The New Deal built not only public housing but also entirely new suburban communities as an experiment in planning. In 1936, the United States Resettlement Administration (USRA) began construction on three small suburbs, totaling 2,100 houses, in Greenbelt, Maryland, Greenhills, Ohio, and Greendale, Wisconsin, pictured here. The Greenbelt towns, as they were collectively known, followed a long line of planning ideas dating to the early 20th century and the Garden City Movement in England. Led by Ebenezer Howard, Garden City enthusiasts suggested building well-planned satellite communities around larger cities in a form of controlled suburban development. Modestly-sized, self-contained villages that included housing, work opportunities, and park space would be linked to the central city and each other. In between the satellites, a “belt” of farms, fields, and forests would be left undeveloped. Much as forest preserves in the Plan of Chicago sought to preserve green space, the Garden City idea sought to harmonize development with nature.
Economist Rexford Tugwell, the USRA’s administrator, subscribed to Garden City ideas and sought to move people out of urban slums and into carefully-planned suburban communities on outlying land. He formed the Suburban Resettlement Division within the USRA to hire prominent planners and architects to design model communities that might guide future development and avoid the unchecked suburban construction that had already alarmed planners of American cities in the 1920s. In their sensitivity to terrain, consideration to community life, and village-like qualities, the Greenbelt communities pointed to a different kind of suburbanization than would follow in the post-war world.
The Farm Security Administration employed photographer John Vachon to document life at Greendale. His photographs, like this one, point to the emphasis on providing space for social interaction—in this case, a horseshoe game. A USRA pamphlet from 1936 described its greenbelt towns as a defended refuge from the city, with open space protecting residents from traffic, revealing a current of anti-urbanism. However, Tugwell, like Burnham, thought regionally. He believed that if one could tame the chaos of unregulated town growth with scientific planning then it would be possible to direct the expansion of metropolitan areas into suburban areas in positive ways.
Knepper, Cathy. Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Szczesny, Christy M. Americanization in a Greenbelt Town: The Colonial Revival in Greendale, Wisconsin. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2000.
Wagner, Philip K. “Suburban Landscapes for Nuclear Families: The Case of Greenbelt Towns in the United States.” Built Environment 10, 1 (1984). http://www.jstor.org/stable/23286006
United States Resettlement Administration. Greenbelt Towns. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1936. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015005313674
David Gonzalez, “New Deal Utopias: Photographs by Jason Reblando”. New York Times Lens blog. http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/new-deal-utopias/
John Vachon, “Pitching horseshoes, Greendale, Wisconsin, 1939.” Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division: LC-USF33-001421-M2 [P&P]