Review: Garden cities and colonial planning. Transnationality and urban ideas in Africa and Palestine

Editor(s) Liora Bigon and Yossi Katz
Publisher Manchester University Press
Year 2014

For those familiar with the monotonous and sprawling residential suburbs of modern cities, it may be challenging to imagine self-contained communities. The thought of self-contained communities evokes notions of human settlements containing not only residential areas but places for industry and agriculture—all surrounded by greenbelts. This is essentially what Ebenezer Howard had in mind when he formulated the ‘Garden City’ model in 1898. By the beginning of the 20th century, the garden city model had given birth to a movement in its own right. At the same time, the model had become one of Britain’s leading exports. Rather early in that century, British colonial authorities had employed the Howardian model as the template for British colonial capital cities around the world, but particularly Canberra (Australia), New Delhi (India) and Lusaka (Zambia). The model also constituted the template for a multitude of British colonial Hill Stations in India and the Malaysian highlands. Britain was not alone in this regard. Rather, other European countries that had adopted the model also numbered among its top exporters. France, with its own version of the garden city or la cité-jardin, which it exported to its colonies and dependencies such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Indochina, exemplified this trend. Thus, a common thread running through the colonial histories of Britain and France is their penchant for employing the garden city—or more accurately, some distorted version thereof—as a template for developing colonial towns. This obvious link between the colonial projects of France and Britain has been largely ignored by students of European colonial urbanism.

Thus, the collection of papers included in the edited volume, Garden Cities and Colonial Planning, by Liora Bigon and Yossi Katz is refreshing. The volume is part of the Manchester University Press’ series, ‘Studies in Imperialism’ under the general editorship of John M. MacKenzie and Andrew S. Thompson. As its subtitle suggests, the volume focuses on British and French colonial Africa and Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine. It is divided into two main parts corresponding with its two major focal geographic regions. Part I (chapters 1 – 4) focuses on Africa with emphasis on French North and West Africa, and British East Africa. It strikes me oddly that no section of the book is dedicated to British colonial southern Africa, which includes Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa among others. To be sure, some major garden cities in these countries are mentioned in passing in the book. Part II (chapters 5 – 7) focuses on ‘Garden Cities in Ottoman and British mandate Palestine.’

The book’s geographic focus (West Asia and Africa) sets it apart from previous works on the subject. Thus, Bigon is right in stating that theirs is the only book-length work exclusively dedicated to dealing with garden cities in Africa and West Asia, particularly Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine (p. 6). To this, I can add that it is the only book-length piece focusing on garden cities as a feature of British and French colonial urbanism with a view to highlighting their similarities and differences.

As can be easily gleaned from the book’s carefully researched and written chapters as well as a copious introduction by Bigon and an ‘Afterword’ by Bigon and Katz, the differences/similarities can be appreciated at three levels. First, all of the contributions noted or alluded to major differences and similarities between garden cities in the colonizing countries and those in the colonized territories. For instance, garden cities in pre-World War II Europe were typically developed by private or public-private partnerships, and were usually suburban self-contained communities. In contrast, those in the colonies assumed the form of low-density European enclaves, which were almost always developed by the colonial governments. Yet, the fact that their design, intended form and function, like those in the colonial master nations drew inspiration from Howardian philosophy and principles was inescapable. However, as Jelidi noted in her contribution (Chapter One), conditions on the ground, including cultural proclivities, in the colonies made it impossible for colonial urban designers to maintain the straight communication arteries as dictated by the pure Howardian model.

The second level of similarities and differences can be observed in relation to the colonizers’ colonial ideology and philosophy. The British made no attempt to disguise the fact that their garden cities were meant as exclusively European enclaves because of the racial difference between Europeans and Africans. In contrast, the French were at pains to present their version of garden cities or ‘cités-jardins’ or ‘villes nouvelles’ as destined to ‘civilized’ or ‘modernized’ people (including Africans). However, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the garden cities in Africa, as especially noted in the introduction and each of the chapters in Part I, shared a common feature—the fact that they functioned as exclusive European enclaves.

At the third level, there are similarities and differences that result from geography, politics and culture. Politically, garden cities, like modernist planning in general, served as a tool of power in the colonies. In this regard, they served as instruments of social control by segregating residential areas by race, culture or religion, and regulating movement to and from different enclaves. Culturally, the Howardian model served to showcase the ‘human settlement development ingenuity’ of Western planners. Geographically, the different chapters of the book observed that the sites selected for garden cities in both Africa and Palestine were physically different. This greatly influenced, and in fact, distorted the form and function of the cities. For instance, as Bigon and Katz note in Chapter Six, Tel Aviv, which was intended as a garden suburb could not sustain this image for long because of its location and its status as Israel’s main city. The two parts of the book highlight a little-known fact relating to colonial segregationist planning. While residential segregation in Africa (Part I of the book) was along racial lines, the situation was different in British Mandate Palestine (Part II). Here, the Howardian model was summoned to segregate Jews from Arabs “in order to provide the conditions which then seemed necessary for developing a national Zionist society within the cities of Palestine” (p. 162).

All in all, the contributors to this volume have done a fine job interrogating the avowed and covert aims of each garden city project as well as the dynamics that were at play especially during its development. The editors deserve commendation for assembling the respectable team of scholars that contributed to the volume. They should further be commended for accepting only papers with a coherent thematic and substantive as well as definitive geographic foci. By so doing, the editors managed to avoid the problem of fragmentation and incoherence known for wrecking edited volumes. The volume is indeed a welcomed addition to the literature on colonial urbanism.

Ambe J. Njoh is a professor of Environmental Science & Policy at the University of South Florida’s School of Geosciences.


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4 Responses to “Review: Garden cities and colonial planning. Transnationality and urban ideas in Africa and Palestine”

  1. theophilus

    I like the article

  2. Charles Ndungu

    insightful article

  3. eunah

    wow this is so insightful and informative very good

  4. Esther

    Exactly what I needed. Thank you so much for the article


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