Monday, January 4

Two (very different) planned towns in Maryland

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.

Greenbelt, Maryland

Central business area, built in rounded International Style.
Our first stop was in Greenbelt, Maryland, the largest of the three garden-city inspired towns built during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Agricultural economist Rexford Guy Tugwell convinced the president that settling a displaced rural population into new towns outside of major cities was more preferable to a back-to-the-land approach, and the U.S. Resettlement Administration was created for him. While Tugwell originally conceived of 3,000 distinct mostly self-sufficient communities around the country, congressional wrangling, legal battles, and a ticking clock whittled this down to just three. Greenbelt, with the help of avid personal support from Eleanor Roosevelt, was the most complete.

One of many playgrounds tucked between apartments and townhomes
The town is designed in a crescent shape around a central community and business area, which is within walking distance of all dwellings. Many of the businesses are still functioning as community co-ops, although the federal government has long since left the picture. On the cold Saturday we visited, the New Deal Cafe and the Co-op grocery store seemed to be doing brisk business. The Community Center, originally the town school, contains a whole floor of artist studios, gathering places for seniors, an adjacent library, a gymnasium, and a small museum. We got the impression that this still serves as the communal heart of the town.

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
Although much of the green belt that originally surrounded the town has been sliced up with major highways or sold off for development, the amount of unprogrammed green space is still unusually high for the area.

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
Today, the community gives every impression of being incredibly multi-generational. The same goes for racial diversity. Blacks were, sadly, excluded from the first government settlement, but now comprise around 40% of the population. Given the affordable housing options, there is also a reasonably broad range of income levels in the town. Large signs now welcome visitors into the "inclusive community" of Greenbelt.

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.

Kentlands, Maryland

Building to the sidewalk encloses the street and caters to the pedestrian
The Kentlands neighborhood is well known among planners and architects as the first true example of New Urbanism in the United States. The entire development follows a colonial style of architecture, reminiscent of Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria, although that, in and of itself, is hardly unusual for contemporary residential development. What set Kentlands apart from the other subdivisions surrounding it is the incorporation of traditional town elements such as a connected street grid, narrow streets, minimal setback and yard sizes, ample sidewalks, a mix of uses (at least in some cases), and scale to encourage walking. Anyone who's read more than two posts on this blog should be pretty familiar with these concepts.

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
Well, Kentlands has had over 20 years to grow into itself and the maturation shows. Even in the winter, well-placed trees create a perfect natural accent to the fairly dense residential areas. Residents over time start to settle in and lend a place their own character while still staying within the initially conceived order. We were surprised to stumble upon both a Jewish Synagogue and a Mormon church tucked between the homes.

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
When you consider the context, it seems forgivable to me that the physical form of one development is unable to achieve large-scale social upheaval or the unraveling of regional agglomeration economies. The commercial center of Kentlands actually folds into a conventional regional shopping plaza with giant parking lots lurking behind, which speaks to the current economic realities that still needed to be considered to make it viable in the marketplace. The proper comparison to Kentlands is what would have been there otherwise, not a theoretical utopia or even New Urbanist ideals themselves. Any real world positive and lasting change has to be incremental.

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.


Eric Orozco said...

It took me a while to warm-up to the new urbanism after college, precisely because of David Harvey's critique. But New Urbanism is proving to me that it is more subversively effective than its detractors in quietly promoting urbanism, as Ellen Dunham-Jones points out.

CNU however needs to thank the movement towards sustainability in high-design quarters. The confluence of these two movements created a real vanguard that has, among other things, created LEED-ND and is slowly but surely rewriting our national transportation standards.

The more libertarian of us will continue to remain suspicious of communitarian rhetoric, but I think we can be brought on board if the moralistic tone of CNU is tempered and is just understood for the pragmatism it actually represents. I think the alternative for us is to employ OMA-style urbanism, but few of us tend to really enjoy the festively creative approach of Dutch urbanism. It is too free and subversive even for libertarians. Everybody has an ideology and partly that ideology has to battle with others to survive.

Daniel Nairn said...

Eric, thanks for pointing me to Ellen Dunham-Jones. I just read a very insightful article that you must have been alluding to. Key quote:

"The leading New Urbanists use style very strategically, both to connect to popular, climate-appropriate, regional building traditions and to mask the more radical (and unpopular) aspects of their projects: mixed uses,
mixed incomes, compact lots and transit. In what could be seen as subversive marketing, New Urbanist projects tend to use pleasing, traditional, familiar, unthreatening imagery, precisely to build market acceptance of these progressive, public
goals. Is this nostalgia or is it just a pragmatic way of overcoming suburban resistance to a more sustainable form of development?"

This is spot on, in my opinion. I had a conversation with a friend about this a while ago. Given all of the ways in which a project like Kentlands adds risk by breaking with the status quo, I see no real reason to insist on adding flat roofs to the mix. Maybe in Sweden, or maybe in 20 years. There are certain things where pragmatism may amount to unacceptable compromise, but I don't think style is one of them. I also happen to not see nostalgia has a bad thing, in and of itself.

Jarrett said...

Excellent post. Kentlands also plays a supporting role in the drama over a Maryland transit corridor project that I discussed here:

Like its sibling Laguna West near Sacramento, Kentlands is in a very bad place for efficient public transit. Moral: Most of the transit outcomes of your development are determined by the selection of the site.

Eric Orozco said...

Jarrett, I haven't been to Kentlands, but I think the question that I have is whether Kentlands by its proximity to retail and multi-modal friendliness and so on is cutting down on vehicular use. I find that being located inconveniently from a transit hub not as great as a detractor for light rail use as might otherwise might be assumed.

More than transit, I think the critical element New Urbanist sprawl needs to integrate better is the retail element. There is a kind of fetish among New Urbanist's to put small and self-contained retail in TND's, which does little to actually serve the locals (and surrounding communities) for their everyday needs. I can't tell you how exasperating it is for me to come across so many empty TND town centers. Some of these are even a bit creepy... At least it is good for Kentlands to have the big boxes nearby.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your in sites on these communities. I have visited Kentlands but I have lived in Greenbelt for 10 years. I'd like to take issue with your use of the word failure. While it may be that the program was unable to grow beyond the 3 towns, I think that the goal to develop a new type of town has been successful both in terms of the unique way of life we still enjoy in Greenbelt but also in the number of architects that have come to study Greenbelt. Planned communities like Reston and Columbia have studied us as well as much of the New Urbanism school.
Living here in this experiment I continue to be astounded that the cooperative spirit the original recruiters sought in 'pioneers', lives on in the institutions and people who choose to make it home today. The social engineering went beyond just the architecture and so it's original values have endured.
Life in a cooperative, walkable, community with so many amenities surrounded by a green space feels very friendly to me.

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks, Dezine Diva, for your first-hand input. Even from the brief time I spent visiting, I could tell that there is a strong community in Greenbelt. Using the work "fail," I was only referring to the idea of the federal government directly intervening by creating and owning the town.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Old Greenbelt (as the original part of the city is referred to by its residents), lived in several other places both near and far (including London), and then moved back after I got married and had kids. I can tell you that the better single-family homes on Lakeside Drive are still being snapped up within days of being put on the market, though the cheap, government-built townhomes are not moving as well.

In terms of whether the experiment was a failure or not, there are several ways of looking at that. Whichever conclusion you may come to, one has to keep in mind that Greenbelt started out with some overwhelming advantages. For one, there was far more open land closer to the central hub of Washington, DC, than there is now. For another, even though there was certainly a budget that had to be adhered to, the US Government in effect had virtually unlimited resources AND political and legal power with which to bring the project to fruition. If they felt that vast swaths of open space and undeveloped woodland would be beneficial to the residents, poof, they had them.

Commercial developers don't have nearly the same resources or power, and after dealing with local political entities and chasing the great god Profit, they can't afford the luxury of providing green space, unless legally mandated.

Greenbelt was an absolutely marvelous place to grow up, but there is a chance that it coddled its sons and daughters a bit too well. Several natives who grew up in the city and opened local businesses have expressed to me the thought that they might have been able to do far better elsewhere, but the comfort of Greenbelt lulled them into a sense of safety. When numerous native children of the Baby Boom generation moved back into Greenbelt with their kids during the housing bubble, one real estate agent summed it up thusly-- "I'm familiar with the syndrome-- they grew up in Old Greenbelt, they want to die in Old Greenbelt."

To the non-native spouses of those native-born sons and daughters, the similarity of Old Greenbelt to the fictional Mayberry of Andy Griffith fame is a running joke. It takes at least a half-an-hour to walk the few yards across the little Roosevelt Center (the original shopping area pictured above), because one stops every few feet to have a conversation.

One observation I have about Kentlands. I went there one day when I was lost. After driving around the place for a couple of minutes, something hit me about the proportions of the sidewalks, the layout of the place, the feel of it. I actually got out of the car and started taking pictures, wondering why previous developers hadn't done this good before.

Perfect or not, one has to admit that at least they made a very good try at getting it right, which is far more than most developers give a damn about.

Eric Orozco said...

Ha! That's an apt concluding statement Anonymous. You gotta have sympathy for the New Urbanists...Always insisting on getting everything right, always being told they just can't.

That is a simple reason why their communities tend to cater to wealthy folks, they need 'em to get everything right, and to their credit they manage to innovatively create some inclusion. Some of the most unappreciated thinkers in planning and architecture are the New Urbanists...This makes them some of the most doggedly determined and humble folks I know. If most of your professional colleagues snicker behind your back (while they yet often steal your own rhetoric and ideas before the public)...that kind of makes you insistently realistic and pragmatic. More professionals should know this.

The wonderful thing about having values is that it forces you to be creative, isn't it? Theirs is a pragmatic stance, where success measured in terms of incremental gains (as Daniel points out), not accolades.

Dan said...

I hate having to remind people of our existence this way, but your linkroll is missing Cyburbia ( It's the Internet's oldest, and arguably largest planning-related Web site; it's been around since 1994. Unfortunately, many bloggers of the New Urbanist persuasion exclude it from their linkrolls. Why that's the case seems to be a mystery.

Google "urban planning" - Cyburbia usually lands 2nd or 3rd.

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