Birds of Town and Suburb by Eric Simms (or nature, class and town planning)

Birds of Town and Suburb focuses, as the name would suggest, specifically on nature in suburbia. Simms travels chapter by chapter from the inner suburbs outwards to the green belt and the edges of the countryside. Along the way he describes the bird life of various suburban habitats, such as factories, rubbish dumps, cemeteries, parks and allotments. Simms also dedicates chapters to watery habitats such as reservoirs, sewage farms and gravel pits.

However, I wanted to focus in on an issue that Simms touches on – the role of class and nature in town planning.

Diagram No.2 from To-morrow, A Peaceful Path to Reform showing a plan for a Garden City

Simms begins the book with a chapter on the rise of suburbia. Suburbs have existed for as long as cities have existed – around 5000 years. However, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that towns and cities really took off: Outside these cities suburbs began to take shape and they were basically of two kinds. The first was to provide luxury villas for the more affluent city dwellers and the second was to accommodate merchants and traders.

The trend in affluent city dwellers flocking to the suburbs continued into the sixteenth and seventeenth century:

It was a period in which material wealth, influence and political power were increasingly attracted to a growing oligarchy which preferred to dwell in mansions situated in suburbs far away from the city centre. Coincident with this flow away from the town was another of an entirely different character; the urban poor, tradesmen looking for cheaper land and lower rents and aliens not allowed to work in the city were also moving into areas beyond the city limits.

Thus the rich were moving to the suburbs through choice and the poor were being forced out of the city because they couldn’t afford to live there – a narrative that sounds just as familiar today.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution the working poor were drawn into the cities once more seeking work in the factories, mills and coal mines. To house these workers rows of back to back houses were built with little regard for the health and well being of the inhabitants, and certainly no regard for nature.

Meanwhile the richer middle classes were moving to the suburbs for exactly the thing the factory workers and coal miners lacked – fresh air, space and nature: The new middle class tried to create in their suburbs a countryside in miniature and their grand villas were designed with country estates in mind.

These middle class suburbs contrasted greatly with the city centre and inner suburbs:

Here the habitats for wildlife were usually barren and uncompromising with a few small and grimy public gardens or churchyards supporting only the toughest forms of plant growth. In these deserts of asphalt, stone, brick and mortar a few mosses, some slimy grass and a small tally of man’s commensals – rats, mice, sparrows, pigeons, spiders and a few insects – were able to survive. Lack of sunlight, polluted air and vandalism all played a part.

In 1898 social reformer Ebenezer Howard published To-morrow, A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. In the book Howard set out his plans for the construction of a Garden City, which he believed would help stem the flow of workers from rural areas to urban areas, and solve the problem of poor living and working conditions suffered by those workers. Howard was expressly against the idea of building a Garden Suburb, which would only increase the outward expansion of the city without solving the problems of rural-urban migration and poor living standards.

Instead, Howard’s Garden City would be built on “virgin land” and would create a balance between the best elements, the “magnets”, of town and country. As in the city, there would be work and opportunities to engage in social life, and at the same time Garden City would incorporate the nature, space and fresh air of the countryside.

This would be achieved by building the city on agricultural land and incorporating natural features of the landscape into the city. The city would have several parks and green belts, but it would also have industrial zones to provide work. The outward growth of the city would also be limited and instead the city would spread by constructing smaller satellite cities, all connected by railways and tramlines [1].

Diagram No. 7 from To-morrow, A Peaceful Path to Reform - showing Garden City in the centre, connected to it's satellite cities by railways and tramlines
Diagram No. 7 from To-morrow, A Peaceful Path to Reform – showing Garden City in the centre, connected to it’s satellite cities by railways and tramlines

Garden City would encourage a healthy lifestyle, exercise, a sense of community and, without even banning the sale of alcohol, temperance.

Garden City would be home to a mix of social classes – Howard emphasises the importance of this, he calls it an organized migratory movement of population, and quotes from an earlier work, Art of Colonization by Edward Gibbon Wakefield:

We send out colonies of the limbs, without the belly and the head, of needy persons, many of them mere paupers, or even criminals… The ancients, on the contrary, sent out a representation of the parent State – colonists from all ranks… The new colony was made to appear as if time or chance had reduced the whole community to smaller dimensions, leaving it still essentially the same home and country to its surviving members. It consisted of a general contribution of members from all classes, and so became, on its first settlement, a mature state, with all the component parts of that which sent it forth.

Howard, therefore, was not advocating for a worker’s utopia. He wanted to maintain the same social order that existed outside Garden City, indeed the quote from Wakefield suggests Howard believed the poor needed the wealthier members of society. Without them Garden City would be without the belly and the head. However, the key difference is that in Garden City the workers would have good quality, spacious houses to live in, with gardens and allotments for growing food, and plenty of green spaces to exercise and enjoy fresh air in.

Howard was eventually successful in setting up a company that could bring his vision to life. The result was Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City, the only true Garden Cities to be built in Britain. What is remarkable about Letchworth and Welwyn is how much like a normal British town they look. This is probably partly because the Garden City Movement drew on influences such as the Arts and Crafts movement, which in turn drew on earlier styles [2].

However, it is also in part because the Garden City Movement led directly into the New Town Movement. New Towns were like Garden Cities in that they aimed to resolve the issue of overcrowding in cities and they were fully planned towns. The New Townsmen – supporters of the New Town Movement, including Howard – pushed for government funded New Towns to be built. However, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the need for new housing became a pressing priority for the government. In 1946 the New Towns Act was passed, which resulted in 27 New Towns being built in Britain in the second half of the 20th century [3].

Howard and the subsequent movement his work fostered placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of planning:

[I]t is essential… that there should be unity of design and purpose – that the town should be planned as a whole, and not left to grow up in a chaotic manner as has been the case with all English towns, and more or less so with the towns of all countries.

Whilst it seems sensible to put some forethought and planning into the building of a new town, I still have my reservations about Garden Cities and New Towns – as do many others, it seems, given that “New Town” is now used as a pejorative term. I’ve spent time in New Towns, my grandma lives in a New Town. What you gain in well proportioned houses and streets and green spaces, you lose in chaos and creativity – the qualities that make towns and cities such engaging places to live.

One of my favourite things to do in Amsterdam is to head out for a walk and wander down whatever street or passageway strikes my fancy. I never know what I’ll find but it’s usually something surprising – a small row of cottages or a statue or a square with a fountain. And I don’t think you can plan for that. In fact, I think New Towns risk planning out those elements of surprise.

Simms also points to this issue: The character of a town and the lay-out of its streets has been called ‘a compound of history’. It is extremely difficult to preserve urban identities and the conservation of a town’s personality and character is rarely considered to be a desirable aim. Urban areas acquire their identity over time, through an accumulation of layers of history, and that sense of identity and character is hard won and easily lost. New Towns (mostly) spring up fully formed and though they do change and age over time, I wonder whether they can ever acquire that ‘compound of history’.

Simms also laments the impact of New Towns on social cohesion (There seem to be some tendencies towards a residential segregation in the New Towns based on class…) and urban nature:

The New Towns are often designed by architects trying to bridge the gap between what is desirable in environmental planning and what is economically possible. Avenues of small trees and single trees planted on patches of grass may be all that there is to remind the citizen of the twentieth century of his rural past.

I’m reminded of the description of the estate Billy lives on in A Kestrel for a Knave – saplings have been planted on the muddy grass verges and surrounded by protective spikes, but they have largely been used as waste paper baskets. This contrasts with the more affluent, rural neighbourhood Billy visits on his paper round, where trees flourish on the verges and in the gardens.

Simms is also critical of these planned working-class estates, they: provide much-needed housing but it seems a pity that the quality of their surroundings is often dull and unimaginative. Indeed, he is not against planning per se, just bad planning that doesn’t take into account the needs of nature and humans.

Howard believed that planned towns more closely resemble nature:

A town, like a flower, or a tree, or an animal, should, at each stage of its growth, possess unity, symmetry, completeness…

Howard’s view of nature reflects the way in which nature is used in Garden City as a means rather than an end.  It is there to adorn the town and provide parks and fresh air. But if towns are to be modelled on nature then they should be chaotic, random, wild and creative. Nature, wild nature, is not unified, symmetrical or complete. And I can’t help but feel that towns shouldn’t be either. For all their faults, it is the unique, unsymmetrical quirks of towns that make them interesting, engaging and exciting places to live.

In the London of Howard’s era, and indeed other cities of that era, the poor lived in cramped and unhealthy housing, and it is largely this issue that Howard is trying to solve with his Garden City Movement. Howard succeeded in that aim and the slums of industrial Britain, the slums my own grandma grew up in, are a thing of the past. But I still feel ambivalent about Howard’s impact on Britain’s towns and cities.

[1] There is a segment in this episode of 99% invisible about a circular town in the US, called Circleville, which was eventually, at the demand of its frustrated citizens, “squared”.

[2] In Garden Cities by Sarah Rutherford, Rutherford expands on this theme more and if I’d had more space I would have loved to explore it more here. I’m very intrigued by the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris and the ideas of John Ruskin. Perhaps I’ll have time to explore it further someday…

[3] Thanks Wikipedia

Header image By Cmglee – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59892641

2 Comments

  1. This is a great read Naomi and I really like your description of the ‘creativity’ and the ‘chaos’ of urban, green spaces. I thought of the garden centre in Hulme and the imaginative use of space there and the magical alley way of wild flowers that leads to the little nursery in Chorlton. I’m also reminded of the ubiquitous buddleas that seem to flourish wherever, sprouting from the arches in Castlefield and weaving through the iron criss cross train bridges. The traffic thunders past but nature is resilient and adapts and blooms and nothing will stop it! Thank you for sharing this.
    I’m visiting Amsterdam in July, do you have any top tips, hidden gems, must sees that only a city dweller will know about?

    Like

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