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There's always tomorrow

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To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform By Ebenezer Howard, with a commentary by Sir Peter Hall et al. Routledge, 2003. 232pp. £60

In the great - and somewhat dusty - pantheon showcasing 'timeless heroes of planning', the place of former pioneer farmer, Chicago stenographer and parliamentary notetaker Ebenezer Howard has always seemed secure. Most architects of a certain generation can summon up his bewhiskered image, or draw a passable version of Howard's famous 'Three Magnets' diagram, with its deftly contrasted poles of town, country and town-country. Warm sepia-toned images of workers at the Spirella Corset Factory in Letchworth Garden City, or taking their leisure at the alcohol-free Skittles Inn nearby, are familiar staples of textbooks for aspirant planners. It is all healthy, wholesome and suitably removed from the Thames Gateway.

Not so far removed, perhaps. Why else would Sir Peter Hall, our most credible candidate for entry to the planning pantheon, veteran writer/campaigner Colin Ward, and planning historian Dennis Hardy choose this moment to bring forward a facsimile edition of Howard's one-shilling volume, first published in 1898, if not to remind those in the land of bean counting and bullet points that it does no harm to start with a 'vision' in planning our new urban settlements?

At a time when the Gadarene rush to shoehorn any proposed residential expansion into the category of an 'urban village' has seemingly abated, and the cappuccinos of the Urban Task Force cooled to the point of becoming undrinkable, it is salutary to be reminded by this editorial trio that this modest publication can lay legitimate claim to having shaped the way we design settlements worldwide. And it continues to do so, east of Tower Bridge, in the Fens and on former MoD sites.

In reminding us of Howard's influence and continuing legacy, the editors are, ironically, ill-served by the very high production standards achieved by publisher Routledge.

This is an elegant volume, no longer slim enough to be slipped into one's pocket as reading on a Fabian cycling holiday, but one to be savoured and dipped into for historic endorsement when penning the 'Heritage and Pedigree' chapter of some future report on this or that new settlement. Once past the presentation, however, the force of Howard's arguments remains impressive, all the more so because many of them, as the editors argue, were not in themselves new. Their power and longevity stem directly from their combination as a single strand or thesis.

Peter Hall, perhaps with one astute eye on Thames Gateway, understandably makes much in his commentary of Howard's concept of a polycentric pattern of urbanisation in which each settlement matures to a finite size, determined at the outset by what were later to become New Town planning standards. Further growth can be accommodated by cloning the basic unit, while maintaining some form of Green Belt between units and around the city as a whole.

Such a pattern of planned greenfield (usually in the literal sense) urbanisation has proved enormously attractive to societies that would seem to have little in common - from the den-en-toshi (pastoral cities) of Japan to the cité jardin of France and the gartenstadt favoured in Germany, or Forest Hill Gardens, New York - at the turn of the 20th century.

In providing a page-by-page commentary alongside the facsimile pages of Howard's text, the editors make many resonant and perceptive observations, most notably that Letchworth Garden City represented a very real innovation in town planning, in that almost all designed settlements until then had been the products of a single, all-powerful will; whether that of King Edward in founding Winchelsea and his other planned town, Robert Owen at New Lanark, later philanthropists at Saltire, Bournville and Port Sunlight, or indeed of recent efforts near Dorchester.

Letchworth, by contrast, was democratic, collaborative and transparent in its founding philosophy as well as in its day-to-day operations. Heady stuff indeed, and no less provocative today than when Howard first put pen to paper more than a century ago.

Neil Parkyn is an architect, town planner and director of Huntingdon Associates

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