How the Green New Deal Could Retrofit Suburbs

Last week, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced a resolution that gives the heady vision of the “Green New Deal” some broad policy outlines—although the specifics are still up for grabs. Their resolution calls for a national, 10-year mobilization that would repair and upgrade infrastructure and switch the country over to 100-percent clean energy, among other goals.

As its name makes clear, in scope and ambition, the Green New Deal has strong parallels to the original New Deal, with its massive public-works projects like the Hoover Dam and jobs programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. But, amid calls for the Green New Deal to address wasteful land use, a smaller, more obscure initiative of the old New Deal is also worth revisiting: the greenbelt-towns program, undertaken by the short-lived federal Resettlement Administration (RA).

With that program, the U.S. government threw its weight behind a progressive approach to urban planning and offered an alternative to helter-skelter suburban sprawl. The government could do so again, and work to fix suburbia’s lack of sustainable, affordable housing, and car dependency. A 21st-century agenda would learn from the New Deal’s failings, prioritizing racial and social equity and working with existing communities rather than imposing a top-down plan.

RA head Rex Tugwell (left) and President Roosevelt in Greenbelt in late 1936. The president told reporters the town was “an experiment that ought to be copied by every community in the United States.” (Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress)

As I recount in my forthcoming book Radical Suburbs, the RA’s town-building program was inspired by the “Garden City” movement that swept across Europe at the turn of the 20th century. A British autodidact named Ebenezer Howard envisaged a network of “Garden Cities” being built on the outer periphery of London to relieve the population pressure on the metropolis. Each would have about 30,000 people and combine the best of urban and rural life, with shops and cultural venues for social and intellectual stimulation, but also fresh air and greenery, protected by an encircling “green belt.”

The Garden City would be a sort of anti-bedroom-suburb, a place not just to live but to work, with factories sitting at a healthful distance from homes (unlike in Howard’s soot-choked London). It would be compact enough that residents would be able to stroll across it in 20 minutes or so, and linked to other Garden Cities and larger cities by rail. The land beneath the Garden City would be publicly owned, and rents would fund public services.

Howard’s 1902 book Garden Cities of To-morrow inspired scores of experiments in the U.K., Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere, including many social-housing projects. It was slower to catch on in the United States. Projects along similar lines were cut short by the Depression. But with the New Deal, advocates saw an opportunity. The RA, under the leadership of Rexford Guy Tugwell, a left-wing economist in FDR’s “brains trust,” built three suburban demonstration towns along Garden-City lines: Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati; and Greendale, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. All of them were located near cities for proximity to jobs, but also to accommodate people shut out by a severe urban-housing shortage.

Greenbelt, 12 miles from Capitol Hill, was the largest of the federal towns and came closest to Howard’s ideals. When President Roosevelt visited in 1936, he called it “an experiment that ought to be copied by every community in the United States.”

Greenbelt was different from the suburbs that had sprouted around U.S. cities in the 1920s, developments of single-family homes built by private homebuilders. Instead of streets lined with detached houses, Greenbelt had townhouses and apartment buildings, many designed in a striking Modernist style, and arranged in “courts” around shared green spaces to promote social cohesion. Greenbelt wasn’t just a dormitory suburb, either—it had a downtown with a grocery store and movie theater, and a beautiful Art Deco school that children could walk to on special pathways and underpasses, safe from car traffic.

Women chatting in front of a Greenbelt apartment house in 1938. Greenbelt had a mix of housing types for households of different sizes, but all homes were compact and designed for efficiency. (Marion Post Wolcott/Library of Congress)
Greenbelt was designed so that residents could meet many of their daily needs on foot. It had (and has) a movie theater, cooperative grocery store, elementary school/community center, and swimming pool. (Marion Post Wolcott/Library of Congress)

Most unusually, early Greenbelters didn’t buy their homes—they rented them from the U.S. government. In other words, Greenbelt was aspirational, suburban public housing.

The whole thing was so unorthodox, so strange, that people from around the Washingtonian region (and the world) flocked to the muddy construction site between 1935 and 1937 to see what was taking shape. The Washington Post reported that the number of visitors in those years was an astonishing 350,000.

But the project had powerful detractors. Some saw a master-planned federal city as the height of social engineering. The construction and real-estate industries cried foul at what they perceived as competition from Uncle Sam. Greenbelt was derided in the press as a boondoggle, “Tugwelltown” and “Tugwell’s Folly.” Tugwell himself resigned before the town’s completion, bowing to political pressure. He had hoped to build 25 model towns, and ended up with partial versions of three.

It’s true that Greenbelt was far from perfect. It did cost a lot to build, partly because of its emphasis on make-work (no heavy machinery was used). There weren’t many jobs for residents nearby, and commuter transportation to Washington was a stubborn problem. More egregiously, the town barred African Americans from being tenants, including the black workers who had helped build it, a perversion of its utopian principles.

Still, in hindsight, the ambition of the greenbelt-towns program is breathtaking, and Greenbelt itself got a lot of things right. It offered a mix of housing options for individuals, couples, and families, with an emphasis on efficient and affordable smaller homes. Many of those homes are now part of a co-op, Greenbelt Homes, Inc., and are still very reasonably priced for the expensive Washington, D.C., area. The town embodied what we now call walkable urbanism, since every dwelling was within walking distance of the small downtown, and pedestrian safety was a priority. (Separate systems for pedestrian and vehicle circulation have, however, since fallen out of favor with planners.)

“Tugwelltown” gave homes to ordinary Americans of modest means during a severe housing shortage. Its high-quality design, with contributions from leading figures such as Clarence Stein and Douglas Ellington, made a statement: Even in a country that prizes homeownership, renters deserve comfortable and attractive places to live, and living in subsidized housing isn’t something to be ashamed of.

After the end of World War II, Congress divested itself of the greenbelt towns. Suburbanization took off around the nation, led by the private sector but resting on government incentives, and it promoted a dream very unlike Ebenezer Howard’s. Urban-planning students around the world still learn about Greenbelt, but most postwar suburban developers ignored it and built monocultures of single-family homes, for purchase only. Now we are reckoning with the results.

The spread-out, single-use neighborhoods that characterize so many American suburbs require residents to drive almost everywhere, increasing greenhouse-gas emissions (and making us more stressed and sedentary). Large, detached dwellings need more energy to heat and cool than apartments and attached homes—and residential energy accounts for a hefty share of U.S. energy use. Suburbia’s carbon footprint cancels out the environmental progress made by American cities, researchers have found. Plus, the impervious surfaces of roads and parking lots, which are all too prevalent in the suburban landscape, contribute to heat-island effects, pollution, and flooding.

Finally, despite suburbia having become quite diverse, many suburbs with good schools and desirable amenities remain socially and racially exclusive, keeping out less-affluent people through restrictive zoning policies or by blocking new development.

The way the Green New Deal can harness the spirit of Greenbelt is not by building new towns from scratch. That could fuel sprawl and would be resource-intensive, even if the new buildings were net-zero-energy. It would also be legally iffy (the original greenbelt-towns program died in the courts after a New Jersey municipality balked at the feds’ land grab). The better approach is to retrofit existing suburban places to be more sustainable, livable, and equitable. Working with states and localities, the federal government could perhaps choose a handful of pilot sites to test and refine strategies, and roll them out from there.

Upgrading and building affordable housing—near job centers and transit, and to the highest standard of energy efficiency—would help meet an urgent need while enabling green-workforce training. The government could prioritize extending or building light-rail and bus-rapid-transit systems in suburbs, and redesigning roads for walking and biking, so more suburbanites can leave their cars at home (or never need to buy them in the first place).

Federal funding might be linked to loosening local zoning laws that raise housing prices and increase segregation. (In fact, presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Cory Booker both recently floated bills that embrace this principle.) With legalized duplexes and “granny flats,” as well as new affordable housing, suburbs would densify and be able to support more local transit, businesses, and services, and become more socioeconomically integrated.

The Green New Deal could also have seed money for initiatives that, for example, turn obsolete parking lots into wetlands, establish community land trusts, or kick-start small-business incubators in aging shopping centers. (These would come under the umbrella of what Ocasio-Cortez and Markey call “community-defined projects and strategies.”)

More than half of Americans live in suburbs. Even major densification of central cities couldn’t come close to accommodating all those people. Suburbia is here to stay, so it’s imperative to address its environmental problems. Electrifying vehicles is an essential step to cut emissions, but longer-term, to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, Americans must change how we live and get around more fundamentally. If we could think that big in the 1930s, we can do so again. And with only 11 years left to keep global warming under the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, it’s past time to get started.