The Magazine

Visions of Green

When suburban sprawl is a Good Thing.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
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Paradise is generally something that seems very far away, especially in mid-winter. Paradise Planned is a compendious reminder that paradise, or a decent shot at its earthly manifestation, is rarely far off at all. 

Garden Suburbs

Bobak Haeri

Whatever feelings we might hold about the suburbs, few would mistake them for anything ethereal; yet with both suburbs and gnomes, the modifier “garden” makes the difference between fairytale-like and commonplace. The garden suburb, a concept roughly applied between 1850 and 1930, implied an attention to planning that was nearly the reverse of the aimless direction of suburbs from the age of Levittown onwards. A gnome won’t turn your backyard into Narnia, but planning might get you partway there. The Siedlung Iddelsteld, for example, is a Medieval-inspired German planned community offering sufficient space for the keeping of animals and streets named after Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rapunzel. 

A trip to Westphalia isn’t necessary, though, to grasp the authors’ point that moderate attention to the quality of suburban planning can create marvelous neighborhoods. Some exemplars are well-known—Llewellyn Park in New Jersey, Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, and Riverside, Illinois, are all thoroughly planned, often-walkable neighborhoods that are still distinctly leafy and nonurban—but it’s impossible to be far from some iteration of the garden suburb in America. The authors note: “Suspecting that there were numerous excellently planned garden suburbs deeply appreciated by residents but overlooked by most historians, we were amazed to discover the wealth of examples not only in the United Kingdom and the United States but in virtually every industrialized country in the world.” And a wealth of examples they find, securing for Paradise Planned the unquestionable honor of being (at 12 pounds) among the heaviest books I’ve ever owned.

What fills out this great bulk? A lavish litany of communities “intended to evoke the physical structure of preindustrial-era villages, an incomparable work of environmental art combining enlightened land planning, landscape, and architecture to shape neighborhoods and foster a sense of community.” This is the story of countless patterns discernible on Google maps, that space between traditional urban linear grids and the schizophrenic ganglia of recent suburbia, where streets bend but still observe some coherent form, whether in Bexley, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Wyomissing, Pennsylania; Jamestown, Rhode Island; or Opa-Locka, Florida. It would prove a superb practical guide if you’re accustomed to traveling in a helicopter, or have some large saddlebags and an especially durable steed.

The garden suburb sprang out of literal gardens in many cases, with a discernible origin in the planned developments of English manors—the word “suburb” appears in The Canterbury Tales, it is noted, so its pedigree is of course impeccable. The concept expanded over time from housing manor tenants to housing the new middle classes like lords who adapted “the house and estate design of the landed gentry to the needs of the commuting bourgeoisie.” Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in one such development, Rock Park Estate, while serving as American consul in Liverpool, and he praised its “new and neat residences for city people .  .  . springing up with fine names—Eldon Terrace, Rose Cottage, Belvoir Villa.” The bourgeoisie was commuting, in most cases by rail, and plans observed a pattern of greater density, with commercial and civic structures nearer to stations and homes growing slightly distant—but still within pedestrian range.

 The garden suburb arrived in the United States with Llewellyn Park, and it soon spread, thanks to a profoundly able practitioner, Frederick Law Olmsted, whose suburban designs (and those of his firm) still constitute some of the finest iterations of their type anywhere—from Riverside to Druid Hills in Atlanta to Parkside in Buffalo to Roland Park in Baltimore to, well, all sorts of places suddenly abloom with tree-lined boulevards.

While most of these neighborhoods contained housing for the upper-middle to upper classes, many were a bit more catholic in their accessibility. Llewellyn Park was a rural ideal intended for pastoralist freethinkers. Many had a greater range of dwellings than the average suburban tract plan today, and a fair number made direct provisions for the working classes, particularly in the case of the industrial garden village and the full-fledged garden city. 

There’s Hershey, Pennsylvania, one of three “chocolate towns” built by real-world Willy Wonkas. There’s Pullman, Illinois, proof that while the feudalism of an employer designing a community for employees may not be a bad thing, renting to them certainly is. There are Canberra and New Delhi, efforts at applying classical garden-city thinking to whole cities. There’s Penderlea, North Carolina, a town conceived as a “farm city” that would provide room for farms located closely within a coherent framework. There are plots scattered over any number of continents, designed for all varieties of income and taste, from Heliopolis outside Cairo to Vancouver Island to Chapultepec Heights in Mexico City. Just the maps and photographs of these far-flung, tidy communities would alone be worth a monograph.

While the authors’ express aim is to document and extol the earlier ranges of traditionalist planning that high modernists “held in contempt for the scenographic use of stylistic precedent,” their enthusiasm for the topic incorporates many protomodernist efforts that bear garden-suburb-like traits. Adolf Loos, J. J. P. Oud, Bruno Taut, Eric Mendelsohn, and other early modernists crop up in fine detail—as do Mussolini’s new towns, which were grandiose but difficult to dislike.

Modernism and the automobile are the villains here. While never built, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama, and a variety of other emerging plans embraced the possibilities of the automobile to detonate any conception of traditional planning. And considerably less artfully, that’s what generations of developers, and the absence of planning, produced.  

Hardly anyone would argue with this depiction of events, but the greater tragedy is that subsequent waves of reaction against the automobile often made little effort at distinguishing between good suburbs and bad ones. Any escape from urban tumult came to be seen as circumspect. Jane Jacobs’s criticism of a delightful middle-income development, Chatham Village in Pittsburgh, is typical: “There is no public life here, in any city sense. There are differing degrees of extended private life.” It has become fairly easy in academic literature to read “suburbs” as “topographic racism.”

Consider, however, the rise of the New Urbanism in the 1990s, which brought traditional connective urban qualities back to the forefront of design thinking. Exemplars of New Urbanism (Seaside, Florida; Celebration, Florida; Poundbury in England), while attracting broad praise for their return to an emphasis on pedestrian connectivity, encountered a wave of criticism for their vernacular traditionalness, “artificiality,” and narrow income ranges. The cultural depiction of planned communities cannot have helped: Seaside, of course, served as the setting for The Truman Show (1998); more recently, the tidy design and boulevard of England’s Welwyn Garden City might be familiar as the location of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s 2013 film The World’s End, which was filled with pod people. 

Paradise Planned, as an “activist” history, is probably the best argument yet offered against such criticism. It is not the condition of being dense that mandates that a suburb harbor a Michael Graves post office. If you dislike pop traditionalism, simply build in another style. If today’s new suburbs seem economically inaccessible, take it as a sign that demand is high—and build more. “The suburbs will never go away,” write the authors, and Paradise Planned makes us glad that they won’t. 

Anthony Paletta writes the Spaces column for the Wall Street Journal.