Greenbelt Elementary School, 1937. Greenbelt, MD. (rockcreek)

Twentieth Century history is littered with experiments in government social engineering gone disastrously wrong. James Scott’s brilliant Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed offers my “favorite” account of how high modernist ideas, weak civil society, and authoritarian politics can lead to real human misery. But the pattern repeats again and again. The photograph below of the last highrise in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project during its 2011 demolition illustrates.

The Greenbelt development grew from similarly big ideas. The Greenbelt Museum history describes how Rexford Guy Tugwell, a Columbia University academic,developed the “green belt town program” through the New Deal Resettlement Administration. “Tugwell wanted to establish cooperative communities where the built environment would reinforce community spirit and cooperation among its residents.” Like I said, big ideas – some, with hindsight, are obviously false – rooted in dated notions of race and family. But today’s Greenbelt is no post-modern nightmare. I don’t live there, but this experiment in social engineering seems to have given birth to a livable community – with a functioning cooperative grocery store, I might add.

“Last man standing” April 2011. (Meera Lee Sethi)


2 thoughts on “greenbelt

  1. See also, the great documentary the Pruitt-Igoe Myth which suggests that demographic shifts are responsible for the success or failure government housing projects as the planning itself. (Greenbelt was built outside a city center at a time when Americans were moving to the suburbs; Cabrini Green and Pruitt-Igoe were built in cities, the latter in St. Louis which declined in population.)

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