The principal historic significance of the town lies in its planning. It is an example of the physical, social and cultural ideals of the periods in which it was conceived (it has the unique distinction of being both a garden city and a new town). In planning terms its significance is global, attracting visitors from around the world.
Howard (nicknamed by close friend George Bernard Shaw as Ebenezer the Garden City Geyser, in recognition of his continual 'spouting forth' on the advantages of Garden City living) had called for the creation of new towns - of limited size, planned in advance and surrounded by a permanent belt of agricultural land - as a role model for lower-density urban development. Howard believed that such Garden Cities were the perfect blend of city and nature. The town has its own exclusive environmental protection legislation - The Scheme of Management for Welwyn Garden City.
The town centre is dominated by the central mall or 'scenic parkway', almost a mile long, named 'Parkway'. Prior to the erection of a police radio mast, the Parkway vista to the south viewed from the White Bridge had been described as one of the world's finest urban vistas.
One of the lesser-known ideas of the city's architects was that all the town's citizens would shop in the same store. Thus the Welwyn department store was established as a central landmark on the 'Campus' (a centrally-located green semi-circular area in the town). Commercial pressures have since ensured much more competition and variety, and the Welwyn Store is now part of the John Lewis Partnership group of stores (the original Welwyn Store was on the site of the current Rosanne House office building).
Until a mistake in 2005, there were no street names with the word "street" in the town. Ebenezer Howard is said to have planted an apple tree in the garden of every original house.
In 1948 The Times newspaper said: "Welwyn Garden City made The New Towns Act possible". Cambridge professor of architecture Andrew Saint said: "Welwyn Garden City is one of modern Europe's greatest success stories in town-making". The problems of metropolitan and regional development and urban sprawl, and the need for harmony and ecology are prompting a current resurgence of interest in the 'Garden City ethos' and the kinds of neighbourhoods and communities Howard advocated. In November 2006, a Japanese building company, NSCP, visited the town, were given a guided tour by the WGC society, and were so impressed that they decided to name a new 144-house development near Tokyo "Welwyn Garden Village".
Tesco has a substantial head office site in the north of the town (the company's main headquarters are in Cheshunt), and a full-size supermarket mock-up used for staff training. Recent local news indicates that Tesco has bought the Shredded Wheat site to build a currently unknown development. They have however confirmed that no new super stores will be built on the site.
In 1929 Sir Henry Birkin built the first supercharged "Blower Bentley" at his engineering works in Broadwater Road, Welwyn Garden City. His famous record breaking red single seater Blower Bentley was also built and maintained at the works and took the Brooklands lap record to 137.96 mph in 1932 with Birkin at the wheel. The record stood for another two years before being beaten by John Cobb in his Napier Railton.
Welwyn Garden City retains a strong commercial base bringing much employment to the area with companies including: Argos Direct, Baxter, British Lead Mills, Carl Zeiss, Danish Bacon (DBC foodservice), Roche, IBM, PayPoint, Ratcliff Tail Lifts (now Ratcliff Palfinger), Schering-Plough, Threshers Group, Vega Group, Welwyn Tool Group (former Welwyn Tool Company), Xerox and many more.
The police headquarters for Hertfordshire Constabulary is located on the southern side of the town. The Constabulary's new 45m-high radio mast in the centre of the Parkway vista, erected contrary to Government and English Heritage guidelines, has been heavily criticized by heritage groups.
References to Welwyn Garden City occur in popular culture, typically in a humorous context on account of its long and peculiar sounding name, or as an example of a typical suburban commuter town. Examples include Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, as well as a sketch in Alas Smith and Jones. It is also mentioned in the shows Porridge, as the place where the prison psychiatrist worked previously to Slade Prison, and Strange, where Canon Black refers to a seedy nightclub as making "Sodom and Gomorrah look like Welwyn Garden City". The town name appears also in the lyrics of a song Billy's Line by the English band Red Box.
Singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins released a tribute to the town as a B-side to his UK Top 40 single, The Magic Piper Of Love.