Garden Cities of To-morrow, by Ebenezer Howard

Chapter Thirteen

The Future of London

It will now be interesting to consider some of the more striking effects which will be produced on our now overcrowded cities by the opening up in new districts of such a vast field of employment as the reader’s mind will, it is hoped, be now able to realize with some degree of clearness. New towns and groups of towns are springing up in parts of our islands hitherto wellnigh deserted; new means of communication, the most scientific the world has yet seen, are being constructed; new means of distribution are bringing the producer and the consumer into closer relations, and thus (by reducing railway rates and charges, and the number of profits) are at once raising prices to the producer and diminishing them to the consumer; parks and gardens, orchards and woods, are being planted in the midst of the busy life of the people, so that they may be enjoyed in the fullest measure; homes are being erected for those who have long lived in slums; work is found for the workless, land for the landless, and opportunities for the expenditure of long pent-up energy are presenting themselves at every turn. A new sense of freedom and joy is pervading the hearts of the people as their individual faculties are awakened, and they discover, in a social life which permits alike of the completest concerted action and of the fullest individual liberty, the long-sought-for means of reconciliation between order and freedom — between the wellbeing of the individual and of society.

The effects produced on our over-crowded cities, whose forms are at once, by the light of a new contrast, seen to be old-fashioned and effete, will be so far-reaching in their character that, in order to study them effectively, it will be well to confine our attention to London, which, as the largest and most unwieldy of our cities, is likely to exhibit those effects in the most marked degree.

There is, as I said at the outset, a wellnigh universal current of opinion that a remedy for the depopulation of our country districts and for the overcrowding of our large cities is urgently needed. But though everyone recommends that a remedy should be diligently sought for, few appear to believe that such a remedy will ever be found, and the calculations of our statesmen and reformers proceed upon the assumption that not only will the tide of population never actually turn from the large cities countryward, but that it will continue to flow in its present direction at a scarcely diminished rate for a long time to come. 1 Now it can hardly be supposed that any search made in the full belief that the remedy sought for will not be discovered is likely to be carried on with great zeal or thoroughness; and therefore, it is perhaps not surprising to find that though the late chairman of the London County Council (Lord Rosebery) declared that the growth of this huge city was fitly comparable to the growth of a tumour (see p. 42) — few venturing to deny the correctness of the analogy — yet the various members of that body, instead of bending their energies to reforming London by means of a reduction of its population, are boldly advocating a policy which involves the purchase of vast undertakings on behalf of the municipality, at prices which must prove far higher than they will be worth if only the long-sought-for remedy is found.

Let us now assume (simply as an hypothesis, if the reader is still sceptical) that the remedy advocated in this work is effective; that new garden cities are springing up all over the country on sites owned by the municipalities — the rate-rents of such corporate property forming a fund ample for the carrying on of municipal undertakings representing the highest skill of the modern engineer and the best aspirations of the enlightened reformer; and that in these cities, healthier, wholesomer, cleaner and more just and sound economic conditions prevail. What, then, must in the nature of things be the more noticeable effects upon London and the population of London; upon its land values; upon its municipal debt, and its municipal assets; upon London as a labour market; upon the homes of its people; upon its open spaces, and upon the great undertakings which our socialistic and municipal reformers are at the present moment so anxious to secure?

First, notice that ground values will fall enormously! Of course, so long as the 121 square miles out of the 58,000 square miles of England exercise a magnetic attraction so great as to draw to it one-fifth of the whole population, who compete fiercely with each other for the right to occupy the land within that small area, so long will that land have a monopoly price. But de-magnetize that people, convince large numbers of them that they can better their condition in every way by migrating elsewhere, and what becomes of that monopoly value? Its spell is broken, and the great bubble bursts.

But the life and earnings of Londoners are not only in pawn to the owners of its soil, who kindly permit them to live upon it at enormous rents — £16,000,000 per annum, representing the present ground value of London, which is yearly increasing; but they are also in pawn to the extent of about £40,000,000, representing London’s municipal debts.

But notice this. A municipal debtor is quite different from an ordinary debtor in one most important respect. He can escape payment by migration. He has but to move away from a given municipal area, and he at once, ipso facto, shakes off not only all his obligations to his landlord, but also all his obligations to his municipal creditors. It is true, when he migrates he must assume the burden of a new municipal rent, and of a new municipal debt; but these in our new cities will represent an extremely small and diminishing fraction of the burden now borne, and the temptation to migrate will, for this and many other reasons, be extremely strong.

But now let us notice how each person in migrating from London, while making the burden of ground-rents less heavy for those who remain, will (unless there be some change in the law), make the burden of rates on the ratepayers of London yet heavier. For, though each person in migrating will enable those who remain to make better and yet better terms with their landlords; on the other hand, the municipal debt remaining the same, the interest on it will have to be borne by fewer and yet fewer people, and thus the relief to the working population which comes from reduced rent will be largely discounted by increased rates, and in this way the temptation to migrate will continue, and yet further population will remove, making the debt ever a larger and larger burden, till at length, though accompanied by a still further reduction of rent, it may become intolerable. Of course this huge debt need never have been incurred. Had London been built on municipally-owned land, its rents would not only have easily provided for all current expenditure, without any need for a levy of rates or for incurring loans for long periods, but it would have been enabled to own its own water-supply and many other useful and profit-bearing undertakings, instead of being in its present position with vast debts and small assets. But a vicious and immoral system is bound ultimately to snap, and when the breaking-point is reached, thè owners of London’s bonds will, like the owners of London’s land, have to make terms with a people who can apply the simple remedy of migrating and building a better and brighter civilization elsewhere, if they are not allowed to rebuild on a just and reasonable basis on the site of their ancient city.

We may next notice, very briefly, the bearing of this migration of population upon two great problems — the problem of the housing of the people of London, and the problem of finding employment for those who remain. The rents now paid by the working population of London, for accommodation most miserable and insufficient, represents each year a larger and larger proportion of income, while the cost of moving to and from work, continually increasing, often represents in time and money a very considerable tax. But imagine the population of London falling, and falling rapidly; the migrating people establishing themselves where rents are extremely low, and where their work is within easy walking distance of their homes! Obviously, house-property in London will fall in rental value, and fall enormously. Slum property will sink to zero, and the whole working population will move into houses of a class quite above those which they can now afford to occupy. Families which are now compelled to huddle together in one room will be able to rent five or six, and thus will the housing problem temporarily solve itself by the simple process of a diminution in the numbers of the tenants.

But what will become of this slum property? its power to extort a large proportion of the hard earnings of the London poor gone for ever, will it yet remain an eye-sore and a blot, though no longer a danger to health and an outrage on decency? No. These wretched slums will be pulled down, and their sites occupied by parks, recreation grounds, and allotment gardens. And this change, as well as many others, will be effected, not at the expense of the ratepayers, but almost entirely at the expense of the landlord class: in this sense, at least, that such ground rents as are still paid by the people of London in respect of those classes of property which retain some rental value will have to bear the burden of improving the city. Nor will, I think, the compulsion of any Act of Parliament be necessary to effect this result: it will probably be achieved by the voluntary action of the landowners, compelled, by a Nemesis from whom there is no escape, to make some restitution for the great injustice which they have so long committed.

For observe what must inevitably happen. A vast field of employment being opened outside London, unless a corresponding field of employment is opened within it, London must die — when the landowners will be in a sorry plight. Elsewhere new cities are being built: London then must be transformed. Elsewhere the town is invading the country: here the country must invade the town. Elsewhere cities are being built on the terms of paying low prices for land, and of then vesting such land in the new municipalities: in London corresponding arrangements must be made or no one will consent to build. Elsewhere, owing to the fact that there are but few interests to buy out, improvements of all kinds can go forward rapidly and scientifically: in London similar improvements can only be carried out if vested interests recognize the inevitable and accept terms which may seem ridiculous, but are no more so than those which a manufacturer often finds himself compelled to submit to, who sells for a ridiculously low price the machine which has cost a very large sum, for the simple reason that there is a far better one in the market, and that it no longer pays, in the face of keen competition, to work the inferior machine. The displacement of capital will, no doubt, be enormous but the implacement of labour will be yet greater. A few may be made comparatively poor, but the many will be made comparatively rich — a very healthy change, the slight evils attending which society will be well able to mitigate.

There are already visible symptoms of the coming change — rumblings which precede the earthquake. London at this very moment may be said to he on strike against its landowners. Long-desired London improvements are awaiting such a change in the law as will throw some of the cost of making them upon the landowners of London. Railways are projected, but in some cases are not built — for instance, The Epping Forest Railway — because the London County Council, most properly anxious to keep down the fares by workmen’s trains, press for and secure, at the hands of a Parliamentary Committee, the imposition of terms upon the promoters which seem to them extremely onerous and unremunerative, but which would pay the company extremely well were it not for the prohibitive price asked for land and other property along the line of its projected route. These checks upon enterprise must affect the growth of London even now, and make it less rapid than it otherwise would be; but when the untold treasures of our land are unlocked, and when the people now living in London discover how easily vested interests, without being attacked, may be circumvented, then the landowners of London and those who represent other vested interests had better quickly make terms, or London, besides being what Mr. Grant Allen termed ‘a squalid village’, will also become a deserted one.

But better counsels, let us hope, will prevail, and a new city rise on the ashes of the old. The task will indeed be difficult. Easy, comparatively, is it to lay out on virgin soil the plan of a magnificent city, such as represented on our Diagram 5. Of far greater difficulty is the problem — even if all vested interests freely effaced themselves — of rebuilding a new city on an old site, and that site occupied by a huge population. But this, at least, is certain, that the present area of the London County Council ought not (if health and beauty, and that which is too frequently put in the front rank — rapid production of wealth forms — are to be considered) to contain more than, say, one-fifth of its present population; and that new systems of railways, sewerage, drainage, lighting, parks, etc., must be constructed if London is to be saved, while the whole system of production and of distribution must undergo changes as complete and as remarkable as was the change from a system of barter to our present complicated commercial system.

Proposals for the reconstruction of London have already been projected. In 1883 the late Mr. William Westgarth offered the Society of Arts the sum of £1,200 to be awarded in prizes for essays on the best means of providing dwellings for the London poor, and on the reconstruction of Central London — an offer which brought forward several schemes of some boldness. 2 More recently a book by Mr. Arthur Cawston, entitled A Comprehensive Scheme for Street Improvements in London, was published by Stanford, which contains in its introduction the following striking passage: ‘The literature relating to London, extensive as it is, contains no work which aims at the solution of one problem of vast interest to Londoners. They are beginning to realize, partly by their more and more extensive travels, and partly through their American and foreign critics, that the gigantic growth of their capital, without the controlling guidance of a municipality, has resulted in not only the biggest, but in probably the most irregular, inconvenient, and unmethodical collection of houses in the world. A comprehensive plan for the transformation of Paris has been gradually developed since 1848; slums have disappeared from Berlin since 1870; eighty-eight acres in the centre of Glasgow have been remodelled; Birmingham has transformed ninety-three acres of squalid slums into magnificent streets flanked by architectural buildings; Vienna, having completed her stately outer ring, is about to remodel her inner city: and the aim of the writer is to show, by example and illustration, in what way the means successfully employed for improving these cities can be best adapted to the needs of London.’

The time for the complete reconstruction of London — which will eventually take place on a far more comprehensive scale than that now exhibited in Paris, Berlin, Glasgow, Birmingham, or Vienna — has, however, not yet come. A simpler problem must first be solved. One small Garden City must be built as a working model, and then a group of cities such as that dealt with in the last chapter. These tasks done, and done well, the reconstruction of London must inevitably follow, and the power of vested interests to block the way will have been almost, if not entirely, removed.

Let us, therefore, first bend all our energies to the smaller of these tasks, thinking only of the larger tasks which lie beyond as incentives to a determined line of immediate action, and as a means of realizing the great value of little things if done in the right manner and in the right spirit.

1 It is scarcely necessary to give instances of what is meant; but one that occurs to my mind is that this assumption of the continued growth of London forms one of the fundamental premises of the Report of the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Water Supply, 1893. On the contrary, it is satisfactory to note that Mr. H. G. Wells has recently entirely changed his views as to the future growth of London, (see Anticipations, Chap. II), Read also ‘The Distribution of Industry’, by P. W. Wilson, in The Heart of the Empire (Fisher Unwin), and Paper by Mr. W. L. Madgen, M.I.E.E., on ‘Industrial Redistribution’, Society of Arts Journal, February 1902.

2 See Reconstruction of Central London (George Bell and Sons).

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42