01 February 2011

A Look Back: Urban Planning in America

The United States has a long history of Urban Planning, and an equally lengthy history of planning controversies. Americans generally approve of small scale local community planning, but residents are wary of any overreaching or burdensome planning. Americans like their communities to be clean, liveable and attractive, but they are generally hesitant to take steps to achieve such a result.

Never the less, the United States has some prime examples of revolutionary urban master plans. The 1950s saw an explosion of this low-density, suburban tract housing being built in master-planned communities. Americans moved into the suburbs in droves, aided by the automobile and ever-expanding network or highways.

Examples of Master-Planned Communities

Radburn, New Jersey and Levittown, New York are models of early suburban sprawl. As master planned communities, both these towns offered the spacious lots, good schools, and affordable prices which Americans desired. They also, however, ingrained in the American psyche a reliance on the private car which as we're now seeing has unfortunate consequences. 

Levittown, New York

For example, Radburn introduced the residential 'super block.' This land use layout called for a grid of large roads spaced 1 KM or more apart. Each 'square' would contain lots of houses and parks, and would be accessed via extensive bike paths and some roads (with lots of cul-de-sacs). This effectively created a mini-suburb within each square of the road grid.

A residential 'superblock' with large perimeter roads, and bicycle paths and smaller roads within. 
Cities such as Radburn and Levitttown set the stage for the surburbinization of America. Some other more efficient, ecological planning ideals did not quite catch on

Rise and Fall of the Garden City
In the early 1900's, Ebenezer Howard designed a master layout known as the garden city. This regional planning strategy called for a series of dense, radial cities clustered around a major urban area, with efficient interconnections via municipal rail. This plan also emphasized the importance of green space in urban settings, and set aside large tracts of land in the city center for public use as open space.

The layout of Howard's "Garden City", with the main community in the center, and rail lines intersecting it diagonally to other communities. Unfortunately, modern planners often replaced rail lines with freeways when implementing this technique.

Garden Cities had some key advantages over "Levittown" style developments, They encourage a healthy lifestyle as they are designed for foot and bicycle traffic over automobile traffic. Communities are designed to be walkable, and house are set so porches face one another, encourage interaction among neighbors. Essentially, a city inspired by the 'garden city' design is a very nice, safe, healthy place to live.

One segment of a 'garden city.' Depicted are the wide avenues, parks, and hierarchical
arrangement of housing and commercial arrangement. 

The Bottom Line
America is a nation of large lots, single family homes and suburbs connected via freeway. Most of our urban planning takes after the 'Levittown' approach as opposed to building luxurious, aesthetically pleasing 'garden city' communities. 

Google Earth imagry of Levittown, NY Urban Sprawl

Concise, organized layout of Letchworth, England, which was based on the "garden city" design.

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