Greenbelt Towns

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The Greenbelt town program originated as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, aiding the poor by hiring the unemployed to build the towns and then by providing housing for low-income families. Placed within the Resettlement Administration headed by Rexford Tugwell, the Suburban Division, administered by John Lansill, constructed three towns: Greenbelt, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C.; Greendale, Wisconsin, outside of Milwaukee; and Greenhills, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati. A fourth, Greenbrook, New Jersey, was initiated but not completed. Economist Tugwell yearned for a collectivized society and incorporated his desires into the town plans, placing an emphasis on economic and social cooperatives to serve town residents. Tugwell hoped to have 3,000 such communities built.

Tugwell left the design of the towns to planners who relied heavily on Clarence Perry's concept of the neighborhood unit, in which neighborhood boundaries consisted of major streets, but interior neighborhood roads carried only local traffic. In Perry's design, a central area containing shops, a park, and an elementary school that also served as a community center provided focus for the neighborhood and were within walking distance of residents. The planners for Greenbelt and Greenhills were also influenced heavily by Clarence Stein's design of Radburn, New Jersey, which utilized superblocks with central greens, separation of automobile and pedestrian traffic, cul-de-sacs, and homes facing their gardens with backs facing the street. In addition, a surrounding greenbelt provided land for parks or farming.

Frederick Bigger functioned as the chief planner for all three towns, and Hale Walker was the town planner for Greenbelt. Tenants first occupied Greenbelt's 885 rowhouses and apartment units in September 1937. Justin Hartzog and William Strong were the town planners for the 676 units of Greenhills, which looked much like Greenbelt, with rowhouses and apartments built in contemporary or "international" style. Residents first moved into Greenhills in April 1938 and into Greendale in May 1938. Jacob Crane and Elbert Peets, town planners for Greendale, used recently restored Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, as a model for their work, copying the style of restored Williamsburg for its public buildings, as well as placing homes only a few feet from the street. The town consisted of 572 units, of which 274 were single-family detached homes and the remainder rowhouses.

The greenbelt town program in general and Tugwell in particular received much negative press coverage. Congressional critics of the New Deal focused on the expense of the towns, and businessmen clamored against the perceived communistic and socialistic aspects. As a result, Tugwell resigned and Roosevelt dismantled the Resettlement Administration at the end of 1936, and the Farm Security Administration oversaw the completion of the towns. After World War II, the government resolved to sell the towns; in response, town residents who wanted to maintain their communities as planned cooperatives formed groups to purchase the government housing. In both Greenbelt and Greenhills, residents formed cooperatives to buy their homes, and Greenhills managed to retain most of its greenbelt. In 2000, each of the three towns had a population of about 20,000. The ideas and plans used in the Greenbelt towns reappeared briefly in the 1960s with the development of cities such as Reston, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland, and appeared again in the 1990s in the guise of the New Urbanism or Neotraditional development.



Alanen, Arnold R., and Joseph A. Eden. Main Street Readymade: The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin. 1987.

Arnold, Joseph L. The New Deal in the Suburbs, A History of the Greenbelt Town Program, 1935–1954. 1971.

Knepper, Cathy D. Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal. 2001.

Mayer, Albert. Greenbelt Towns Revisited. 1968.

Stein, Clarence S. Toward New Towns for America. 1966.

Cathy D. Knepper