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Wish-Landscapes and Garden Cities

M. Elen Deming, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, Fellow 2005–2006, Spring

From Garden City to New Urbanism, the history of the twentieth-century Anglo-American utopian project turns on the assumption that gardens are essential components of the ideal city. At first glance this seems an innocent, benevolent idea, almost as old as urban history itself. Yet, many agendas are hidden within the discourses surrounding the modern reform garden. In urban reform campaigns, garden images may often veil a critique of the modern industrial metropolis, especially the negative impact of the city on the psyche and the body of its citizens. Simultaneously ideological and social, spatial and sensual, the garden-as-critique is particularly vivid in the rise of the British Garden Cities movement, at the end of the nineteenth century. Rather than the Garden Cities per se, my work at Dumbarton Oaks has focused on the discursive history of the working-class garden. In particular, I am interested in the way images, ideals, and social functions of the domestic landscape entered the political and social discourse surrounding this urban reform movement—and then how these ideals have performed at multiple scales and metaphorical levels over time.

In the context of the history of Garden Cities, a close examination of promotional images, discursive patterns in primary texts, political alliances, and social engineering, offers a deeper understanding of how Anglo-American attitudes towards domestic landscape, labor, class, and the city have (and continue to be) constructed. By focusing on uses of the garden as a powerful spatial symbol and social mechanism in urban design and social reform campaigns, we see that the character of the domestic landscape has been fundamental to the creation of social connections—and spatial separations—that define modern cities and their suburbs. In particular, my project shows how modernist cultivation of popular landscape desires and expectations has set in motion a trajectory of attitudes toward landscape, urbanism, family eugenics and the working body that still shapes the socio-spatial politics of contemporary cities.

While at Dumbarton Oaks, therefore, my principal project has been to reframe a monograph based on my doctoral dissertation (Wish Landscapes and Garden Cities, Harvard 2001), and to expand the literature base for my manuscript. Working with Michel Conan, Director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, has given me deeper insight into the social logic and somatic dimensions of gardens in urban reform. Access to primary literature on housing reform, as well as rare French and Scandinavian titles, has aided in developing my new understanding of environmental and planning history. I have begun to recognize the impact of emotions on the patterns of the built environment, and to map the power of wishful thinking, guilt, fear, anxiety, abjection, and nostalgia on the shape of modern cities. This helps explain why, at the turn of the last century, small domestic gardens were so frequently invoked in support of apparently contradictory reform agendas mounted by conservatives, liberals, socialists, eugenicists, utopians, artists, architects, family planners, youth organizers, and other advocates of urban reform.