Urban Utopias

“No man who owns his own house and garden can be a communist. He has too much to do.” When William Levitt uttered this statement at the edge of the McCarthy era both the public and government supported suburbanization. After all, for their role in once again making the world safe for democracy each returning serviceman and his family was entitled to one of Levittown’s houses and gardens. If the burdens and pleasures of home ownership curtailed political involvement, particularly of the communist kind, then it was a necessary sacrifice in the battles of another war, this one to prove the superiority of democracy over Soviet socialism. However, as a bored and restless suburban teenager, I fancied myself a communist. Unfortunately there was no place to gather with like-minded bohemians, who in any event were my closest friends, an admittedly small number of would-be revolutionaries. Without a common square to register our discontent, our options were to storm the vacant lots not yet occupied by more ranch houses or the neighbors’ lawns, before everyone installed privacy fences. The suburban neighborhood of my childhood and adolescence, like most typical suburbs, is predominately composed of single-family homes arranged along streets, sometimes straight and in grids, other times curvilinear with cul-de-sacs. Only the local schools create a commons for the neighbors to gather (or vote). As spatial construction, the standard suburban development is exclusively private and lacks deliberate, consciously designed and sanctioned public territory. Levitt’s remark points to an imbedded politics in the patterns of suburban housing. Spatially suburbia is an apolitical place.

In contrast, the developments designed and constructed as alternatives to suburban sprawl engage in a deliberate framing of public space. The political and social viewpoint of these places, always called New Towns, can consequently be read through their spatial arrangement and historical context. Not surprisingly, as the center of national politics, Washington DC is orbited by satellites from the various phases and incarnations of the New Town movement(s). Unlike other cities, the demographic (or at least the employment) base of the DC area is somewhat stabilized by the constant fixture of the federal government. This minimizes the significance of regional and temporal differences, thereby creating an opportunity to measure the differing ideologies of DC’s New Towns against one another.

Of course, planned in 1791 by Pierre L’Enfant, the District of Columbia itself is a planned new town. Across the Potomac from DC, and predating the plan of DC by 43 years, George Washington’s Alexandria is also a planned town, one of the many surrounding the Mall. Today, a mile from the subway stop and surrounded by high-rise offices not permitted in the District, the storefronts and warehouses of the town’s historic grid are filled with the predictable collection of Gaps, Banana Republics, and over priced restaurants, indicating that Alexandria is an upscale edge city and tourist destination. However, conceived independently of an existing urban situation, neither DC nor Alexandria can be considered New Towns in the proper sense of the term and its associated ideologies. As an articulated movement, New Towns are a reaction to the suburban expansion of cities. New Towns exist in resistance to suburban sprawl; they are proposed as self-sufficient moments of urbanism, independent of the central metropolis. Although rarely if ever achieved, the New Town ideal is that residents will find their employment, recreation, consumer and educational opportunities at home.


To arrive at Greenbelt, Maryland, I traveled northeast some 13 miles from Dupont Circle downtown via the Metro. Since Greenbelt is actually a few miles from the Greenline terminus, I had borrowed a friend’s bike to ride over the Beltway and tour the town. Of course, neither the Metro nor the freeway existed when Greenbelt was authorized and conceived during the Depression under the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1935. As a matter of policy, the primary purpose of Greenbelt was the employment its construction would create. Yet as the first stylized New Town of metro DC, Greenbelt was also intended to offer housing alternatives to the crowded population pressures of the central city. As planned, it encompassed 3300 acres for an eventual population of 7500, with the first phase of some 900 dwellings occupying 1700 acres. Clearly indicated by the name Greenbelt, a large majority of this acreage was nature preserves dedicated as a buffer to future development, a planning strategy central to the New Town ideology since it was first theorized by Ebenezer Howard in the late 1800’s. Unfortunately, when the Federal government sold the town, the neighborhood association did not have the money to purchase the greenbelts, which have subsequently been sold to developers, eager to capitalize on the proximity to the Beltway and Metro. So rather than biking through forests from the subway stop, I was obliged brave six-lane roads and the parking lots of mirror clad office buildings and hotels. Despite the loss of the greenbelts, the internal planning of the town is consistent with the Garden City movement and the Radburn Plan. The town loosely surrounds an artificial lake and park, which is ringed with actively used pedestrian and bike paths. These paths lead to recreation fields, the town center and residential areas, which climb the hillsides surrounding the lake. This topography reinforces the centrality of the community facilities, which includes areas for baseball, basketball and tennis, a popular pool, the former school – now a neighborhood center with a community run cafe – and a small shopping court. A single-screen theater, dry cleaner, drug store, deli, and co-op food market in symmetrical moderne deco buildings frame the town square. Anchoring this small square is the sculpture “Mother and Child,” a work of WPA realism by Leonore Thomas Strauss, who also sculpted the reliefs on the school representing the preamble of the constitution. The resemblance of Strauss’s sculptures to socialist art of the same period was suggested by an exhibit, concurrent with my visit to Greenbelt, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art of stylistically identical American and Soviet photographs entitled “Propaganda and Dreams.” Opposite “Mother and Child” a pedestrian path leading to the residential districts passes under Crescent Road, named to acknowledge the hillside crescent surrounding Greenbelt Lake. Crescent Road is the primary street of the Greenbelt plan, a curved grid in which automobile traffic is directed parallel to the hillsides while pedestrian oriented “superblocks” of townhouses and garden courts, set perpendicular to the roads, advance up the hill from the community facilities. Originally painted white with pastel trim, the exterior townhouse facades today are a rhythm of varying degrees of weathered and painted brick, as each owner personalizes their unit. However, a lack of clear landscaping on the front side of the townhouses, which face the garden courts and pedestrian paths, makes this private territory of individuality indistinguishable from the public space of the superblocks. The opposite, back side of the townhouses opens to service paths and automobile parking courts. But in era of auto-mobility, when the primary entrance is the one from the car, this spatial arrangement of pedestrian garden on one side and automobiles on the other tends to confuse distinctions between front and back, private and public. The rear of the townhousing is thus as equally public as the front, a condition that was true even in the 1930’s. The spatiality of the townhouses, when combined with Greenbelt’s co-op markets, community cafes and common recreation areas, and history indicates a preference for the public realm over the private. Architecturally and socially Greenbelt’s inspiration is the Seidlungs of Germany and Austria, not the neighboring suburbs of DC. Conceptualized and constructed during the highpoint of New Deal socialism, the communitarian ideology of Greenbelt is unprecedented and unrepeated in America town planning.

Reston, Virginia is also constructed around an artificial lake, which is largely surrounded by 1960’s and 1970’s era single-family residential construction, reminiscent of the Brady Bunch. Scattered throughout these houses are community recreation areas with tennis courts and pools, where a woman in a mini-van asked me why I was photographing her neighborhood. My response, “because of Reston’s importance in the history of town planning,” did not seem to reassure her. Reston is one of the most ambitious New Towns on the east coast, its 7400 acres and population of 49,000 far exceeding modest Greenbelt. Yet while Greenbelt is located between DC and Baltimore, Reston is located between DC and nowhere. This at least was the case when Reston was planned in the early 1960’s, during Johnson’s attempt to revive the New Deal ethic. Since the heyday of the Great Society the metropolitan field has realigned and Reston is now subjected to development pressure from neighboring edge cities at Tyson’s Corner and Dulles Airport. But this change in the real estate market came too late for Reston’s founder, R. E. Simon, Jr., who lent both his initials to the town’s name and all his financial support to its construction. Now owned by a subsidiary of Mobil Oil, one of Simon’s creditors, Reston is nonetheless consistent with certain motifs of the green belt ideology. Cul-de-sac roads connect with forest paths, which lead to collections of townhouses or apartments, grouped around shared parking court in a manner similar to the superblocks of Greenbelt. Like at Greenbelt, at Reston both sides of the townhouses are ambiguously “public.” The “front” side is oriented to asphalt parking courts whereas the opposite, “back” side is oriented towards pedestrian nature paths; intended to maximize open space and natural corridors, this form of development concentration was known as cluster housing in the 1960’s. Reston is an excellent example of cluster development, an achievement recognized by contemporary literature, and consequently its meandering and casual forest trails are not without social and political importance. Densely vegetated as one might expect in northern Virginia, these free-form nature preserves constitute a public space unlike Greenbelt’s garden courts, however. Reston’s commons are merely forests, not playgrounds or community gardens, symbolizing a retreat from public life in favor of the individual’s recreational communion with nature. Although designed for the individual or small groups, the forest commons are nonetheless publicly accessible, and Reston’s wooded paths lead to a small, urbane collection of buildings named Lake Anne Center. My walks around Lake Anne actually originated at this village center, as it contains a small parking lot, two story townhouses above shops, a church, and surprisingly enough, a high-rise apartment building. A crescent of townhouses forms a paved square with a fountain and umbrella tables for a café, while other buildings frame a fingered extension of Lake Anne, also with a fountain. Curiously, two concrete podiums cantilever over the lake from the village square presumably to address crowds of Restonites in canoes. Lake Anne Center is a professional, and not entirely unlikable ensemble, architecturally unified by a brutalist style of brick and concrete similar in feel and execution to university housing.

Although Lake Anne Center, the historic core of Reston, has pedestrian connections to the surrounding neighborhoods, visiting Reston Town Center requires crossing an eight-lane state highway by car. A recent addition to Reston, an erstwhile downtown, Reston Town Center is architecturally and spatially similar to Rockefeller Center. Its heart is a small square, complete with a Greco-mythological fountain and an ice-staking rink, which seems ridiculous in Virginia’s August heat and humidity. However, the four urban blocks that currently constitute the Town Center are little more than an outdoor mall adjacent to the tollway offramp, surrounded by parking lots and garages. While it has abandoned the original New Town ideals of Reston, perhaps the Town Center is a new form of urbanism: an urbanism without cities, where isolated moments of density and concentration occur in the middle of nowhere, yet within easy access of a variety of transportation and communication networks. As the surrounding construction develops, the Reston Town Center area might someday resemble the Post Oak area of the Houston Galleria – which also has an ice skating rink. However, as a future, Houston is a far cry from the New Urbanist moniker claimed by the Reston Town Center.

Pedestrian connectivity and convenience is the basis of New Urbanism, the latest version of the New Town movement. The quintessential New Urbanist diagram, reminiscent of drawings produced by Clarence Stein and Clarence Perry in the 1920’s, is a quarter mile radius circle representing a five-minute walk superimposed on an urban plan. Yet perhaps because New Urbanism claims not just towns but urbanism as its territory, it seems mysteriously unaware of previous New Town projects such as Greenbelt or Reston. Branded as cluster development with rail transit, New Urbanism is decidedly different from either the New Deal or Great Society towns, however, as illustrated by Kentlands, Maryland. In fact, Kentlands does not even have a rail connection to DC, so reaching it requires a 20-mile road trip from the Mall. Whereas the Greenbelt and Reston town centers are locations for a mixture of political, social, and commercial activity, the marketplace at Kentlands is a mono-functional collection of strip malls, big box retail and parking lots, remarkably similar to others in Montgomery County. It is the most ordinary and the least successful area of Kentlands, although it was repeatedly subjected to far more imaginative design schemes, indicating a gap between ideology and reality not present in Greenbelt and Reston. Although New Urbanism advocates pedestrian connectivity, the commercial center faces the primary state highway, not the surrounding apartment buildings and even more distant residential neighborhoods. Perhaps this gap in pedestrian access will be corrected as construction is completed on the streets of live/work townhouses connecting the commercial core to the neighborhoods. These streets aside there are not a townhousing neighborhood in Kentlands; townhouses and freestanding houses are intermixed, producing a schism between the usual relationship between building typology and urban density. While this schism is probably not noticeable to the average Kentlands resident or visitor, for the architecturally trained eye, it is disorientating and even disturbing. This street of live/work townhouses leads to the mansion and farm buildings of the former Kent family estate. Kentlands’ architectural character is derived from these buildings, which are now community facilities and the field office of the town’s architects, Duany Plater-Zyberk, the foremost proponents of New Urbanism. A pair of green lawns fan out from the Kent family mansion, serving as parks for the surrounding neighborhood, which is the most intimate and quirky of Kentlands’ six residential districts. Three lakes and a stream, also original to the farm, loosely separate these six neighborhoods. Unlike Greenbelt or Reston, these greenbelts are not ambiguously defined nor do they constitute the primary public space; squares and parks form the public domain in Kentlands. One of the most successful squares in Kentlands is a semi-circular park containing the neighborhood recreation center. The boundaries of the park are framed by a continuous wall of four-story townhouses, reminiscent of the Royal Crescent in Bath. Figural, formal public spaces such as this are connected axially by streets, which are also re-affirmed and articulated as public space. When the grade becomes too steep for roads the visual continuity of the street grid is maintained by a series of steps and stairs, framed by private fences. Picket fences are ubiquitous at Kentlands; it is not the implied nostalgia of these fences that is significant, but the articulation of private property, which is made at even the smallest scales of design. Where fences do not exist, brick curbs clearly delimit the division between private garden and public sidewalk. Pedestrian and automotive non-resident traffic is located on the street, while garages are located predominately on alleys, which although “public” in a certain sense are the residents’ domain. However, unlike the automobile courts of Greenbelt or Reston, an exclusively private backyard, virtually invisible from the alley, exists between the garage and the house. The constant repetition of garage, townhouse roofscape and chimneys, as viewed from the alley, has a charming Mary Poppens-esque feel. On the street and in the alleys, as with the crescent-shaped recreation center park, public space of Kentlands is clearly defined and given form by private concerns. If the blurring of public and private spatiality of Greenbelt and Reston is reflective of the socialist era in which they were planned, then Kentlands and New Urbanism is reflective of Reaganism, known both for its nostalgic viewpoint and aggressive privatization of government services.

It is hardly surprising that New Towns should reflect the political agenda of their time. Politics is the result of social organisms and their organization. Many architects, critics, and even urbanists frown upon the idea of town planning as a form of social engineering. But New Towns are exactly this: they are moments of social design, fragments and projections of utopian society, intended to transcend the unplanned, unconscious, and apolitical sprawl of suburbia. New Towns are evidence of the American democratic experiment. Their history is the spatial and urban manifestation of our quest as a nation and people for citizenship and justice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s