A greenbelt town turns 75

  • Roosevelt Center

    Roosevelt Center

    A streamlined portion of Roosevelt Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

    Photo: Gyrofrog via Wikimedia Commons

  • Community Center

    Community Center

    Greenbelt Community Center, formerly the Greenbelt School

    Photo: Gyrofrog, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Mother and Child

    Mother and Child

    The "Mother and Child" statue created in the late 1930s by sculptor Lenore Thomas

    Photo courtesy of WPA Today

  • Apartment building

    Apartment building

    A Greenbelt apartment building about 1947

    Photo: Greenbelt Museum Collection

Better! Cities & Towns

The Washington Post paid tribute in early June to Greenbelt, Maryland, one of the three greenbelt towns developed by President Franklin Roosevelt's administration in the 1930s. (The others, also sponsored by the US Resettlement Administration, were Greenhills, Ohio, and Greendale, Wisconsin.)

It was 75 years ago that the first families moved into Greenbelt, a community built on worn-out tobaccco fields in Prince George's County, northeast of the nation's capital.

Greenbelt was—like Clarence Stein and Henry Wright's famous prototype, Radburn in Fair Lawn, New Jersey—a town for the motor age. You could get to and from Greenbelt by car, and you could drive within it, but the community's layout offered residents a degree of protection from the automobile. 

There were superblocks in Greenbelt, just as there were in Radburn. There were also "sweeping, curving roads," as noted by Post columnist John Kelly. But pedestrian paths crossed beneath some of the roadways, helping children (and adults) avoid being struck by cars. Greenbelt was intended to be a community where walking and biking would be relatively safe. 

Kelly observes that the now-historic portion of Greenbelt still feels like a small town. That's partly because of the town's core, called Roosevelt Center. After a skillful if partial renovation a dozen years ago, Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey described Roosevelt Center as a pleasing place, distinguished by its "modest modernism."

Buildings two stories high, with rounded corners, industrial-style horizontal windows, and white-painted brick walls, "exhibit in discreet measure the streamlined tendencies of advanced American architecture" in the 1930s, said Forgey. He appreciated the way the buildings, with their curves and setbacks, framed a "rather intimate, rectangular civic plaza."

Robert A.M. Stern and John Massengale, in their 1981 publication The Anglo-American Suburb, were less impressed. "The architecture of its individual buildings is bleak, a weak Art Deco classicism at the shopping centre combined with the minimal group houses," they wrote. But Stern and Massengale most likely saw Greenbelt at a time when the town center was at a low ebb, unable to make a very favorable impression.

Its center had been hurt by changes in the landscape—in particular, by a grove of Bradford pear trees that, as it grew up, darkened the plaza and obscured many of the views. In the shadowy years, Forgey noted, "drug dealers and other antisocial types" became a problem, undercutting the center's role as a community gathering area.

Landscape architect Sharon Bradley-Papp was asked to fix the plaza and its landscape, and she succeeded. Forgey credited Bradley-Papp with saving the community's splendid New Deal core. The plaza's focus is a large limestone statue of a mother and child, by Works Progress Administration artist Lenore Thomas. The story of the community is told in the Greenbelt Musem, which occupies an original 1937 house of 836 square feet, and in a book, Greenbelt, by Jill Parsons St. John, Megan Searing Young, and the Friends of the Greenbelt Museum, which was published last November by Arcadia Publishing.

Around 1990, when I was working on my book A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb, I visited all three of the greenbelt towns, plus Roosevelt, New Jersey (originally Jersey Homesteads), a smaller, less complete project of the Resettlement Administration. My favorite was Greendale, south of Milwaukee.

Physically, Greendale seemed to pull together better. It had some intimate streets and it had a comfortable retail and civic center. Stern and Massengale concluded that "All of the Resettlement towns used an uncomfortable abstract geometry in their site plans, with the exeption of Greendale, Wisconsin, designed by Jacob Crane and Elbert Peets."

Peets was, of course, co-author of American Vitruvius: An Architects' Handbook of Civic Art, a classic encyclopedia of urban design that was first published in 1922 and was an early source of inspiration for new urbanists.

Greenbelt was planned by Hale Walker, in the suburban development program administered by Rexford Guy Tugwell, a New Dealer committed to the ideas of Ebenezer Howard and Clarence Stein. It was intended to provide affordable housing for government workers and, with the other greenbelt towns, to promote innovation in urban planning.  

Greenbelt was not perfect. But it turned out to be a humane place with a distinctive character, a place that has now inspired loyalty from generations of residents for three-quarters of a century. Opponents of "central planning" make much of the idea that government intervention in the development of communities turns out badly. They should visit Greenbelt—and Greendale—and see for themselves the benefits that a strong public role can sometimes produce.

For more in-depth coverage on this topic: 

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• See the June 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns.Topics: Michigan placemaking initiative, Affordable housing around transit, Unnoticed New Urbanism, Housing pressures in Massachusetts city, LA looks at displacement, Waiting for the recovery, Running bike-share, Homeownership and TND, Live-work planning, the Great Inversion, Freeway teardown.

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• See the April-May 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns. Topics: Urban freeway teardowns, Plan El Paso, Gated developments, Value of compact, mixed-use development, Changing land-use culture, Cost of living in sprawl, Ohio form-based code, Bicycle-friendly culture, Transit-oriented development and value capture, Affordability for artists.

• See the March 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns. Topics: Traffic congestion, Zoning, DOT mainstreams livability, HUD's Sustainable Communities, Transit-oriented development, TOD tips, Form-based codes, Parking minimums, New classical town, Urban retail, James H. Kunstler, Placemaking and job growth, Maryland's smart growth.

• See the January-February 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns. Topics: Value capture and transit, Social networks aid downtown, Live smaller, Rentals are market key, Streetcar inspiration, Box building, Civilizing suburbs, Alley houses, Sprawl repair, Healthy communities, Funding for infrastructure, Chicago River reversal.

• See the December 2011 issue of New Urban News. Wall Street and urbanism, streets to plazas, Sustainable Communities grants, Choice Neighborhoods, TIGER grants, buyers prefer smart growth,protecting historic buildings, public health and planning, redevelopment in Georgia, Ecovillages, parklets.