Article: A Need for More Room. Notes on Colin Ward’s Ungovernable Urbanism

by Alessio Kolioulis

12th May 2020


[This article first appeared in March 2020 as ‘Un besoin d’espace. Notes sur l’urbanité ingouvernable de Colin Ward’ as a new postface to the French Edition of Colin Ward’s The Child in The City, L’enfant dans la ville (translated by Léa Nicolas-Teboul), published by Etrerotopia France. You can read an interview on Freedom News between Alessio Kolioulis and Jim Donaghey about the new publication, Ward’s influences, his own subsequent scholarly and professional impact, and Ward’s reception beyond the UK.]


The Child in the City [CiC] is a book about education and planning, two of Colin Ward’s lifelong interests. As examined in the book, these two fields of politics indicate the range of terrains where planners and teachers should rethink the relationship between children, young people and the society in which they grow.

In particular, the book has the merit of exploring the social and spatial constellation between a child’s home and the school. The street, a bridge between the bedroom and the classroom, is an extension of both places, especially for children with little privacy or no garden at home, and for those adapting to overcrowded classrooms. Obviously, Ward was uninterested in issues related to overpopulation, a discourse that has gained some attention in the current climate crisis. For him, the need for adequate houses and schools was a reflection of the quality of educational systems at a time of rapid urbanisation. These aspects remain critical, and some of the challenges that educators and planners face today are the same as those identified in CiC.

The Child in the City, published in 1978, appeared after Housing: An Anarchist Approach (1976)[1] and before Arcadia for All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape (1984).[2] As a planner with a background in architecture and as a researcher investigating British cities in the post-war period, Ward is profoundly inspired by the action-research of the Garden City Movement founded by Ebenezer Howard, the same movement that gave birth to the Town and Planning Association, where he worked at the time of writing CiC.[3]

Being an unorthodox anarchist operating in institutional settings enabled Ward to become a vocal public figure. He collaborated with national and multinational organisations such as The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These collaborations suggest a strategical belief in the institutionalisation of anarchism and its ideas. Ward was an advocate of the expansion of community and cooperative practices in the planning process. By trying to find a bridge between these spaces, Ward’s intervention in the development discourse of the late decolonial process of the 1970s was aimed at shifting institutional practices in a positive, but more-often-than-not difficult, dialogue with policy makers, prompting change through political education. The question of the role of education permeates Ward’s politics, and, in turn, its urban dimension.

Ward, who had expansive interests encompassing education, planning, architecture and politics, was often invited to give lectures, predominantly in anglophone countries, and he regularly attended conferences and events organised by progressive education groups. A fundamental collection that demonstrates Ward’s passion for renewed political education is the valuable Talking Schools.[4] Published by Freedom Press, the notable publisher for which Ward worked as editor of Anarchy, and which continues to operate in East London, the book collects ten lectures addressing teachers and educators, and is a noteworthy resource for those wanting to dig deeper into the issues raised in CiC.

In one of these lessons, Ward stressed that while writing CiC he was not interested in childhood, but in the politics of “land-use conflict”.[5] With this expression, Ward refers to the wide array of contested spaces that compose the city. The child can be at conflict with a city that systematically rejects the dreams and imaginations of those growing up in them.

On this point – the conflicts of and for urban space – Ward’s thinking was significantly influenced by Paul Goodman, another anarchist, and Goodman’s masterwork Growing Up Absurd directly and positively influenced CiC. Goodman was a New York-based writer, journalist and psychotherapist as well as a ferocious critic of the organised moral corruption at the heart of the “will to govern”. With his brother Percival, an architect, he wrote the seminal book Communitas, which, thanks to the supportive promotion of Lewis Mumford, was republished in 1960 with a chapter promoting a ban on cars. The focus on the development of infrastructures, argued the Goodmans, was accelerating the conurbation of city and country at the expense of the urban poor.[6] Instead of integrating the country, the city was pushing its margins ever further away.

Ashamed of the condition of towns and cities that North American society was leaving to its future generations, Paul Goodman argued that children can become conscious adults only if they learn how to shape their environments. In psychological terms, according to Goodman, children need “adequate objects” to experience the city.[7] Yet, cities in the US were being expanded and redeveloped under the systematic marginalisation of groups, which purposefully created chaotic and derisory living conditions. Such conditions were threatening the psychic organisation of the child.

Meanwhile, state-led interventions actively advanced the ethnic and class segregation of American cities, increasing what officials called delinquency. Anarchists like Goodman interpreted these official policies as an extension of the economy that created jobs for state apparatuses. Under a racist economic regime, excluding and controlling people was profitable. Thus, following Lewis Mumford’s 20-year long critique of New York’s City Planning Commission and its modern masterplans, in Growing Up Absurd Goodman denounced the farcical relocations of low-income families into inadequate blocks that characterised the regeneration projects of the first half of the twentieth century in New York. How can a teenager live in a small flat, day and night, where a family share one bedroom? Juvenile delinquency, argued Goodman, was manufactured by urban planners.

In addition to the early signs of an incoming planetary gentrification, worthwhile relational activities and manual work were demonised even by unions. When unions ceased to protest the loss of manual jobs in the name of fighting alienation, Goodman concluded, people not only accepted these new conditions, but forgot Marxism altogether.[8] This dual transformation – of cities and of jobs – produced a society in which young people struggled to be recognised. The lack of trust in them made children feel worthless and not listened to. But for children to grow into adults, they need to be taken seriously. This is among the key lessons of anarchist education, a message that is present throughout Goodman’s and Ward’s books.

While the Left was retreating from its usual terrains, Goodman and Ward witnessed the profound changes of working-class neighbourhoods in and beyond New York and London. Both anarchists studied the new class structure of the urban poor, quickly realising the need to look beyond the low schooling rates of migrant communities. With their background in planning, they moved their attention towards the impact of housing conditions on social outcomes. In addition, a process of de-industrialisation put pressures on richer and now adult migrants ready to enter better paid jobs, only to discover that these jobs were disappearing. As a consequence, for racialised communities such as Hispanic and African Americans in New York and Asian and Caribbean people in London, education was failing them.

Overcrowded schools maintained by underpaid teachers turned into waiting rooms or, worse, prisons. As Ward argues in CiC, working class families needed a form of education that was practical and that responded to immediate local needs. These were among the reasons why Ward advocated for curricula to be de-nationalised. Thus, at the end of the Fordist era, solutions had to be fought for and found at the grassroots level and outside the expertise of decision-making institutions.

In the preface to the American edition of his friend John Turner’s breakthrough book Housing by People, Ward summarises in a few beautiful lines the problem with experts.

The moment that housing, a universal human activity, becomes defined as a problem, a housing problems industry is born, with an army of experts, bureaucrats and researchers, whose existence is a guarantee that the problem won’t go away.[9]

Turner was among the first planners to celebrate the achievements of informal urbanism against the violence of slum upgrading and regeneration plans.

Once again, Ward’s mission is to educate planners and architects about the pragmatic solutions that people around the world were applying to growing cities and settlements. Ward’s books such as The Allotment: its landscape and culture[10] and Goodnight campers! The history of the British holiday camp[11] are testament to a strenuous research to document and map the possibility of autonomy within the city.

But there cannot be autonomy without progressive education. It is therefore important to look more closely at Ward’s anarchist approach to education. As Ward wrote, “the anarchist approach has been more influential in the field of education than in other fields of life”.[12] Progressive education was the major interest of the anarchist movement of the 1960s, as education was seen as a tool to expand people’s political participation. As Ward put it, “education should mean joy”, but, as the expression suggests, education too often fails children and young people by depressing their creativity and their desire to play. A question that accompanied Ward’s life was how to build a society in which each generation can live for itself, without the Moloch of the future.

Ward was deeply interested in the history of anarchist education and focused especially on the 19th century English and American contexts. In opposition to the conceptual framework offered by the revolutionary French rationalists, in which education was a priority and a task of a well-functioning state, Ward reflected on the imposition of a national education system that led to the suppression of working-class forms of education in 1860s Britain. With no bounds to the church or to the state, such schools were seen by families as close to the needs of their communities. They did not have registers and were flexible with punctuality. Furthermore, community education taught practical things rather than moral orders!

While Ward is interested in alternative education, such as Steiner’s anthroposophy and the Ferrer schools, there are two major influences that must be mentioned to sketch a fair portrayal of his educational philosophy: William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. For decades Godwin and Wollstonecraft were primarily known as the parents of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. However, in an intellectual struggle to give voice to forgotten radicals, Ward had put some effort into the renovation of Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s ideas against a national education. Against Rousseau, the early anarchist approach Ward is interested in lies in the separation of society and state. Following Godwin’s effort to think of a non-governmental society, for Ward education should remain outside the remit of the state, as governments injure children with ideas of permanence and obedience. National curricula are too narrowly aligned with national governments.[13]

Finally, I would like to conclude with a more technical and critical note that may suggest some interesting trajectories, as well as gaps, in Ward’s philosophy. In the very short preface to the second edition of CiC published by Bedford Square Press in 1990, Colin Ward writes, almost with a tone of excuse, about the decision not to republish the photos by Ann Golzen included in the beautiful first edition of 1978.[14] There are three reasons for this choice. The first reason is economical, and concerns a greater accessibility and wider distribution of the book. The second reason is that the discussion with social workers and teachers that the book sparked in the twelve years following the first edition gave rise to a collective reflection on the possible consequences that images have on children. In retrospect, the collection seemed to be more “an overview of deprivation than a celebration of urban childhood”.[15] A third consideration addresses young adults, who no longer recognised themselves in the images contained in the book: fashions are transient and must be respected. A decade is enough to transform traits, looks and figures.

The notes on why this choice was made are worth some reflections that may be useful for grasping some of the characteristics of Ward’s thought, especially in relation to the absence, it would seem intentional, of a systematic review, or at least a chapter, dedicated to the theme of childhood and new technologies. If, in fact, CiC is structured around classic themes of the vast literature that deals with children, the technological question remains in the background and is never explicit. For instance, there is no criticism of mass media and their role in the reproduction of capitalist social relations. Nor is there any theoretical elaboration on the link between technological development and urbanisation.

A possible explanation of this important absence can be found in CiC’s rooted engagement with the anglophone scholarly tradition of anthropology. To a careful reader, CiC appears solidly anchored between the traditions of American cultural anthropology and British social anthropology. It is no coincidence that the introduction of CiC opens with the American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous expression “The child does not exist. There are only children”. Like Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, CiC attempts a cultural study on childhood that remains, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, within the boundaries, and limits, of British structural functionalism.

To understand this tradition in the urban terms of CiC, the capitalist structures of city development are what shape future adults. Children can find their autonomy in the built environment, but it is ultimately the interests of speculators that confine the potential of urbanism and education. CiC has underlying elements of a more radical humanistic approach in line with anarchist self-determination, for instance in the people’s histories that complement the book (this approach was already fully developed in the earlier Anarchy in Action). However, perhaps because of the more professional audience that CiC targets, the book offers a flight from capitalism only in the form of a subtraction from urban structural functionalism. Many of these books – especially the ones published by Freedom Press – are stylistically and methodologically different. It is important however to highlight the limits of CiC’s abundant literature.

Ward does not explore, more consciously than not, the concepts and theories that were emerging on the other side of the English Channel. If French post-structuralism offered the tools to understand the links between governmentality, security and control, Ward ignored the political issues of the production of subjectivities, lingering on a safer anthropological toolbox, in which men and women can build autonomy but relative to the social functions of a city.

More worryingly, CiC does not provide an acceptable gender analysis, something that today would simply be intolerable. CiC overlooks gender issues and therefore misses the role of social reproduction for the production of the city. The capitalist city cannot function without cleaners, carers and women forced to stay at home. By doing so, Ward adopted a depoliticised perspective on technologies and gender, especially in its relation to the politics of bodies, maintaining a view that sees technics as an intermediate variable that can be controlled. In other words, for British social anthropology technology is an implicit function of society.

In return, the missing engagement with continental philosophy in Ward’s work may suggest that the political conditions of 1970s Britain determined a more pronounced closure, compared to American universities, to theories and events coming from Continental Europe. Foucault, for instance, arrived in the UK via the US. Secondly, Britain’s 1968 took place only in the 1980s, as a response to Thatcherism. This distance is a somewhat missed opportunity, considering that a comparison of Foucault and Ward could give new life to a politics of ungovernability, at a time when the solution to the current crisis is more, and not less, governmentality.

A second absence is the missed confrontation with Henri Lefebvre (and the opposite is true, signalling a less connected era between politically engaged intellectuals). While CiC accommodates the innovative findings of the American planner Kevin Lynch, who claimed that people create functional mental maps of their surroundings, Ward prefers to stay away from the study of capitalism. Capital and economic determinism are either marginally discussed in CiC or remain in the background of the study. Ward ultimately opts for a sensitivity closer to people’s histories of cities and spaces, rather than on the capitalist production of space. To put it more simply, Ward’s focus is on political culture over economics. Under this light, it is perhaps clearer why his persistent emphasis was on education.

If, for some readers, this gap is a sign of a rational departure from the differences in approach that characterised the British Marxist debate of that period – divided schematically between the continental structuralist philosophy of Louis Althusser of which Perry Anderson was partly promoter, and the Historical approach of the communist intellectual Edward Palmer Thompson – it is perhaps, on the contrary, in this distance from Marxism and the Communism of Soviet Russia that the singularity of Ward’s urban philosophy can be found.

CiC is very rich in data, ethnographic work and statistics, which Ward masters to produce a general reflection on the crisis of urban education. The regionalist and ecologist vision adopted by Ward while employed at the Town and Planning Association offers a renewal of Peter Kropotkin’s anarchism by placing libertarian ideas in the loopholes of anglophone anthropology. Away from the bureaucracy of political parties and planning offices, Ward believed in the potential role of education to design more socially just cities.

Occasionally, it is hard to understand whether for Ward education can be an objective in itself or a means to build autonomy. It should probably be both, as autonomy is a continuous process of emancipation that relies on its expressive and spatial expansion to be successful for all. The “object-oriented” urbanism presented in CiC, an urban anthropology focused on the impact of the built environment on people’s lives, anticipated the advent of Latourian philosophies, but with an exception and a difference. It is children, future adults of a society, and not social technologies, who remain at the centre of Ward’s city.

To conclude, as discussed in this postface, it would be a mistake to search in Ward for a philosophy of the “place” of humanity in the “world”. Ward was attracted to the social self-determination of groups and people, to the autonomy and education of children, not of the child. Ward maintained an original interest in the social exploration of persons and their processual spatial expression. He documented and opposed the attack of speculators on the autonomous territories that compose a city. By talking to teachers, he understood the importance of learning the journey from and to homes, in order to appreciate the problems of families. For Ward, as the pioneer of popular urbanism Patrick Geddes once put it, a good city is one that welcomes the ungovernable need of a family for “more room”.

[1] Colin Ward. (1976). Housing: An anarchist approach. London: Freedom Press.

[2] Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward. (1984). Arcadia for all: The legacy of a makeshift landscape. London: Mansell. The 1982 book Anarchy in action was originally published in 1973.

[3] Somewhat interestingly, Colin Ward quit London after the publication of CiC and moved to the countryside in 1979.

[4] Colin Ward. (1995). Talking school: Ten lectures by Colin Ward. London: Freedom Press.

[5] Ibid. pp. 120-21.

[6] Conurbation is a term coined by architect Patrick Geddes, another key influence for Ward. Cf. Colin Ward. (1991). Influences: Voices of creative dissent. Bideford: Green Books, p. 106.

[7] Paul Goodman. (2011) [1960]. Growing Up Absurd. New York: New York Review Books Classics, p. 20.

[8] Ibid. p. 42.

[9] Colin Ward’s “Introduction” to John F.C. Turner. (1977). Housing by people: Towards autonomy in building environments. New York: Pantheon Books, p. xxxi.

[10] Colin Ward and David Crouch. (1988). The allotment: Its landscape and culture. London: Faber.

[11] Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy. (1986). Goodnight campers! The history of the British holiday camp. London: Mansell.

[12] Colin Ward. (2004). Anarchism: A very short introduction. Oxford: University Press, p. 61.

[13] Colin Ward. (1991). Influences: Voices of creative dissent. Bideford: Green Books, pp. 13-48.

[14] Colin Ward “Preface to New Edition” (1990). The Child in the City. New Edition. London: Bedford Square Press.

[15] Ibid.