Most people move to Welwyn Garden City because they like it but very few realise why they like it. The reason is very much down to the vision of one man, Ebenezer Howard, and its interpretation and realization by a young French Canadian architect, Louis de Soissons.
The ideas for the garden city grew up during the late 19th century and were based around the idea that densely built-up towns and the countryside both had advantages and disadvantages. Howard’s idea (he was founder of the garden city movement) was to combine the advantages of both in a pleasant, co-operative egalitarian environment. This was encapsulated in his book of 1898 To-Morrow – A Peaceful Path to Real Reform.
One of the key themes of the garden city ideal was self-containment: providing jobs, services, leisure facilities and housing all within one town in a high quality, green and open setting. This has some parallels with modern ideas about sustainable development in the sense that providing a mixture of land uses in close proximity reduces the need to travel.
The town’s historic significance in the field of town and social planning is global, attracting study and visits from tourists and representatives of civic organisations from abroad to visit. Its success led directly to the creation of other new towns such as Harlow, Stevenage and Milton Keynes in the UK. It is often held up as the best example of civilised, sustainable new settlements and a model for others to follow.
By choosing the young architect de Soissons, Howard and his fellow directors had ensured the success of the town’s development. Louis de Soissons was barely thirty when appointed as architect and town planner in April 1920. He submitted his masterplan for Welwyn Garden City less than two months later, and it is this plan (available by clicking here) that over the years has been modified here and there, but has remained the essential backbone for its future development. It remains one of only two garden cities in the UK.
Louis de Soissons chose a red brick Neo-Georgian style for his building design and was keen to conserve as many hedgerows and trees as possible, exploiting the landscape to its fullest extent. But he truly excelled as a street designer and there is no doubt that his finished plan is a masterpiece of town planning. It is still regarded so some ninety years later. In planning terms its significance is global. It is featured in most – probably all - university architectural and urban design courses around the world.
Welwyn Garden City was designated as a New Town shortly after the end of World War II and the fact that its original designer, Louis de Soissons, was in charge of its development from its inception until his death in 1962, was able to maintain its unique status.
However, the ability to maintain its unique status has become more difficult over the years. It remains one of a number of Section 19 towns. This includes Letchworth Garden City, Hampstead Garden Suburb, Bourneville, Port Sunlight and Poundbury but Welwyn Garden City remains unique in being the only Section 19 town not to be controlled by an independent trust.
The fact that a trust was not set up at the dissolution of the Commission for the New Towns was probably a grave mistake. The role of a trust for Welwyn Garden City is essentially born by the local authority planning department which it administers through an Estate Management Scheme – an almost impossible task due to its own conflicting interest as a planning authority.
The uniqueness of the town within the borough has been somewhat compromised over the last few decades but it is hoped that this issue has been recently addressed by the Council re-launching the Estate Management Scheme.
Architecturally, although much of Welwyn Garden City is Neo-Georgian, it is a very simple, pared down Neo-Georgian version, free of too many features and, therefore, eminently suitable for the twentieth century. Although Neo-Georgian revival architecture was not uncommon elsewhere during the 1920s and 30s, the planned, singularly controlled concentration here is unique. On the whole, individual buildings of all styles, public and private, form a collection of the finest domestic architecture of the early twentieth century that is of the highest significance, defining the character of the garden city and vital to its integrity.
Ebenezer Howard’s vision of a Garden City was one that would combine the benefits of living in a town with those of living in the country. It would be a place in which people would both live and work in beautiful surroundings; in a city that would be not only a “city in a garden”, but also a “city of gardens”: an example of good civic design and architectural harmony.
The town is now very much bigger, and many residents commute to London and elsewhere. These and other social changes, particularly the car becoming the main means of transport and the growth of supermarkets, chain stores and multi-national industrial combines, mean that Ebenezer Howard’s original vision has had to adapt to the demands of modern living.
The use of space is generous by modern day standards, there are large verges between roadway and pavements. Trees are planted in abundance; there are both grand vistas in the formal part of the town that give way, seemingly effortlessly, to intimate domestic architecture. The latter representing one of the finest collections of English domestic architecture of the early 20th century.
- A History of Welwyn Garden City by Roger Filler. ISBN 85033 590 6.
- Welwyn Garden City. A town designed for healthy living by Maurice de Soissons. ISBN 0 904928 23 3.
- Policy Advice Note. Garden City Settlements. Published by TCPA 2008 and available by clicking here.