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City as a stage for reform: Britain and Germany 1890-1914

26-28 March 2009

Conveners: German Historical Institute, London; Centre for Urban History, Leicester; German Society for Urban History and Urban Research (GSU)

Venue: London, German Historical Institute

The centenary of the Housing and Town Planning Act in 2009 marks a significant event not only in the history of town planning but also beyond in the wider history of social policy and social reform. In a wider perspective, the period between c. 1890 and the First World War was characterised by a flourishing of urban reform movements, both on the individual (life reform) as well as the collective level. Faced by growing social and cultural criticism directed at the big city as the epitome of social and physical degeneration and environmental degradation municipal administrations came round to intervene in increasingly comprehensive ways in the lay-out and functioning of cities. Besides town planning a range of other intervening activities such as municipal services, housing policies, welfare reforms were discussed and partly implemented. After 1900 these debates increasingly were not just led on local or national levels, but became integrated into international debates and exchanges on social and urban reform, as they were conducted in a rapidly growing range of international conferences and organizations. In this international exchange Britain and Germany had particular significance: Britain as the first industrialised and urbanised nation with a long tradition of private welfare activities and an increasing readiness to embrace interventionist policies among progressive municipal administrations such as Birmingham and Glasgow; Germany as a rapidly industrialising country with a strong statist tradition where cities – in their property as ‘state’ on the local level – came to adopt interventionist policies already from the early 1880s. Town planning – although not under the name – thus already had a tradition of more than two decades in German cities when the British debate really commenced after 1900. In that period after 1900 we can observe a growing mutual fascination between British and German intellectuals and social reformers who believed in ‘progress’, in the possibility to substantially improve society and cities by reform despite the contemporaneous rise of imperialist rivalry. German housing reformers thus quickly adopted the Garden City idea and affluent middle-class citizens keen to follow new trends of life reform grew enthusiastic about the “English House”, after Hermann Muthesius had presented its aesthetic and social qualities to the German public. On the other hand British social reformers such as Thomas C. Horsfall discovered German town planning in its ‘ordering of public spaces’ as a remedy against British decline as shown by the catastrophic Boer War. Eventually this – enabled by the ‘New Liberalism’ government - provided the impetus for the parliamentary initiative leading to the Housing and Town Planning Act. After 1910 the exchange between British and German reformers had grown into a mass movement of mutual visits and inspection tours.

This conference aims to highlight and focus these debates over urban and social reform in both countries and their interrelations. It intends to reflect on the significance of the city as a stage for reform, far more than the nation state, in that period. It will inquire, how far there actually was an “international urban progressive movement” with comparable notions, concepts and projects.

Andreas Gestrich / Gisela Mettele / Dieter Schott

Conference programme (PDF file)