The Green Belt

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The Green Belt



By: Paul and Percival Goodman

Date: 1947; revised 1960

Source: Goodman, Paul, and Percival Goodman. "The Green Belt." Communitas. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.

About the Author: American poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, social critic, psychologist, lecturer, and political activist Paul Goodman (1911–1972) revealed in all his work a fundamental interest in the interaction between people and their environments. Boundaries, he asserted, were not only barriers but areas of contact. His interest in city planning pervades his fiction in novels like The Empire City and Making Do as well as in his sociological works like Growing Up Absurd and in essays like "Banning Cars from Manhattan." His brother Percival Goodman (1904–1989), an architect, professor of architecture at Colombia University, painter, and sculptor, dropped out of school after the fourth grade and went to work at his uncle's architectural firm. In his early twenties he studied architecture at the Beaux Arts in Paris and began a career as an architect and a college professor. Besides Communitas, he also wrote "The Decay of American Cities—Alternative Habitation for Man: A Plan for Planning" in 1966 and "The Double E," about the relationship of energy and ecology in 1977.


In Communitas Paul and Percival Goodman assert that, fundamentally, the quality of our lives depends on the environment in which we live and on how that environment interacts with us and causes us to behave. Since they see the environment as so great a determinant, they postulate that our living environment cannot be one which evolves by itself without human intervention, but that it is necessarily planned, if not explicitly, by one interest group or another—or the forces they unleash. Thus Communitas is a handbook offering several ways of thinking about designing habitable environments and offers several generic models.

In the excerpt below, the Goodmans outline a history of design plans beginning in the nineteenth century, which attempted to cope with the challenges imposed by the industrial revolution upon the way people lived and worked. The Goodmans pay particular attention to the tension between nature and industry. They outline the way a number of city planners attempted to keep the virtues of the green world, while at the same time designing habitats in a world run by machinery and staffed by the people whose job it was to operate that machinery and whose lives and living conditions were largely defined by the way that machinery determined.


The original impulse to Garden City planning was the reaction against the ugly technology and depressed humanity of the old English factory areas. On the one hand, the factory poured forth its smoke, blighted the countryside with its refuse, and sucked in labor at an early age. On the other, the homes were crowded among the chimneys as identical hives of labor power, and the people were parts of the machine, losing their dignity and sense of beauty. Some moralists, like [nineteenth-century English art and social critic John] Ruskin, [nineteenth-century English poet, painter, printer, designer, and utopian thinker, William] Morris, and [nineteenth-century Irish playwright and critic, Oscar] Wilde reacted so violently against the causes that they were willing to scrap both the technology and the profit system; they laid their emphasis on the beauty of domestic and social life, making for the most part a selection of pre-industrial values. Ruskin praised the handsome architecture of the Middle Ages, said things should not be made of iron, and campaigned for handsome tea canisters. Morris designed furniture and textiles, improved typography, and dreamed of society without coercive law. Wilde (inspired also by [nineteenth-century literary critic, Walter] Pater) tried to do something about clothing and politics and embarked on the so-called "esthetic adventure." What is significant is the effort to combine large-scale social protest with a new attitude toward small things.

Less radically, Ebenezer Howard, the pioneer of the Garden City, thought of the alternative of quarantining the technology, but preserving both the profit system and the copiousness of mass products: he protected the homes and the non-technical culture behind a belt of green. This idea caught on and has been continually influential ever since. In all Garden City planning one can detect the purpose of safeguard, of defense; but by the same token, this is the school that has made valuable studies of minimum living standards, optimum density, right orientation for sunlight, space for playgrounds, [and] the correct designing of primary schools.

Plans which in principle quarantine the technology start with the consumption products of industry and plan for the amenity and convenience of domestic life. Then, however, by a reflex of their definition of what is intolerable and substandard, in domestic life, they plan for the convenience and amenity also of working conditions, and so they meet up with the stream of the labor movement.

With the coming of the automobiles there was a second impulse to Garden City planning. To the original ugliness of coal was added the chaos of traffic congestion and traffic hazard. But there was offered also the opportunity to get away faster and farther. The result has been that, whereas for Howard the protected homes were near the factories and planned in conjunction with them, the entities that are now called Garden Cities are physically isolated from their industry and planned quite independently. We have the interesting phenomena of commutation, highway culture, suburbanism, and exurbanism.

The chief property of these plans, then, is the setting-up of a protective green belt, and the chief difference among the plans depends on how complex a unity of life is provided off the main roads leading to the industrial or business center.

We are now entering a stage of reflex also to this second impulse of suburbanism: not to flee from the center but to open it out, relieve its congestion, and bring the green belt into the city itself. This, considered on a grand scale, is the proposal of the Ville Radieuse [the radiant city] of [twentieth-century Swiss architect] Le Corbusier. Considered more piecemeal, it employs the principle of enclosed traffic-free blocks and the revival of neighborhoods, as proposed by disciples of Le Corbusier, like Paul Wiener, or housers like Henry Wright.

From Suburbs to Garden Cities From the countryside, the scattered people crowd into cities and overcrowd them. There then begins a contrary motion.

Consider first the existing suburbs. These are unorganized settlements springing up on the main highway and parallel railway to the city. They take advantage of the cheaper land far from the center to build chiefly one-family houses with private yards. The productive and cultural activity of the adults and even adolescents is centered in the metropolis; it is only the children who belong strictly to the suburb as such. The principal civic services—paving, light, water—are directed by the city; and the land is surveyed according to the prevailing city plan, probably in a grid. The highway to the city is the largest street and contains the shops.

Spaced throughout the grid are likely to be small developments of private real-estate men, attempting a more picturesque arrangement of the plots. But on the whole the pressure for profit is such that the plots become minimal and the endless rows of little boxes, or of larger boxes with picture windows, are pretty near the landscape of [the fourteenth century Italian poet] Dante's first volume. [The Inferno, or Hell, is the first volume of Dante's Divine Comedy.]

Such development is originally unplanned. It is best described in the phrase of [American architect, naturalist, and creator of the Appalachian Trail, Benton] Mackaye as "urban backflow." The effect of it is, within a short time, to reach out toward the next small or large town and to create a still greater and more planless metropolitan area. This is the amoeboid spreading that [late nineteenth-century, early twentieth-century Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner] Patrick Geddes called conurbation.

Culturally, the suburb is too city-bound to have any definite character, but certain tendencies are fairly apparent—caused partly by the physical facts and partly, no doubt, by the kind of persons who choose to be suburbanites. Families are isolated from the more diverse contacts of city culture, and they are atomized internally by the more frequent absence of the wage earner. On the other hand, there is a growth of neighborly contacts. Surburbanites are known as petty bourgeois in status and prejudice, and they have the petty bourgeois virtue of making a small private effort, with its responsibilities. There is increased dependency on the timetable and an organization of daily life probably tighter than in the city, but there is also the increased dignity of puttering in one's own house and maybe garden….

When this suburban backflow is subjected to conscious planning, however, a definite character promptly emerges. Accepting such a tendency as desirable, the city makes political and economic decisions to facilitate it by opening fast highways or rapid-transit systems from the center to the outskirts. An example is the way the New York region has been developed. The effect is to create blighted areas in the depopulated center, to accelerate conurbation at the periphery and rapidly depress the older suburbs, choking their traffic and destroying their green; but also to open out much further distances (an hour away on the new highways) where there is more space and more pretentious housing. This is quite strictly a middle-class development; for the highways draw heavily on the social wealth of everybody for the benefit of those who are better off, since the poor can afford neither the houses nor the automobiles.


Communitas was re-issued in 1960, at a time when the United States was entering a period of non-ideological but pragmatically American utopian thinking, especially among young people in high school and college. They had grown up in a society of comfortable affluence but felt the lack of something to give life a particular meaning, which the popular culture of entertainment, consumption, and even work failed to offer. Paul Goodman seemed to address that emptiness directly in his writing and to offer a suitably convincing explanation of it. He argued, like one of his models (the English romantic poet of nature William Wordsworth), that people were cut off from the fundamental natural experiences of meaningful and animally satisfying work and that we live like strangers in our environment. In response, Goodman proposed that—by human inventiveness—entrenched social arrangements and institutions could be revised and made to accord more with basic human needs and offer greater human satisfaction. He extended this sort of analysis to schooling, work, sexual relations, psychology, and, in Communitas, with Percival Goodman, to community planning. Underpinning all of his writing is the idea that the human environment is always a planned environment and, consequently, that environmental planning is a democratic task for all of a country's citizens rather than the special responsibility of experts.

Many small groups undertook to be their own planners. A group of parents in Harlem, New York, banded together and with Percival Goodman, designed and built a new school to replace the rat-infested P.S. 119. However, because of the very nature of the Goodman brothers' ideas, the proposals that the Goodmans set forth in Communitas have not gained mainstream acceptance. Often, if one of their ideas is introduced, it is only partially implemented. Banning cars from Manhattan and other large cities, for example, has been introduced on special occasions or in limited areas in many cities, but never seriously, and sometimes with poor results. As of 2005 in Paris, for example, many streets are closed to automobile traffic on weekends. The result is even greater congestion on the roads where cars are allowed.



Giral, A., and K. J. Elman. Percival Goodman: Architect-Planner-Teacher-Painter. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.

Web sites

The Communitas Group Ltd.. 〈〉 (accessed March 4, 2006).

Reiner, Thomas A. "Utopias and City Planning: Finding Strength in One Another." Utopian 〈〉 (accessed March 4, 2006).