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Want to Flee the City for Suburbia? Think Again

In the early 1900s, many large cities were suffering from the side-effects of rapid industrialization: they were polluted, full of high-density housing with bad sanitation. Crime flourished under corrupt policing systems. There were disease outbreaks, too; in San Francisco, bubonic plague killed more than 100 people at the turn of the last century. In response, a new wave of utopian thinkers proposed moving to what Ebenezer Howard, a British urban planner, called “the garden city” in his 1902 manifesto “Garden Cities of To-morrow.” His garden cities would be planned communities of limited size, built with ample park space and free housing for people in need. Everyone could eat locally, from sprawling farms that ringed the city.

Howard’s ideas were so compelling that he was able to work with planners to build two English towns to his specifications — Letchworth and Welwyn, both of which still stand today a few dozen miles outside London. Though both towns are pretty, they fell short of Howard’s vision, which was to provide shelter for the needy as well as prosperous country folk. During the Great Depression, U.S. planners funded by the Works Progress Administration tried their hand at creating some garden cities. They founded Greenbelt, Md., a community that offered extensive social support services to its residents at first — though today it has become a hotbed of private development.

As the craze for these British-style garden cities grew in the States, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote about building a uniquely American version. He called it Usonian — the “Us” in the name stood for United States, to distinguish it from the Central and South American cities he didn’t like. Wright argued that the Usonian city wouldn’t be a flight from modernity — instead, he would liberate ordinary people from high-density industrial “tumor” metropolises through technology. Brand-new inventions like telephones, radio and automobiles meant everyone’s work could be done remotely. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Some of Wright’s followers eventually built a garden city called Usonia in Westchester County, N.Y. Its hundred-some-odd homes are still occupied, each at the end of a winding driveway, surrounded by flower beds and groves. It was supposed to be an idyllic rural community, progressive and affordable, welcoming people of all backgrounds. And yet, though its first homes were built in the late 1940s, it was decades before the self-declared “diverse” community welcomed a Black family. This wasn’t a unique problem; the progressive garden city of Greenbelt was also built for whites only.

There were other issues, too. Though Usonia’s homes were inexpensive in theory, the reality was that they were quite expensive to build and maintain. And to this day, everyone who lives there is dependent on cars. Those gardens that give the town its special character are at odds with a world of carbon-belching transportation machines.

Read entire article at New York Times