Greenbelt, Maryland, is an extraordinarily complete example of a “greenbelt town” planned and built by the federal government during the New Deal. Economist Rexford Guy Tugwell, appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to run the Resettlement Administration (RA) within the Department of Agriculture, proposed developing model communities and resettling impoverished rural and urban families. Part of the Suburban Division within the RA, the green town effort was pared down to three pilot projects—Greenhills, Ohio, near Cincinnati; Greendale, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee; and Greenbelt, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Of the three, Greenbelt is the most fully realized, with a variety of residential buildings, schools, a pool, athletic fields, and a shopping center with a movie theater. Greenbelt is also the least conventional in its planning and design.
The plan and community amenities of Greenbelt embody the regional planning ideals of the period, particularly those of Clarence Stein and the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA). RPAA members were influenced by British reformer Ebenezer Howard’s writings on decentralized, planned “garden cities.” Stein’s 1920s work at Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, New York, and Radburn in Fairlawn, New Jersey, were key precedents for the New Deal green town effort. Basic features of this approach to planning include: groupings of residential buildings with access to communal green space; separate circulation for automobiles and pedestrians, with main transportation arteries pushed to the edges (superblocks); and centrally-placed nodes of community facilities.
At Greenbelt, planner Hale Walker created a crescent-shaped layout with a school, commercial center, and recreation facilities clustered at the middle. Four-story apartment buildings are adjacent to this area, with groups of modest row houses beyond. The two main automobile axes of Crescent Road and Ridge Road join at their north and south ends to form a continuous loop. Pedestrian paths leading from residential areas to community amenities are routed through underpasses to minimize the hazard of crossing streets. Attached houses in rows of two to eight units face communal courts on their “garden side.” Services such as garages, parking, and trash bins are located around the outside of each grouping, again saving space for communal green areas and making these necessities more cost effective.
Greenbelt’s architecture continues the emphasis on efficiency. Douglas Ellington and Reginald J. Wadsworth were the primary architects. They designed a variety of simple structures inspired by Ernest May’s avant-garde German housing estates, with contemporary streamlined flourishes. The row houses include a more traditional brick veneer, gabled-roof model and a concrete block, flat roof variation. Bands of raised brick at the corners—now affectionately called “speed lines”—add visual interest at minimal cost. Within the two basic forms, the row houses offer a variety of plans in two, three, or four-bedroom units. The apartment buildings share the streamlined look and materials of the concrete block houses and include large areas of glass block at the entrances. Steel sash casement windows are another practical touch that give Greenbelt’s buildings a modern appearance. The Moderne aesthetic extends to Greenbelt Center School (now Greenbelt Community Center) and the commercial buildings with shops, offices, and a movie theater arranged around a plaza (now Roosevelt Center).
The original residents of Greenbelt were chosen for their economic need and willingness to create and join cooperative community organizations. Only white families were eligible. When the federal government sold Greenbelt in 1952, residents formed a cooperative to purchase the New Deal-built houses, some of the apartment buildings, and over 1,000 additional wood-frame units added as defense housing during 1941–1942. Later decades of development have expanded the city of Greenbelt, but the original New Deal community maintains its cohesive plan and cooperative community structure. The Greenbelt Historic District was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
Gournay, Isabelle, and Mary Corbin Sies. “Greenbelt, Maryland.” In Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning the National Capital Area, edited by Richard Longstreth, 203-228. Chicago: Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2010.
Knepper, Cathy D. Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Lampl, Elizabeth Jo., “Greenbelt, Maryland Historic District,” Prince George's County, Maryland. National Historic Landmarks Nomination Form, 1996. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.