I’m in the town of Greenbelt today. It’s at the northern terminus of the green line on the Washington metro, and actually it’s only a short trip away from where Megan lives in College Park.
She doesn’t actually live in Washington city itself, because it’s too expensive. College Park is far up in Maryland, but still reasonably accessible on the metro. It’s confusing as the formal and socially-constructed urban boundaries here don’t actually line up with each other. All I need to know is that we’re within the general Washington DC sphere of influence.
Here’s what Greenbelt looks like on my phone’s map.
Greenbelt is a planned community, a garden city built from scratch beginning in 1935 as part of the New Deal programme.
To (briefly) explain the New Deal: in the early 1930s the US experienced a severe economic crisis, resulting in phenomenally high unemployment. In order to stimulate the economy, the state launched various infrastructure schemes in order to create jobs. The New Deal resulted in social security, labour standards, reform of the banks, intensification of industrial production, and loads of funky art. At least, that’s my understanding of it.
I also have a particular interest in planned cities. I enjoy seeing the utopian elements which leak through the landscape, and the distortions which emerge as the original vision gets translated into bricks and mortar.
Coming off the metro, the first thing you notice is that the metro is much too distant from old Greenbelt. If you walk fast it takes at least 40 minutes to get to the centre, which basically discounts the metro as useless for any sort of regular commute into Washington. The expectation is that you’ll have to drive or take the bus to the metro, which is a clumsy compromise you wouldn’t expect of a semi-suburban commuter town.
Greenbelt is even further walled-off by the Capital Beltway. For balance it’s worth mentioning that this situation does go against the town’s founding principles, and the gradual isolation of old Greenbelt was repeatedly contested by its inhabitants.
Past that there’s a business park surrounded by half-empty parking lots.
Here’s the Maryland highways administration building, and an empty car park.
However, once you’ve passed through the long desolate buffer space, things get much better. The first sign of Greenbelt’s original construction is the Turner cemetery.
This cemetery used to belong to the Turner family, who owned a farm nearby. There were some corpses buried here in the 18th Century, but most of the graves here are relatively new.
When the town was first built, they started off creating this lake.
Unfortunately the lake was contaminated with bacteria and it’s not reccommended to swim in it, but at least it looks pretty.
Nearby here there are some newer apartment blocks.
I visited the rental office for these buildings and was told that they date back to the 1960s. They’re not co-operatively owned, although as multi-occupant buildings surrounded by public green space, they do follow some of the town’s design philosophy.
The town is free of advertising, which you only notice by its absence. While other US towns feature large shouty billboards on the roadsides, Greenbelt has public artworks and a community noticeboard instead. You can’t find the usual basket of generic brand stores here either; there’s no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no big moribund shopping mall.
At the centre of the town is Roosevelt square, which is marked on one end by this statue.
There are several benches, with trees for shade. The square holds a co-operative supermarket, a credit union/co-operative bank, a makerspace, a theatre, the New Deal cafe (run as a co-operative), and an independent cinema.
Surrounding the square there are a few other businesses, a convenience shop, a hairdressers, and a petrol station.
More importantly, there are a range of public services beyond what you’d expect for a town that size. There’s a public outdoor swimming pool (and a gym/tennis courts/etc.), a large library, a town hall, a community centre, a nursery, a youth centre, and a skateboard park. All within 2-3 minutes walking distance of each other.
There are several playgrounds for children.
There’s also an unusually high number of municipal maintainance workers around the place - people in reflective bibs trimming the grass, blowing leaves around, or emptying the recycling bins. I don’t have the figures but I guess a lot of the town’s inhabitants work in the public sector in some capacity. The biggest employer is probably the NASA Flight Centre to the north.
Here’s the community centre, in all its art-deco splendor.
Those friezes at the front are illustrations of the preamble to the US Consitution.
Here’s ‘insure domestic tranquility’.
Greenbelt has a local newspaper - the News Review. As you might expect, the paper is owned and operated… as a co-operative.
In case you haven’t realised yet, I like Greenbelt. The town reflects all the best aspects of the New Deal and you could almost see it as a model of socialism in the USA. All of old Greenbelt still operates under a co-operative ownership structure. No landlords here.
Despite its socialist origins, the town’s inhabitants were historically keen to emphasise that they were ‘not communists’. However, that didn’t stop the town from being singled out as a significant target of the McCarthyite purges in the 1950s. Several people in the town were investigated as ‘suspected communists’ and fired from their jobs. Interestingly, none of the purge victims in Greenbelt were actually communists, but they were all jewish.
The old apartments themselves are nothing too special.
Here’s another set from behind.
Other parts of the original planned town feature detatched or semi-detatched houses.
These houses generally front onto pedestrian pathways, with their back facing out onto the road, which is separated from the paths.
As with other planned towns of this type, there are separate networks for pedestrians and cars. Where they meet, you get underpasses like this one.
Around the old town, the speed limit is 25mph, and where cars have to interact with pedestrians there are zebra crossings with signs indicating pedestrian priority. I’m not sure totally segregating cars and pedestrians is the best idea, but walking around the town feels pleasant enough.
If you look at the map of the roads, you’ll see they curve around each other, with smaller roads branching off. It looks natural and organic, cars drive slowly, but traffic overall moves smoothly and consistently. It’s the complete opposite of the Washington grid system.
I really resent the road layout in Washington. Somehow the intersections manage to cause frustration to pedestrians and cars in equal measure. The blocks seem small, and to cover a short distance you’ll have to wait at several traffic lights. The lights are on automatic timers, and they always make you wait a little longer than reasonable. The walk sign lights up in sync with the green light for cars going in your direction, and they sometimes accelerate to cut across your path. In the evenings at rush hour the whole system locks up. Cars get stuck in the middle section of the intersections, which blocks traffic coming from the other direction. A few occasions I’ve seen traffic police try to sort out the mess by manually directing cars themselves. All these little flaws add up to make Washington really difficult to move around in, and in comparison Greenbelt is a transport paradise.
I wasn’t keen to walk all the way back to the metro so took the bus at the end of the day. Just in time to cook Megan some pasta for dinner.
Lastly, Greenbelt has a town museum. However, it’s only open on weekends, so take that into consideration if you’re reading this and thinking about planning a visit.