Photo Essay

New Deal Utopias


Text and photographs by Jason Reblando.


New Deal Utopias explores one of the most ambitious but overlooked federal programs in New Deal history, the Greenbelt Town program. The photographs depict the built environments and landscapes of Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin, to evoke utopia both as an idea and place in the American mind. The Greenbelt program was implemented by Rexford G. Tugwell, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “brain trust” of close advisors and head of the short-lived government agency, the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell believed that shifting the American economy from one based on individualism to one that incorporated more cooperative efforts would rescue the US from the Depression.

Tugwell envisioned a series of newly constructed towns built for displaced farmers and poor urban dwellers that privileged communal activities, natural landscaping, and cooperatively owned businesses. As urban populations continued to grow around the perimeter of metropolitan areas, Tugwell saw outlying suburban land as a new frontier to realize his vision of America. As the communities were built, they represented ideal towns for some and wasteful pie-in-the-sky schemes for others. For Tugwell and the New Deal supporters, these new cooperative communities were a symbolic break from the unfettered capitalism that contributed to the Great Depression. Tugwell touted the Greenbelt program for its creation of much-needed jobs and housing. However, critics feared a federal housing program would encroach upon on the private housing market. Conservative members of Congress, industrial and corporate leaders, and newspapers hostile to New Deal policies critiqued them as “socialistic” and “communistic.” There are many contemporary parallels that can be drawn, ranging from ongoing battles surrounding Affordable Care Act legislation to debates on how best to stimulate employment and a sluggish economy. Nevertheless, the idea of planned communities that placed interaction with nature and fellow residents at the forefront may seem commonplace nowadays, but the Greenbelt towns were hailed as a “City of Tomorrow” at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.

The Greenbelt concept was a new one for Americans, but not for Tugwell. He was aware of the work of Ebenezer Howard, a British reformer whose vision had transformed the landscape of British industrial communities in the early twentieth century.1 In To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), Howard looked back to the pre-industrial models of village living and suggested that their emphasis on community and green space should be models for the poor and working classes in London and its suburbs.2 Like other reformers of his time, he was horrified by living conditions in industrial cities and was critical of “the brutal overcrowding . . . aesthetic starvation, and class segregation as rigid as any apartheid system.”3 Howard, deeply influenced by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, proposed a Garden City model to solve these societal deficiencies and provide relief from urban industrial living.4

Howard’s Garden City model combined the best features of urban and rural life. Articulated in his “Three Magnets” illustration, Howard lists the repulsive and attractive aspects of “town” life and “country” life on two separate magnets. The third magnet, the Town-Country magnet, combines the attractive draws of both, including “social opportunity, low rents” to represent positive aspects town life, and “beauty of nature, bright homes & gardens, no smoke, no slums” to represent country life. Tugwell adapted Howard’s Garden City concepts of marrying the best of the town and best of the country for his Greenbelt towns. The three towns of Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin, would be constructed outside of Washington, DC, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee, respectively.

My images engage not only with the legacies of Ebenezer Howard and the New Deal, but also with contemporary conversations about politics and place, the history and future of urbanism, and the complex relationship between landscape and the built environment. While it is far from the most prominent program from the New Deal, the Greenbelt communities still manage to draw visitors from urban planners, historians, and social scientists from around the US and the world. My photographs are a meditation on the changing nature of planned communities and the human urge to create an ideal society, as we continue to grapple with the shifting roles of housing, nature, and government in America.

1 Some of Howard’s principles were carried out in the 1920s in the planned town of Radburn, New Jersey, a precursor to the Greenbelt program. The development was halted because of the Great Depression. Radburn architects later joined the RA. Hillary French, “The Garden City,” in Impossible Worlds, eds. Stephen Coats and Alex Stetter (Basel: Birkhaüser, 2000), 107.
2 This book was reprinted as Garden Cities of To-Morrow (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., 1902).
3 Joe Kerr, “Back to the Future,” in Impossible Worlds, 90-91.
4 For more on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement, see Robert Fishman’s Urban Utopias of the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1982).