The Movements of The Garden City and City Beautiful in the American and British Eras

Categories: CitySocial Movements

In the 1st century B.C. a Roman architect called Vitruvius (Morgan, H. M., 2005) completed an accurate treaty on the skills that every architect should possess, as well as on the principles around which architecture should revolve, i.e. beauty, usefulness and solidity. As Cooke (2001) pointed out, these concepts have been reinterpreted in many different ways over the centuries, as people’s views on what is beautiful and useful tend to change with the passage of time and architecture should always aim at satisfying people’s needs.

The Garden City and the City Beautiful movements, for instance, represent two different approaches to both beauty and usefulness, as they attempted to solve specific problems whilst promoting specific values, such as beauty, civic virtue and harmony.

The City Beautiful movement began in America in the 20th century as a result of the problems that were affecting American society, these being growing population, immigration, the movement of numerous people from rural areas to urban ones.

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(Frazier, J. W. and Tettey-Fio, E., 2006) Similarly to America, Great Britain also faced significant social changes between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, as English population increased from less than 17 million in 1850 to over 30 million in 1900, Scottish population went from less than 3 million in 1850 to almost 4.4 million in 1901, whilst Irish population decreased slightly due to the Irish potato Famine that affected the country. (Robson, W., 1993; O’Neill, J. R. and Wolf, N., 2009) In light of these changes, the Garden City movement represented a response to the country’s new needs and an attempt to preserve the British countryside.

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(Howard, E., 1946)

The “City Beautiful” Movement

As Glazer and Field (2007) observed, the City Beautiful movement aimed at enhancing cities’ beauty through monuments and other elements borrowed from both neoclassicism and the Beaux Arts. However, it should be observed that it began in the 20th century not only to make cities more beautiful, but also to boost citizens’ morale and enhance their civic pride in times of uncertainty and social change. According to Benert (2007), this was achieved by adopting a neoclassical approach to urban planning, thus designing cities in such a way to make foreigners, the rich and the poor feel as part of a whole, thus addressing contemporary problems such as social disorder, inequality and decaying civic pride. Considering its strong neoclassical component, it is no surprise that the City Beautiful movement attempted to bring peace and order by combining beauty, solidity and usefulness, which are the criteria around which classical and neoclassical architectures revolved. (Morgan, H. M., 2005) That is why City Beautiful architects took into account numerous practical issues, including water supply, transport and sewerage, when planning urban spaces.

The World Columbian Exposition of 1893 is often referred to as the event that marked the beginning of the City Beautiful movement, mainly thanks to the White City plan presented by architect Daniel Burnham, who is considered to be one of the main practitioners of the City Beautiful movement. As Levin et al. (2010) pointed out, the White City made contemporaries realise that the future would be harmonious, well-ordered and well-organised and that plans like Burnham’s could help address social, political and economic problems whilst enhancing America’s global image. In fact, the movement’s beautiful buildings and arrangements were meant to have a positive impact on both the elites and the masses, making them proud of being part of the same community. Another aspect of the City Beautiful movement that should not be overlooked is its Beaux Arts architectural component, which can be found in the White City’s neoclassical monuments designed by Saint-Gaudens. (Bingaman, A., 2002)

Thanks to his participation in Burnham’s project, Saint-Gaudens also became known as one of the main practitioners of the City Beautiful movement, as most of his creations featured elements that recalled Greek and Imperial Roman buildings and sculptures, Italian Renaissance and baroque forms. (Driver, F. and Gilbert, D., 2003; Levin, M. et al., 2010) Numerous examples of the City Beautiful movement can be found in Washington D.C. in America, as in 1901 Senator McMillan chose Burnham and landscape designer Olmsted to create a group to re-design the city’s core in occasion of its centenary. (Glazer, N. and Field, C. R., 2008) Saint-Gaudens and architect McKim were chosen by Burnham and Olmsted to participate in the project, in order to make Washington D.C. look more like the great European cities by adding neoclassical monuments and gardens to it. (Glazer, N. and Field, C. R., 2008)

The McMillan plan resulted in the redesign of the National Mall, whose core would be a vast open space embellished with American elms and lined by two side paths. (Glazer, N. and Field, C. R., 2008) As Glazer and Field (2008) pointed out, even though Olmsted’s proposal of creating a simple and yet celebrative entrance to the capitol would sound obvious to today’s architects, at the beginning of the 20th century his vision was very innovative and had been inspired by Windsor Castle’s tree-lined walk and Versailles’ green open space framed by beautiful trees. The reason why trees and grass played such an important role in the McMillan plan is that all the architects who participated in the project wanted to create a slightly rural setting for the capitol, which is why greenery is still one of the main features of the National Mall today. (Glazer, N. and Field, C. R., 2008)

Another example of City Beautiful architecture in Washington D.C. is the Lincoln Memorial, whose location was chosen by the members of the McMillan Commission. The architects’ goal was to ensure that the monument would be in line with the Capitol and the Washington Monument by adopting a neoclassical approach to its planning. The memorial was located in the western side of Potomac Park in order to isolate Lincoln’s statue from mortals, thus turning him into a deity. Architect Henry Bacon took his inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman temples to design the memorial, which is just as imposing as a real temple, features thirty-six columns and two urns that indicate that the memorial was dedicated to a god. (Schwartz, B., 2003)

Sculptor Daniel Chester French created the imposing “Abraham Lincoln” statue in such a way to make the president look like Zeus sitting on a throne and looking at Washington’s Monument, just like a Greek god looking eastwards. (Schwartz, B., 2003) Thanks to the grandeur and beauty of the plans to which the City Beautiful movement led to in Washington D.C., City Beautiful-inspired architectural styles spread across America. In Miami, Florida, real estate developer Merrick had a suburb planned and developed according to the City Beautiful movement, with numerous neoclassical elements such as fountains, monuments, plants and trees and even a modern public transport system. The suburb, which Merrick named Coral Gables, is now considered to be an expensive residential area, which suggests that even though the City Beautiful movement became increasingly popular throughout the 20th century, its original function and purpose were often overlooked. (Bramson, S. H., 2006)

The “Garden City” Movement

The official beginning of the Garden City movement was marked by the publishing of Howard’s (2010) novel “To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform” in 1898, which was significantly influenced by American author Bellamy’s (2000) “Looking Backward”, a utopian novel which inspired numerous intellectuals across America and Europe. Howard’s book, which was then re-published as “Garden Cities of Tomorrow” (Howard, E., 1946) illustrated the characteristics and goals of the Garden city movement, explaining that between the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century an increasing number of people moved to already over-crowded urban areas, causing them to become very difficult to live in. (Howard, E., 2010)

According to Howard (2010), the best solution to this problem was to prevent people from migrating from the country to the towns whilst encouraging those who already lived in urban areas to return to the country. This way, cities like London would be decongested and the Garden cities built outside of it would offer citizens an alternative to pollution, high rents, fogs, hours of travelling and all the other unpleasant aspects associated with living in a big town. As Trancik (1986) pointed out, the urbanisation process has completely destroyed some of the fundamental principles on which urban planning used to be based, including the importance of open space. This has led to lost space, which some architects and intellectuals like Howard (1946) have attempted to recover through Garden Cities and other alternatives. (Trancik, R., 1986)

Garden Cities were meant to decongest cities like London by functioning as their satellites, linked to a central city by modern transport systems and surrounded by parks. Howard identified Letchworth, England as the ideal area to build his first Garden City, which architects Unwin and Parker started planning in 1904 keeping into account Howard’s guidelines. In fact, according to Unwin and Parker’s plan, Letchworth would be surrounded by a vast greenbelt and would be an ideal place for the working class to live in. (Samuels, I. et al., 2012) Its design coupled with a combination of low taxes, parks, low rents and other incentives started attracting more and more middle-class citizens, to the extent that it became very difficult to keep housing prices low. (Hall, P., 2002)

Even though Hampstead was also built according to Howard’s vision, this was planned as a garden suburb, rather than a self-sustaining, independent Garden City, which is why it can not be classified as an actual Garden City. Welwyn, on the other hand, was founded by Howard himself, who purchased land in Hertfordshire specifically to build a second Garden City, which would be similar to Letchworth. (Alexander, A., 2009) The planning and construction of Welwyn were overseen by Osborn, one of Howard’s colleagues, who was also a strong supporter of the Garden City movement.

Even though Garden Cities were meant to be independent and self-sustaining, companies like Tesco and Morrison’s started investing in Welwyn, which was also too close to London to become economically independent. (Samuels, I. et al., 2012; De Soissons, M. and Hall, D., 1988) However, as Samuels et al. (2012) pointed out, the Garden City movement can not be considered as a failure as it had a major impact on British architecture, stressing the advantages associated with living in rural areas and the need for a new approach to urban planning. So doing, Howard’s (1946) theories and ideas resulted in the New Towns movement, which also attempted to solve the numerous problems caused by urbanisation, such as congestion, high rents, overcrowding and so forth. (Osborn, F. J. and Whittick, A., 1969)

Cross-Influence of the City Beautiful Movement and Garden Cities

In spite of their numerous differences, the City Beautiful and the Garden City movements are strongly linked to each other, in terms of origins, goals and certain architectural features. In the first place, Howard (2010), the founder of the Garden City movement, perfected his theories during his stay in the United States. In 1872 he visited several American cities including Chicago, which Chicagoans had renamed the “Garden City”, mainly due to its numerous parks and the green belt that surrounded the urban area. (Buder, S., 1990) As Smith reported, Chicago played a very important role in making the City Beautiful movement popular, as after the World Columbian Exposition was held in it, architect Burnham realised that Chicago was one of those cities that needed to be understood and made beautiful.

As beautiful and well-organised as Chicago may have been when Burnham started thinking of ways to improve it, population growth, congestion and overcrowding had caused Chicago to become quite difficult to live in. That is why Burnham decided to concentrate on solutions that would have improved its citizens’ living standards and increase their civic pride. (Smith, C., 2006) Besides Chicago, the two architectural movements shared several common goals. In fact, they both stemmed from their founders’ desire to reduce the negative consequences of increasing birth rates, growing immigration, congestion, urbanisation and industrialisation. Moreover, it should be noted that elements have been borrowed from both movements in several occasions, which has led to cases of cross-fertilisation. The city of Canberra, Australia’s capital, is an excellent example of this phenomenon, as it combines elements typical of the City Beautiful movement with the rural accents typical of the Garden Cities.

Canberra was designed by architect Walter Burley Griffin, who admired Burnham’s plan of Chicago and was a supporter of the City Beautiful movement. However, he developed a strong interest in nature during his stay in Australia, whose flora and landscapes affected his approach to urban planning. In fact, Ward (2000) reported that when planning Canberra’s road system, Griffin did not make them too wide in order to leave enough space for large trees and greenery. Grant Crescent is a perfect example of this, with its plants, flowers, bushes and large trees which slightly recall rural roads whilst providing sufficient shade for cars and walkers.

Returning to Washington D.C., whose plan was strongly influenced by the City Beautiful movement, it should be noted that American architecture also borrowed several elements from the City Garden movement, as several Garden Cities were planned across the United States in order to provide people with work and more affordable alternatives to cities like Washington D.C.

That is why three Garden Cities, namely Greenbelt, Greendale and Greenhills were planned in 1935 in order to enable people to live near Washington D.C., Milwaukee and Cincinnati respectively, whilst benefitting from family-oriented urban planning, more affordable housing prices, lower living costs and rural landscapes. (Segal, H. P., 1985) However, it should be noted that in spite of their utopian nature, none of them fulfilled Howard’s dreams. (Segal, H. P., 1985)


As can be seen from the examples illustrated in this essay, the City Beautiful and the Garden City movements share several characteristics, especially in terms of goals and origins. However, from a strictly architectural point of view, the City Beautiful movement combined neoclassical models with certain elements borrowed from Beaux Arts architecture in order to make citizens proud of the cities in which they live, as well as of their government. (Benert, A., 2007) By making cities beautiful through imposing buildings and monuments, the City Beautiful movement also made citizens feel as part of a whole, regardless of their social status, race and personal beliefs. This certainly helped to bring order in times of social and economic uncertainty. (Benert, A., 2007) Similarly to the City Beautiful movement, Garden Cities were planned in order to tackle specific contemporary issues, such as immigration, growing population and urbanisation. Howard (1946), the founder of the Garden City movement, appreciated nature and wanted to combine the advantages of living in a rural area with those of living in a city, minimising the disadvantages associated with both.

According to his initial plan, Garden Cities would be surrounded by parks, their economy would be independent and self-sustaining, housing prices would be affordable and they would be linked to the big cities by a modern transport system. (Howard, E., 2010) It is interesting how Howard, Burnham and the other architects who have tried to plan cities on the basis of either the City Beautiful movement or the Garden City model, could not translate their exact visions into urban plans, as while elements from the City Beautiful movement have been used mainly to beautify suburban areas which are now remarkably expensive, the only two Garden Cities that Howard planned, namely Letchworth and Welwyn, never became economically independent, mainly due to their proximity to London. (Samuels, I. et al., 2012; De Soissons, M. and Hall, D., 1988) However, it should be observed that although neither movement could entirely fulfil its supporters’ dreams, several later architects, including Griffin, have combined elements from both to create remarkable urban plans. (Ward, A., 2000)


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The Movements of The Garden City and City Beautiful in the American and British Eras. (2021, Sep 14). Retrieved from

The Movements of The Garden City and City Beautiful in the American and British Eras

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