Literature and Planning: Ruskin, Morris, and Howard

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

In my application to essay to the Master’s Program in Community and Regional Planning, I wrote a little about the connections between literature and planning:

… it seems almost every important literary genre across the long nineteenth century can be understood as complementary pieces to the forerunners of the planning field…. [a] rich cross pollination among the arts also extended to public policy, commerce, transportation, and environmental concerns. It’s difficult to read Dickens or to see a German naturalist play without returning to the situations that have motivated the development of planning. I started to see that the dynamics I examined through the lens of intellectual and literary history exerted influence on, and were also deeply influenced by, the practical professions arising to meet the constantly changing needs to improve the quality of human settlements…

So my point here was that literature seemed to be telling stories meant to spark reform, and the late nineteenth century facing myriad social ills brought on by urbanization and industrialization was certainly defined by various schools and ideas for reform. Here, I’d like to develop another aspect of this idea by looking at some specific, direct literary influences on the 19th century foundations of urban planning in Great Britain. Ebenezer Howard’s work The Garden Cities of Tomorrow provides a fascinating case in point of how literature, philosophy, and art came to shape this important early reform-minded planning school, one that still inspires planning students and professionals today.

Howard diagram no. 5

A diagram, from Ebenezer Howard’s book on the Garden City, showing the relationship between the smaller garden cities and larger central city.

In Peter Hall’s Cities of Tomorrow, two quotations open the chapter “The City in the Garden,” one from William Morris and the other from John Ruskin (87). Both men were Oxford educated writers, artists, and, intellectuals whose thinking sometimes provoked controversy and often inspired young readers. Both were associated with the the Arts and Crafts Movement as well as the Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Dante Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, and as such with late Victorian aestheticism in general.


William Downey photograph of John Ruskin (1863)

Ruskin studied Classics, “The Greats,” at Oxford following Benjamin Jowett’s curricular reforms and would be part of the first of several generations to be inculcated with Victorian Hellenism. Jowett’s reforms made the study of Greek arts and letters central the education of young British gentlemen, but that didn’t mean a wholesale retreat from the modern world.


John Everett Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite portrait of John Ruskin (1853-1854)

Victorian Hellenism–as the term itself implies–represented a grand synthesis of Idealism and Materialism. After championing groundbreaking painters from J.M.W. Turner to the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin moved to writing about architecture with The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) which presented the core principles of the Gothic Revival movement; he developed these ideas in The Stones of Venice (1851-1853) placing the Gothic into conversation with Byzantine and Renaissance architecture. Although known more for his lectures and essays than his literary works, Ruskin’s ideas shaped a generation of thinkers committed to reform both aesthetic and social.


A J. M. W. Turner painting of Venice that graced the opening pages of Ruskin’s expanded architectural treatise.



As Ruskin was finishing the latter treatise, William Morris embarked on his study of “the Greats” at Oxford, also steeping himself in medieval art and culture as was the fashion. An admirer of Ruskin, Morris recognized the interconnected nature of art, poetry, architecture, and social harmony. Biographer Susan M. Allen asserts that “He believed that the house and the book as they had been in medieval times were central to human existence” (“William Morris” Dictionary of Literary Biography).

Photo of William Morris

Photograph of William Morris

The house and the book, the built environment and the story, architecture and literature, these would provide another potent dialectic for what was to become planning, a dialectic that echoes Victorian Hellenism’s synthesis of materialism and idealism.


William Morris designed the interiors for Red House designed for Morris by Philip Webb.


An active member of the Socialist League, Morris financed and ran the group’s journal, contributing artwork and writing.


Hall offers us a quotation from The Earthly Paradise, Morris’s epic poem about wanderers in search of paradise swapping Classical medieval tales. The garden, of course, stands as a powerful symbol of paradise across many many different cultures and religions. The garden performs the ideal made material, an image that resonated deeply with Ebenezer Howard.

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