their brutalist overspill ethos. Approaching the centre of Letchworth one drives around the proudly signposted UK’s First Roundabout (a dark omen if ever there was one, having been acquainted with Basingstoke in the past) and up to an impressive vista, as one emerges from the tree-lined Broadway to the expanse of empty, well, garden. Follow this round to get to the town, and you’re there: true, once you’re in the town centre it’s even more lifeless than the aforementioned New Towns, but the approach is great…

Letchworth was built out of Ebenezer Howard‘s utopic ideals, and inspired Welwyn Garden City in this country, Canberra and Hellerau in Dresden, to name but a few (as always, trust the Swedes to do it best), and it’s strange to think of this radical, almost pastoral urbanism spurring onwards at the same as the very traditional late Victorian pioneer social housing which I call home. It also inspired Betjeman, who seemed to have a bemused fascination with the suburban sprawl – Letchworth was described by Jonathan Meades as responsible for “Britain’s ubiquitous, banal sprawl”, although he acknowledged the intents and the skills of the planners in creating not only a really unique place (the first roundabout is accompanied by the first green belt, the new principles of zoning have had a far-reaching effect on this country’s planning policy), but a social experiment on a huge scale.

Compared with Basildon, or Harlow, or Hatfield, Letchworth is actually very “pleasant” – although the inverted commas are well-warranted, depending on your own definition of the word. Its alien shape resting on the North Herts landscape jars with the immediately-neighbouring ancient market town of Hitchin, representing the two extremes of British town life, and it’s a fascinating insight into the minds of the early twentieth century philanthropists and reformers who envisioned these urban utopias – just like those planners who came up with Milton Keynes, it’s flawed, and a bit weird, and not really somewhere I’d choose to live, but unlike MK in that it’s still somewhere that’s not universally reviled.

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One Response

  1. […] With that cleared up, on to Letchworth itself. Or rather, into. One enters Letchworth via a grandiose, treelined avenue leading to an impressive, large-scale square cum garden arrangement, with fountains, a looming town hall structure at the end, an art-deco cinema… It’s all a bit bewildering, and so completely different from the organic, historic towns (we came here from Hitchin) that England is used to, although it does have its own interesting past. […]

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