CRF Blog

The Machine is a Garden

by Bill Hayes

In The Machine is a Garden for Foreign Policy magazine, Amanda Kolson Hurley argues that the idea of “garden cities” may help save the planet.

The concept of the garden city was devised by 19th-century social reformers to offer everything big cities didn’t: a limited number of residents with ownership over their community’s land; spacious, well-built homes for people of diverse means; clean air and ample green space; and centers of employment, education, and culture that could easily be reached on foot. Its slightly younger sister, the garden suburb, took the garden city’s basic features—residential streets gracefully enfolding a central avenue or green—and transplanted them to the outskirts of urban centers. The idea caught on across England and in numerous other countries; after Forest Hills Gardens, for instance, came the chic neighborhood of Jardim América in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1913, and Denenchofu, a Tokyo suburb, seven years later.

After a few decades in the limelight, garden cities fell out of fashion. But recently, they’ve been making a comeback. A small but growing number of architects, urban planners, and policymakers are holding up garden cities as potential antidotes to everything that ails the modern city, from substandard housing to environmental degradation to the segregation of rich and poor.

Among these proponents is Robert Stern. In December 2013, Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and two co-authors released a book called Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City. At 12 pounds and some 1,000 pages, the book is bursting with photographs, drawings, and plans that chronicle the long tradition of the garden city and suburb, including Forest Hills Gardens. Yet the book is not just a history, the trio writes: It offers “a development model for the present and foreseeable future.”

The stakes of finding such a model to guide urbanization are high. By 2030, 1 billion people (nearly one out of every eight on the planet) will live in Chinese cities, and Indian cities will swell with about 200 million new residents. Meanwhile, the specter of climate change hovers over all cities, which account for up to 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and are especially vulnerable to air pollution, heat waves, and wind and flooding brought by storms.

Could garden cities help fix these problems? [more]