Built after the First World War, more or less from scratch, Welwyn Garden City is England’s second garden city. After the first city Letchworth’s slow start, the accepted vision was that the creation of garden suburbs rather than cities was the way to go. Welwyn Garden City owes its existence to a great extent to the drive of Ebenezer Howard, author of Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902).
Arriving at the bus station, you soon come across Howard’s shopping centre and a Howard’s gate but other information about the city and its development was not easy to find. There did not seem to be a museum or information centre. The local Waterstones could offer me a more technical book by the architect, Louis de Soissons, a children’s colouring book and a slim volume about garden cities in general (which I bought) and various historical books with pics. At the local library, I found Stephen Ward’s “The Peaceful Path. Building garden cities” (2016) with very interesting information about the early development. But even this book did not tell me much about the social development of the city (with the proviso that my skim was more intensively interrupted by glances at my watch towards the end).
I wonder who the people were who moved there, what was their social composition. How was the city run when first owned by a company and then a new town development corporation, what did land use and house ownership look like and how did the authorities maintain the architectural consistency of the town (mainly Neo-Georgian), did ideological currents make their presence felt to start with (William Morris, the Fabians). What issues have ruffled feathers over the years? What is the incidence of crime and vandalism?
And perhaps the big question, why does this city built from scratch seem to work while many other newbuild areas have become dystopic and failed?
The city looks well maintained, the green avenues in the centre of the streets are calm and harmonious. There was hardly any graffiti, it seemed to have been cleaned even from obscure alleyways. Only at the edge of the centre by the library did I find a dingy pedestrian underpass with a hoodie in residence like som guardian of the gates of hell outside the land of the lotus eaters.
I didn’t find the architecture exciting but the effect here is not unpleasant ( with added security bonus for me who spent several childhood years looking at a Neo-Georgian post office building outside my classroom window…). But I wouldn’t want to live here; the lack of hisorical associations would disturb me – I am a quirk-dependent person.
I would anyway like to know more about the city.