Passing through the D.C. metro area yesterday, we decided to visit two classic planned communities in the Maryland suburbs. Both were planned and built from the ground up and both contain around 2,000 households. Otherwise, they could not be more different. One was entirely created by the federal government, the other by private developers. One was born in the depth of the Great Depression, the other during boom years of the American economy. One has a current average home sale price of around $160,000, the other $800,000. One is exclusively modernist in style, the other highly traditional both in planning and architecture.
Anyone who seeks to pigeonhole planning into one ideological camp or the other may want to take a look at these two very different models. While there are certainly arguments to be made either for or against each of these, it seems pretty clear to me that they fit into different economic niches and lifestyle preferences. The overall metro area is that much richer for having both of them.
|Central business area, built in rounded International Style.|
|One of many playgrounds tucked between apartments and townhomes|
Pedestrian underpasses are used to connect this central area with the trail systems weaving throughout the superblocks of surrounding residences. The planners were certainly intent on strictly separating cars from people. Although there is an obvious symmetry and geometric orderliness to the plan, the abundant use of green space and scattered trees still gives it an informal feel. True to the name, natural amenities were an integral part of the plan.
|The Community Center feels like an art deco college campus|
The nuclear family was the essential building block of the design, not to mention the overall experiment in New Deal social engineering. Almost all of the original residents were young families (this was clearly intentional, since only 900 of 5,000 applicants were admitted). Small playgrounds are located all over, but one gets the sense that the entire town is built as a comprehensive playground for children. The size of the homes was allotted according to family size; apartments for married couples with infants that could be traded up for townhouses as the family grew.
|Cars and pedestrians, never the twain shall meet|
According to historian Peter Hall, this globally unique experiment in federal planning collapsed under the weight of an ensuing public outcry against socialism. Sure enough, some of the inspirational engravings lining the community center do give off a downright Soviet vibe, even if they are depicting the U.S. Constitution. According to Hall:
"There is a slight irony in that it all happened in the United States, which is almost the last country anyone would expect it to happen. And there, it is hardly surprising that it failed."Although the initial experiment did undoubtedly fail and many of the design decisions were deliberately anti-urban, in many ways the contemporary Greenbelt community seems to have matured into a more complex, if less ideologically pure, expression of some of its original ideals.
|Building to the sidewalk encloses the street and caters to the pedestrian|
I recall one time hearing Andres Duany, whose architecture firm was behind Kentlands, explain that a neighborhoods need to stew in its juices for a while like a good soup before it reaches its fullest design expression.
|A colonial style is clearly evident throughout the neighborhood|
I'm aware of criticisms lodged against places like Kentlands. In fact, being immersed in academia for the time being, I'm very aware of these criticisms. Kentlands was built on a greenfield on the fringes of a metropolitan area with little access to transit. Although the variety of housing options is quite diverse - this is something the neighborhood does well - moderate to lower-income households are still mostly priced out. Marxist geographer David Harvey may have been a little hyperbolic when he declared that it,
"builds an image of community and a rhetoric of place-based civic pride and consciousness for those who do not need it, while abandoning those that do to their 'underclass' fate"
|A vertical mix of uses is challenging to pull off|
It's also not hard for me to imagine some of the more trenchant criticisms dissipating in time. The Gaithersburg metro station to Washington D.C. is only a 4 mile bus ride away. A little tweak in the price points of automobile travel may facilitate a more transit-oriented adaptation in the future. And housing stock typically becomes more affordable in time, which may take the edge off of claims to exclusivity. In a fast-changing world it can be tough to remember that well-built places will last for a century or more. They can only truly be judged in view of the entirety of their lifespans.