Great places rely on nature
Ebenezer Howard, in addition to having the coolest name in the history of urban planning, was a pioneer in social and urban reform. Interested in how people could live more harmoniously with nature, he published his first and only book, “Garden Cities of To-Morrow,” in 1898.
In a time of widespread urban industrialization, overcrowding, disease and pollution, his idea of a “Garden City” envisioned a utopian community that could benefit from both “town” (such as industry and commerce) and “county” (such as parks and fresh air). The underlining strategy for the Garden Cities movement was to functionally separate our dwellings from our workplace. It was a revolutionary idea that fueled a growing interest in suburban living and environmental sustainability.
In the original text, Howard’s concept was accompanied by a series of beautiful diagrams outlining his bold vision. It was a prescriptive approach. His model city would house 32,000 people on 6,000 acres, planned on a concentric pattern with open spaces, public parks and six radial boulevards extending from the center. The garden city would be self-sufficient and when it reached full population, another garden city would be developed nearby.
The question is, after all these years, how can an idea from 1898 be relevant in 2017? As Frances Holliss recently noted in The Guardian, “Howard’s real genesis was not in the garden city idea – it was his ability to find a new answer to a seemingly intractable set of problems. We should be following his method, not adopting his out-of-date idea.”
Then again, what if gardens are still an answer?
In a recent report, “The Case of Healthy Places,” Project for Public Spaces (PPS) illustrated how placemaking can impact the social determinants of health. It’s a well-known fact that our ZIP code is more predictive of our health outcomes then our genetic coding. So how can the places we inhabit make us healthier? One of the best ways is through our connection with nature.
The new “garden city” resembles a placemaking strategy that incorporates nature at every scale – city, neighborhood, street, home. As we better understand the impact nature can have on our individual well-being, we find that the benefits are undeniable. In the recent PPS report, three key findings were outlined:
Proximity: Close proximity to parks and green spaces positively impacts physical activity levels, mental health and cognitive function.
Quality: People living in neighborhoods with high-quality parks report better mental health than those with low-quality spaces.
Safety: Active green spaces reduce crime by creating “eyes on the street.”
Ebenezer Howard’s goal was simple. He wanted to safeguard us from the city, giving us a refuge from 19th century industry. Today we are faced with much different challenges. As our homes and workplaces become more compatible, sometimes existing in the same location, the way we think about community development has evolved. However, the goal is the same – to provide and promote spaces that prioritize health and well-being. That’s what Howard was trying to do all along.
Good places embrace nature. Great places rely on it.
First appeared in the April 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.