There had been much public debate during the latter half of the 19th century about urbanisation and how it should be controlled. Unplanned suburbs were springing up at an alarming rate in large cities. The problem of how town and city environments could be made better places in which to live generated much lively new thinking.
During the 1890s the ‘garden city’ movement became particularly influential. Its leading figure, Ebenezer Howard, developed new principles of town layout and architectural design to create spacious, tree-lined avenues of houses for working people, embodying the best features of both town and countryside. The Garden City Association set itself the ambitious task of developing a new garden city. Work on the chosen site at Letchworth began in 1903 and by 1914 it housed 9,000 inhabitants.
Letchworth itself did not require any authorising legislation. But it did inspire the development of ‘garden suburbs’ within towns and cities. The first of these at Hampstead was endorsed by Parliament in 1906 in the Hampstead Garden Suburb Act, drafted largely by its chief architect, Raymond Unwin. The Act included provisions that there should not be less than 50 feet between houses on opposite sides of the road, and that houses should be limited to eight per acre.
Farewell to the back-to-backs
The Letchworth and Hampstead initiatives were the main inspiration behind the 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act, and the Garden City Association lobbied actively for it. The Act at last made illegal the infamously unhealthy ‘back-to-back’ housing which had been popular with Victorian developers. In compelling local authorities to tackle substandard housing it encouraged them to develop new estates using ‘garden city’ principles. The Act therefore broke new ground in urging the creation of town and city environments that could be enjoyed.