Garden Cities of Tomorrow

Richard Orjis
Auckland-based artist and lecturer at MIT. Studied at AUT and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh in the US, graduating with a Bachelor of Visual Arts in 2001, He completed his MFA at Elam School of Fine Arts in 2006.

In the late 1970’s my mother, father and eldest brother Simon moved from Auckland to the North Island town of Whanganui. My father had moved there to work as a recently qualified architect, and our mother was about to have me, followed by my sister four years later. They bought a small plot of land on Durie Hill, surrounded by scrubby bush and overlooking the murky yet majestic Whanganui River. On the horizon you can see the mouth of the Awa swirling together with the sea—the last leg of its 290 kilometre journey from its beginning at Mount Tongariro. With a certain amount of optimism and youthful energy, my parents set about designing and building a structure very much of its time, a beautiful modest wooden pole house. Constructed of native timber and perched amongst the tree canopy, it had interesting geometric shapes, with generous windows taking in the light and views. For a child, this unique tree house was what it was; for my father it carried the pride of a first build; and for my mother it meant negotiating countless internal stairs with a heavy Electrolux and keeping a watchful eye on her undeveloped and accident-prone offspring. 

This wasn’t the first time someone had looked up at Durie Hill from Whanganui Main Street just across the river with a vision of building a brighter future on its clay slopes. At the start of the twentieth century, Samuel Hurst Seager, a Christchurch-based architect and city planner won a competition to transform Durie Hill into New Zealand’s first garden suburb. His concept was ambitious for 1919. It took inspiration from Ebenezer Howard's 'garden cities’ via his 1898 publication, To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform (which was reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow)1. The objective was to integrate the best aspects of town and country living. Ebenezer Howard’s idealised garden city would house 32,000 people on a site of 2,400 hectares, planned on a concentric pattern with open spaces, public parks, and six radial boulevards, each 37 metres wide and extending from the center. The garden city would be self-sufficient and when it reached full population, another garden city would be developed nearby. Howard envisaged a cluster of several garden cities as satellites of a central city of 250,000 people, linked by road and rail.2

In New Zealand, Seager believed in social reform through design. Durie Hill took the principles of the garden city and reduced it to the scale of suburb. Housing was to be available for a variety of income levels using a unifying aesthetic; fences were to be replaced with low hedging to encourage community engagement, and all houses were to be situated to make the most of the dramatic views.  Recreational areas were an important part of the overarching philosophy. Playgrounds, sporting facilities, and public green spaces featuring rose gardens, communal orchids, and vegetable gardens were all to be provided.3 Durie Hill was to be a hilltop socially progressive Arts & Crafts nirvana. A purity of vision that was never to come to fruition; two World Wars and the Great Depression prevented its development.

The romanticism of the garden city and then suburb is very much linked to the garden itself. The etymology of the word paradise is the Old Persian pairidaeza meaning walled or enclosed garden. The Paradise Gardens in what is current day Iran were part park, orchard, vegetable garden, and hunting ground. They were created as protection from the dusty, barren, and hostile world beyond. The ideas of pleasure and gardens have been linked throughout history, and appear in the texts of major religions the world over. The Judeo-Christian belief has the Garden of Eden, there is the Pure Land of Buddhism, and in Islam heaven is a garden with Allah often being referred to as ‘The Gardener’. In our local context the earth is seen as a maternal entity. Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother provides unity and sustenance. Auckland garden historian John Adam notes: 

Early records of Auckland’s Albert Park refer to it as the lungs of the city – a space designed to improve health and uplift one’s spirits. So we know people believed in the emotionally and physically redemptive quality of communing with nature…it was specifically set up by the Crown as a place for all classes to mix and socialise and where the Chartist notion of gender, race and class equality could be upheld.4

In present day Auckland, the garden city has evolved into the garden apartment complex. With a need for higher density within existing city infrastructures, two major developments are planned for central Auckland: Union Green and Botanica. Botanica is promoted as having a “Green Heart Urban Soul."5 It is a mix of terrace housing and apartments in Mount Eden, where “lush landscaping inhabits each private residence in the form of seasonal planting, gardens, and private courtyards.”6

Industrialisation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be seen as the catalyst for the Garden City movement and likewise, today the world can be portrayed as a place in environmental crisis. Reports of global warming due to climate change, depleted fossil fuels, pollution, food shortages, increased population and rapid urbanisation has lead to the point where for the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas. The romanticism of a city within a garden seems as appealing and relevant as ever.
Our relationship with plants is a fundamental one and the thought of living in some sort harmony with them remains appealing. Our survival is wrapped up in their survival. Our food chain, the materials in which we construct our homes and the quality of our drinking water is entirely bound up with plants. Studies such as Green space, urbanity, and health: how strong is the relation? in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that “…the percentage of green space in people's living environment has a positive association with the perceived general health of residents…”7

A study published in 2014 from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, UK showed people living in greener urban areas were displaying fewer signs of depression or anxiety.8

The Garden City Movement became an integral part of many town-planning charters. There are numerous garden cities in the world, but most of them have become dormitory suburbs that differ from Howard’s original aims. Criticism stems from the requirement to use sizable pieces of land, which destroys the traditional countryside. This turned out to be inconvenient in the same way suburbs are. Often they became too expensive for the working class. Where used in a social housing model they ghettoize people, leading to isolation and areas of high crime.9

To seek a better life through design still continues to be an important goal. The quest for the perfect balance between living, working and green space remains, especially as we gain understanding of the link between our immediate environment and wellbeing at a time where the world’s population moves from the rural to the urban. For the series of artwork I created in ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ I wanted to take the inherent optimism present in gardening and embed that into the conceptual framework of the project. A seed is planted with hope for a positive outcome from that act. There is also a belief there will be a tomorrow in which to see it unfold. The work is a critique of urban development. It was important for me to understand the historical context of Durie Hill, both public and personal, but I had a creative desire to project an idea of hopefulness forward. The future will remain unknown; and it is as logical to take an optimistic stance as it is to take a pessimistic one, as both are ultimately speculative.

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Maas, J et al. (2006) Green Space, Urbanity, and Health: How Strong Is the Relation? Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 60.7 (2006): 587–592. PMC. Web. 18 Oct. 2015

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