New Deal planned community celebrates 75 years
Greenbelt, Maryland is a product of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. His administration planned and built the town hoping that it would become a prototype for countless similar garden suburbs across the nation.
This year, the city celebrates its 75th birthday. On April 27 and 28, Greenbelt is holding a symposium to examine its past and look toward its future.
Faced with housing shortages, a decimated economy, and deteriorating conditions in cities, the Roosevelt administration set out to build 4 "greenbelt towns" as an example of how suburban development could and should occur.
3 of these communities ultimately became reality: Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio (near Cincinnati); and Greendale, Wisconsin (outside Milwaukee). The fourth community, Greenbrook, New Jersey, was canceled due to a legal challenge.
Partially inspired by England's garden city movement, the planners intended for Greenbelt to be a self-contained community surrounded by a green belt of parks, forests, and farms. Today, Greenbelt is not as isolated, but the historic center maintains its park-like setting. The federal government sold off most of the original green belt in the 1950s and it was developed in typical suburban fashion.
The planners who designed Greenbelt had big ideas about creating a new type of community. One of the most revolutionary decisions was how to deal with cars.
Greenbelt was designed with the automobile in mind, but it was not designed for the automobile. This is the largest and most crucial difference between Greenbelt and the prototypical post-war suburb. The community is walkable, traffic is calm, and despite being surrounded by sprawl, cars do not dominate the landscape.
The planners created two independent circulation systems in the town: one for pedestrians and one for automobiles. As a result, the community has been described as "inside out." Pedestrian pathways wind through the community, providing access to the interior of residential superblocks and connecting residents to commercial and civic spaces. Five underpasses were built under the major streets to allow pedestrians to move through the city without encountering cars.
One effect of this design is homes with two fronts. On the "garden side," the homes front on the pedestrian pathways, and often on playgrounds and other green spaces. On the "service side," the homes open to the street (or in some cases, the parking court).
At the heart of the city is the Roosevelt Center, the town's retail hub. This area includes a grocery store, a cinema, and several shops and restaurants. The businesses are oriented onto a plaza, with the parking in the rear.
The city is oriented on a crescent-shaped ridge, with a lake and woodlands in the center of the crescent. The city was originally surrounded by a large greenbelt, though most of this has been developed. A good deal of greenspace remains within the community, however.
And while Greenbelt did not become the prototype for the American suburb, it did inspire other communities, including Columbia, Maryland and Reston, Virginia.
The real legacy of Greenbelt, though is in its residents. The history of activism and social engagement that was brought by the pioneer residents during the Depression has continued to be a part of life in the community.
If you're interested in celebrating 75 years of Greenbelt, the symposium is on Friday, April 27 and Saturday, April 28 in the historic community center. I'll be speaking on a panel about transportation on Friday afternoon. The deadline to register for the event is tomorrow.
Additionally, for more information and a tour of one of the original homes, you can visit the Greenbelt Museum at 10B Crescent Road every Sunday from 1-5 pm.
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