Greenbelt, Maryland, was the largest of three towns developed under the Greenbelt Town Program of the late 1930's. When conceived, the idea of a completely planned community, was viewed by some as a brash, possibly even dangerous, project
initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his intellectual supporters. Today, however, Greenbelt and the Greenbelt Town Program hold an important place in the history of
American architecture and town planning. Since opening for public inspection in 1936, city planners, architects and social scientists have been interested in the physical and social environment created by the innovative builders of Greenbelt.
Many of the innovative design elements partially built or only conceptualized in the early years of the twentieth century were incorporated in the building of Greenbelt. These features included curvilinear street patterns, the super block, the separation of pedestrian walkways and the street system, and the organization of neighborhoods around elementary schools.Projects such as Riverside, Illinois, Forest Hills Gardens in Pittsburgh, and Radburn, New Jersey, all featured some of these town planning elements, but nowhere had so many been joined together in a single large community on the scale of Greenbelt.
Bureaucratic inertia and cumbersome regulations have generally thwarted originality in federally-funded housing projects, and few have achieved a reputation for architectural merit. The Greenbelt Project was different in this respect,
because it was part of a wide array of federal programs launched by the New Deal. Although not entirely successful, many of these projects were more imaginative and bolder than any previous programs to come out of Washington in the twentieth century.
Rexford Tugwell, Chief of the Resettlement Administration and a close confidante of Roosevelt, urged FDR's approval of the Greenbelt Town Program. Tugwell believed that "new towns" represented the first practical alternative to the ugly and wasteful processes of urban growth that had plagued America since the early nineteenth century. The human resources for such a program were available; there were thousands of unemployed construction workers in the Baltimore-Washington area, and the best architects and town planners could be hired as they were without work also.
John S. Lansill, appointed by Tugwell to oversee the greenbelt programs, was not a planner or architect. He was, however, an excellent judge of people and with the aid of the architect, Frederick Bigger, he hired an outstanding staff to design Greenbelt. Similar groups designed Greenhills outside Cincinnati, Ohio, and Greendale near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Greenbelt had to be under construction before the other two towns, so its planners and architects were pushed the hardest by Lansill. Almost all the plans were drawn in a period of six to eight months. These men were allowed a great deal of creative latitude in their work, and the result was one of the most
innovative and significant experiments in new town planning in the mid-twentieth century.