From Garden Cities to Industrial Canteens

Feeding the European New Towns between 1920 and 1960

Dr. Albena Shkodrova, Institute for Social Movements – Ruhr University of Bochum

As the twentieth century advanced through waves of food shortages, which were brought upon by World Wars and economic crises, European states increasingly focused on modernizing food production, trade and consumption. The concept of the welfare state was in the making. With it, minimal standards were settled upon to prevent hunger among populations.

Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire,  England, founded by Sir Ebenezer Howard in 1920, unique in being both a garden city and a new town. The Coronation Fountain, Creative Commons (

In the East and the West, European governments aligned with the idea of providing food security and promoting a healthy diet. But on the continent, divided by contrasting ideologies, the best path to achieve such a goal was far from agreed upon. The visions of modernizing foodways varied across borders and cultures. Evolving with time, they diverged and converged. From early 20th-century attempts to build garden cities, in which the best of rural and urban would come together, to large-scale plans to feed nations with industrial, state-subsidized food in professionally staffed canteens, they covered a universe of possibilities. What did they have in common, and where did they part?

Zoetermeer (, Photo: Caseman, 19 Feb 2005, Creative Commons

My research explores the ideas and practices of food procurement in New Towns, built after the Second World War in different parts of Europe. Planned according to a master plan and constructed almost on a tabula rasa, these urban projects synthesized the dominant ideologies and strategies of their time. They show how ideals of feeding urban populations developed and changed upon facing reality. They also reflect social hierarchies and modes of social mobility.

Havirov, Square – Náměstí Republiky, Czech Republic, Author Tedmek (

This ongoing research steps on case studies in the United Kingdom (Telford and Basildon), the Netherlands (Zoetermeer and Pendrecht), former Czechoslovakia (Havirov) and Bulgaria (Pernik and Dimitrovgrad). It is part of a broader investigation into social mobility in these towns in the 1950s and 1960s. It uses archival material, press from the period and biographical interviews to investigate and compare the evolution of influential ideologies, their impact on urban planning, and the interactions of the new towns’ residents with planner’ ideas. The overarching question is what these findings will tell us about the relations and opportunities for social advance.

Pernik, Central Post Office (, Author: Vassia Atanassova – Spiritia

The tension between rural and urban, which dominated much of the 20th century, is particularly strong in the history of the New Towns. Most of these towns rose on previously agricultural land, obliterating and engulfing rural communities. The preliminary comparison of how the entitled administrations dealt with these communities in the East and the West sometimes shows unexpected similarities, but also emphasizes the contrasts between liberal and oppressive political systems.

Communist regimes and liberal democracies approached differently the enduring binary opposition between rural and urban. The ideological goal of the first was to erase it – not by building status equality, but by urbanizing the village. Yet their economic and migration policies achieved the opposite. They solidified old hierarchies, which associated towns with progress and villages with backwardness. This caused contrasts in the social mobility of the rural and urban populations. Committed to radical modernization, urban planners banished animal husbandry from town areas and envisaged mainly decorative gardening. Yet the impotence of the communist economy soon let urban gardening back in, sometimes in the most paradoxical ways.

An article about a newly constructed residential building in Pernik (1956), a fast-growing mining and industrial town. Residents quickly turned the green space around these buildings into vegetable plots, chicken coops and pigsties, which prompted other residents to complain in the press.

In Western Europe, policies did not aim at urbanizing rural life, yet their fast-paced economies in the 1960s were closing the gap. They left space for urban gardening, but modernization, the increasing employment of all adults of any class, the well-developed services and the rising level of welfare – all kept urban food gardening marginal.

In general, it seems that urban food production and food procurance, the connection between the urban population and agriculture, were an immediate consequence of the state of modernization rather than political ideas. Economic conditions had more impact than ideological discourses, even when the latter was forced upon communities.

Archival statistics, showing the provision and usage of allotments in the new town of Basildon, United Kingdom (1961).

The research aims at adding a historical perspective to the contemporary understanding of urban gardening as a contribution to the urban eco-system, social well-being and inclusion and adds the little-considered connection of urban gardening to social mobility. It investigates the variating economic motivation for urban gardening, which has been a subject of discussion in cultural and anthropological food studies.

A Call to Collaborate from Albena Shkodrova to AIMA colleagues and friends

I am working on an investigation into how nation-states and geographical food regions interacted in the formation of regional cuisines. I will be researching several regions in the Balkans and one of my tasks is to map a baseline of what local cuisine looked like prior to nation-states. This is why I hope to find some old cookbooks, cookery manuscripts, some interview transcripts or regionally published secondary literature in the areas of interest. I am particularly interested in the regions in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia along the Danube, and also in Croatia and Montenegro, in the areas along the border between them. But also other areas, which are near past or present national borders can be of interest. I will be grateful to obtain any tips and information on this matter and thank you in advance for your time. My email is

Author: Dr. Albena Shkodrova, Researcher at MoSA – KU Leuven, Belgium