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Carol Christensen's Greendale and Greenbelt chapter

Carol Christensen (1986) provides an example of the contest between the machine and garden in her discussion of Greendale and the Greenbelt Program. To Christensen, the Greenbelt program represents an Arcadian impulse of return to the garden by creating villages, rather than cities [Note]. As with the American Jeremiad, this arcadian rhetoric, illustrated by both Greendale and Ebenezer Howard's Garden City Plan, remains fundamentally conservative: "As greentown planners viewed it, planning was neither perceived nor used to direct change; it was used to restrain it" (p. 92).

In this chapter, Christensen focuses her attention on the planning and construction of Greendale near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Greendale was built in the 1930s as part of the New Deal to help Americans in the depths of economic crisis. It was primarily a jobs-program. Greendale (and the two other Greenbelt experiments that survived the transition from blueprint to ground-breaking) was controversial because, to some, this New Town represented a threat to American public life. Moreover, this model of co-operative living and federal planning failed to impress its critics because it was so expensive: "The National Association of Real Estate Boards said that Greenbelt had cost $10,000 per unit because 'dream boys' were building 'a little Utopia of their own'" (p. 77). Despite the exorbitant cost, Greenbelt represents a significant attempt to realize Ebenezer Howard's Garden City Plan. Christensen focuses the majority of her chapter on dimensions of the plan and how it differed in execution from Howard's vision:

  • Single ownership of land was mandated in Greendale to ensure that the property would not be bought and sold in response to speculative pressures. Moreover, a coherent city plan simply demanded unified control of the land. As with More's Utopia, families could not own the homes in which they lived. In the United States, this notion of public life was problematic, to say the least.

  • Municipal control was designed to respond to critics' fears that Greenbelt cities, with their federal planning and ownership, represented "creeping socialism." Governance was relegated to local council-manager bodies: "This form of governance was considered greatly advantageous because such a system ostensibly removed important administration from the political sphere and made government more efficient, rational, and scientific" (p. 81). In some ways, these council-manager bodies might represent a compromise with Plato's notion of the philosopher-king: several managers guarded against tyranny, but all were placed largely above and beyond political concerns.

  • Population Groups were chosen to ensure the highest "quality" of citizens. In this way, Greendale differed from Howard's goal of a heterogeneous population. This goal was a response to critics' concerns that a New Deal make-work program would attract shiftless individuals and create federally sanctioned cesspools of amorality. The citizens were chosen through a rigorous screening policy to include only those persons of 'strong character' and 'social desirability'. Actually, the population of Greendale was remarkably diverse for its time - especially with its cross-section of religious faiths. Despite this apparently progressive philosophy, however, certain families were rejected for reasons that can only be defined as racist and sexist. Most notably, African-Americans and families in which wives worked outside of the home were excluded from Greenbelt communities.

  • Balance and Economic Self-Sufficiency was another goal of Greenbelt communities. Within a short walking distance, most major facilities required for public life were to be found. However, unlike the Howard Plan, communities like Greendale offered little in the way of industry.

  • Cooperative Activity in the Towns included consumer-owned credit unions, stores, nursery schools, and other public institutions. To city planners, this dimension was conceivably the most significant of their New Towns: "Residents were equally enthusiastic. Their [relatively small] numbers, proximity, and common vulnerability meant that together they could accomplish what none could do alone" (p. 84). In many ways, this vision of social cohesion through shared risk mirrors the common body politic envisioned by John Winthrop.

  • The Greenbelt and the Integration of Rural/Urban Economics represent the most promising and least successful component of planned public life in the Greenbelt communities. While these communities offered free or cheap gardens for their citizens and a "belt" that insolated the community from outside encroachment, viable economic relationships between farmers and city-dwellers never materialized. Moreover, the goal of the belt strayed significantly from Howard's goal of economic self-sufficiency through agriculture: Planners didn't envision the greenbelt as economically essential farmland. Instead, the belt served "as a vehicle for centering the lives of residents within the town itself. The greenbelt also served as an expanse of nature preserved for recreation and renewal. But, above all, the greenbelt was to be a buffer protecting the town from 'undesirable' contamination" (p. 87). As we will discuss later, city planning experiments like Disney's Celebration have attempted to build greenbelts to accomplish similar goals.

    While Greenbelt communities attempted to reconstruct the arcadian notion of village life, they also sought a balance of the machine and garden. The by-products of industrialized life were integrated into the social lives on Greenbelt dwellers. Most significantly, these villages were built to accommodate automobiles as well as pedestrians: "Planners wished to accomplish progress within a vision of village life. They wanted [the town to] 'grow and prosper without losing [its] delightful character as a small neighborly village'" (p. 90). The key to understanding Greenbelt cities like Greendale was their optimism that humankind need not depend upon faith, luck or natural evolution to improve our public lives. The builders of Greendale were not spiritual or philosophical visionaries. They were designers, architects, and bureaucrats. Most of all, they were not reformers - they were planners.


    Christensen, C.A. (1986). The American garden city and the new towns movement. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.


    Here, it's important to note that while "Utopianism" may be said to include the arcadian impulse, we may safely distinguish Arcadian rhetoric and its desire to return home, from Utopian rhetoric and its vision of a better public life over the horizon. [Return to Essay]

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