Chapter3-nar

Chapter 3

New Deal Regional Planning and Greenbelt Towns

The Regional Planning Association of America was composed of a diverse group of professionals who met informally for a period of only 10 years (1923-1933) and yet created some of the most significant housing and community prototypes in America. The group proposed the development of pedestrian-scaled Garden Cities, surrounded by greenbelts and arranged in networks. These autonomous communities were intended to replace the big city and the metropolitan organization of the region, sited instead within a regionally managed landscape that might be as large as a state or an interstate mountain range. The planners called for a redistribution of development and a massive reappraisal of land as resource. They were practical problem-solvers as well, with ingenious solutions to housing, traffic and landscape. Neighborhoods would be organized around superblocks large enough to contain an interior green and penetrated at the edge by houses on cul de sacs. Pedestrian paths, made continuous with road underpasses, would crisscross the green and become the chief network of the circulation, while also separating children from the dangers of automobile traffic. All these structures would together make a neighborhood unit, limited in size by comfortable walking distance and organized around a school. Several neighborhood units would make up a town with public spaces, institutions and cooperative systems for housework, shopping and child care. Radburn, New Jersey, was the first real prototype of these ideas.

During the New Deal period of public works projects and demonstration towns, the federal government adopted some of the regionalist plans for the Greentowns Program -- a series of greenbelt communities to be built around major American cities. Two members of the president's "brain trust" were also sympathetic to the ideas of the RPAA: Stuart Chase and Rexford Guy Tugwell. Under Tugwell's administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Subsistence Homestead Division of the Department of the Interior merged into the Resettlement Administration and pursued a number of approaches to the small community including agricultural and industrial demonstration towns. Tugwell had many detractors in the conservative congress who regarded his so called "Tugwell Towns" as socialist and un-American, but his access to the president assured passage and funding for the Greentown program. Funds were allotted by the Relief Act of 1935, further compromising the projects since they were now earmarked to be emergency employment tools. Several possible town sites were quickly chosen, and work began

immediately and proceeded swiftly to produce employment. The history of this experiment in town planning marks a turning point in political sentiments during the New Deal period that was to have ramifications in all the various New Deal agencies and programs.

The most prominent professional planners of the day were enlisted in the Greentowns project. The Mclean Mansion in Washington became the headquarters for their collaborative work. Among those planners convening at the Mclean Mansion were Henry Wright, Albert Mayer, Justin Hartzog, Roland Wank, Jacob Crane, Elbert Peets, Tracy Augur, Catherine Bauer, Russell Black, Earle S. Draper, J. Andre Fouilhoux and Clarence Stein. Of the 25 potential sites, 4 were finally chosen for development and assigned chief planners. Two of the four were planned for the east coast. Greenbelt near Washington, Greenbrook near New Brunswick, Greenhills near Cincinnati and Greendale near Milwaukee.

In 1935, New Jersey citizens in Franklin Township, the site of the Greenbrook project filed injunctions against the RA and against Tugwell himself which eventually resulted in a 1936 decision ruling that the Emergency Relief act was unconstitutional.[Conkin 173-174] Technically, the government could not serve as a landlord who paid no local revenue taxes, but this point of law served other aesthetic political and social prejudice in New Jersey as well as serving the agenda of New Jersey's congressmen in Washington.

The other Greentown projects continued, perhaps fueled by the intelligence of the many

illustrious architects involved. The planning philosophy was largely consistent throughout all three projects. The towns followed Howard's prescription in terms of size providing Garden Cities with greenbelts. Each project acquired several thousand acres of land and set aside land for parks and a 1/2 mile greenbelt. The central development for each project stayed within about 100 acres or less. These Greenbelt Towns did not however contain a real regional component. They were satellites of larger cities. Still they internally demonstrated the town planning principles of the RPAA: the Neighborhood Unit, the superblock, the separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Pedestrian

underpasses facilitated the separation of pedestrian and automobile traffic. The towns had large legible commercial centers, with cooperative shopping and theaters. Group housing , the predominant form, was a cross between the row house and the apartment, differing from the row house in that apartments could overlap sectionally. It was usually two to five stories high, with shared entryways but no long corridors.

The group housing for Greenbelt seemed to refer to European International Style housing projects. Many were built of painted brick with details faintly expressive of early 20th century modernism: of spatial overlap and extension, efficiency and biological determinism. Public buildings like the shopping center at Greenbelt and the schools in both Greenbelt and Greenhills were gleaming white structures similar to many WPA projects of the period in that they hybridized sturdy American proportions with heroic imagery of the worker. Greendale on the other hand was among the only federally subsidized demonstrations towns to use detached housing. Rejecting European affectations, its planner, Elbert Peets referred instead to early American precedent for cul de sac and streets, hybridizing these with RPAA arrangements. Small set backs returned volume to the residential street and the detached house worked in concert with a small garage structure to create front, back and side yard volumes.

Just months after the court decision which crippled the Green Towns President Roosevelt, speaking of Greenbelt Maryland was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "It was an

experiment that out to be copied by every community in the United States." [1] But the Greentowns seemed destined for bad press and socialist labels. Residents were targeted by the press as being docile citizens of a regimented or communistic community. In Greenbelt, after the war, many civil service employees actually lost their jobs.[2] And though the government did embrace this idea for a time, in the face of cost overruns and a conservative Congress that regarded the projects as "pink," the Greentowns were never supported as a model for postwar suburbia. The subsistence homesteads were gradually transferred to individual homestead associations. Government property in the Greentowns was also liquidated and sold to citizen groups. By 1943 these communities were "forced back into the traditional patterns of complete individual ownership, private enterprise, and local control." [3]


[1] New York Times, 14 November 1936.

[2] Mary Lou Williamson, ed., Greenbelt: History of a New Town, 1937-87 (Norfolk, Va.: The Conning

Company, 1987), 148.

[3] Paul Conkin, Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program. (Ithaca: Cornell University

Press), 1959, 330-331.