The Green Towns Program
Front cover and interior page of Greenbelt Towns booklet produced by the Resettlement Administration, 1936. Greenbelt Museum Collection.
The Greenbelt Towns program, or Green Town Program, was a sweeping attempt on the part of the U.S. government to create model communities for low to moderate-income citizens who needed adequate housing. The program provided relief work and also explored what were then modern concepts of town planning.
As Americans struggled under the weight of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. He established the New Deal, a series of agencies and programs to help Americans recover. One of those agencies was the Resettlement Administration, created in 1935 and headed by Rexford Guy Tugwell, an economist and one of Roosevelt’s trusted advisors. Some of the agency’s initiatives were to resettle people from failing farms, arid land and overcrowded, unhealthy cities. Tugwell dreamed of building entirely new communities called “greenbelt towns” on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas encircled by belts of green space which would combine the best of country and city living. Greenbelt was the first of three green towns which were built followed quickly by Greenhills, Ohio, and Greendale, Wisconsin. A fourth, Greenbrook, was to be built in New Jersey but it was challenged by litigation and never built. Sadly, the communities would be segregated in terms of race.
While the government had been experimenting with building low income housing for several years, Tugwell’s vision was specifically based on the “garden city” concept first envisioned by Ebenezer Howard in 1898. Howard, in response to the increasing industrialization and unhealthful living conditions of urban areas in the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century, proposed the construction of smaller towns on the outskirts of cities surrounded by green space with areas for people to live, work, and play. Beyond the belt of green space, farmers would grow crops which could easily sold to the nearby townspeople. Howard’s ideas were known in the United States and influenced urban planners such as Clarence Stein, who was a consultant on the Greenbelt project. Stein, along with Henry Wright, designed Radburn, New Jersey in 1929, which is based on “garden city” principles and includes superblocks, underpasses, pedestrian walkways and carefully designed housing, all features that would eventually be included in Greenbelt’s design as well.
Drawing of a home for Greenbrook, NJ from the Library of Congress. The community was not built due to litigation.
Unlike typical American towns which evolve over time as a result of economic factors and population demand, Greenbelt was carefully created from scratch on worn-out farm land, fourteen miles outside of Washington, D.C. A forward-thinking group of administrators, planners, and architects intended to demonstrate that planned development was far superior to haphazard development and that the physical design of a community could positively influence the lives of its residents. Greenbelt's innovative design, based on both the garden cities of England and the late 1920s community of Radburn, New Jersey, features residential superblocks four to five times the size of a standard city block and homes with an unusual orientation. Service entries, normally considered back doors, faced the street and the garden side or front entries faced the interior of the block which was shared green space. This configuration provided access to walking paths that wound through the blocks and under roads via underpasses and which connected the homes to numerous parks and playgrounds, and to a town center. Greenbelt is one of three completed federal “green towns,” the others being Greendale, Wisconsin and Greenhills, Ohio. A fourth, planned for New Jersey, was never built. In 1997, Greenbelt’s innovative plan became a National Historic landmark.