The new book, Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove cannot be taken lightly in any way. Weighing in at 1,003 pages, with over 3,000 illustrations, it is a largely successful and inspiring attempt of an encyclopedic history of the “garden city.”
The idea of the garden city can mostly be credited to Ebenezer Howard, who popularized the concept as a means of confronting the new deleterious urban realities of late 19th century industrial England- overcrowding, pollution, disease, and relentless, expediently developed tenements that gave the workers little access to nature or civic space.
Howard is certainly given his due in the book, as well as the most prolific and persuasive of his follower, Raymond Unwin (Hampstead, Letchworth, etc.) . But the authors set the stage for the garden city movement first in the origins of the suburb, in particular Regent’s Development in London (1811-1832), and in cross-Atlantic incarnations like Llewelln Park in New Jersey (1853) or Olmstead’s Riverside (1869).
The idea of the garden city in its most didactic and popular form really begins with Howard and his book Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1898). Whereas much of the history of suburbia, particularly the American incarnation, was based on a retreat from the city, and a conservative and moralistic view of domesticity, Howard’s intention was to combine the best of the city with the best of country.
Raymond Unwin was the most persuasive and influential designer of garden cities, in particular Hampstead and Letchworth. This history is well known and documented; Unwin’s garden cities have probably been more influential on contemporaneous urban planners than any other planner/architect. As expected, there are numerous pages devoted to Unwin’s garden city projects.
But what is exciting in Paradise Planned is the sheer quantity of projects included, many quite obscure. These projects, presented in drawings, plans, and photographs, span the globe, categorized by place, scale, and chronology. This has the effect of showing the disseminating power of these ideas, instead of the typical presentation of a handful of distilled precedents. Paradise Planned moves beyond the prototypes to create a rich survey of towns, suburbs, and what might be called ‘infill developments’ today.
With over 3,000 illustrations, the variety of design applications of the garden city idea can be understood in all its subtleties and variations. From such a vast survey, one can understand the different ways these ideas can be embodied, and for different purposes.
Paradise Planned shows different applications of these garden city ideals. For example, there is a chapter on Company Town, a chapter on Garden Cities, on Garden Suburbs, on projects in Europe, the Americas, and on “the rest of the world”. While some of these projects could only loosely be identified as garden cities in the strictest sense, they all share an attempt to balance the built environment with nature, a systematic and carefully designed way of distributing mostly mutlti-family housing throughout a development, a respect for the street, the framing of public open spaces, the understanding of the urban block and its potential, an appreciation of the multiple housing typologies, and the belief that these places need to serve communities and support cultural, commercial, and civic needs.
The examples in Paradise Planned have served to inspire some recent urban planners and architects (most notably New Urbanists), but perhaps, and this is something I fervently believe, they can inspire a more contemporary adaptation of these principles. The post-war paradigm has created an onslaught of suburban sprawl and low-density, energy-dependent development in the age of dwindling natural resources and climate change. This situation is at least as precarious a way of living as that of the industrial cities Howard and Unwin inveighed against. This book will hopefully inspire architects and planners to think in a balanced and progressive way how to tackle these formidable issues. The numerous precedents in Paradise Planned are invaluable to study, and for this reason should be on every architect’s bookshelf.
Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove (Monacelli Press: 2013)