How do people find community and connection at a time when people are ever more isolated from their neighbors, when family sizes are shrinking, and many adults are not married and don’t have children? How do we all find just the right mix of time alone and time with other people?
Those are some of the key questions I addressed in my new book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. The challenges I just described sound like contemporary ones, and they are. Yet there are lifespaces designed long ago that answer those challenges, and continue to endure to this day. Below I describe one of them.
This article is part of an occasional series on lifespaces I originally wrote about for How We Live Now. Because of space limitations, these sections did not make it into the final version of the book, so I’m sharing them here.
Greenbelt: From the Great Depression, an Innovative Community Still Thriving
The year was 1937, the midst of a time when conditions were so dreary in so many ways that the whole era got named The Great Depression. The Franklin Roosevelt administration set out to forge a new future, and many of its creative and ambitious projects are now legendary. Social Security, farm subsidies, and the Work Projects Administration are among the many marquee innovations. Less well known is the Resettlement Administration.
Many cities of the 1930s were plagued with dirt, disease, and crime. Americans – particularly those of meager means – desperately needed more humane places to live. The Resettlement Administration was on it. The agency would create brand new towns, from scratch, built on workable imaginings of the good life. Three were called “green towns” – Greenbelt in Maryland, Greendale in Wisconsin, and Greenhills in Oho.
To get to live in a green town, prospective residents had to pass a screening. One of the criteria? Civic-mindedness. Evaluators were looking for an eagerness to participate in the life and the governance of the community. The federal government owned the land and the houses of the green towns, but the management of the community was up to the residents. The original towns had gas stations, credit unions, newspapers, and grocery stores that were all run cooperatively – they were managed and owned by the workers.
Greenbelt, in Prince George’s County, is still thriving today, more than seventy-five years later. The vision that inspired it reaches back to other places and times, yet is also resonant with contemporary ideals of planning and design. As the Washington Post noted, the green towns “were modeled on the English concept of garden cities – walkable, self-sufficient enclaves surrounded by a ring of forests and fields.”
The twenty-first century version, with houses arranged in “superblocks,” is still pedestrian friendly. Roads lead into Greenbelt but “backyards give way to green parks and narrow paths that traverse the entire community.” A community center boasts tennis courts and a pool, and is the venue for many activities.
The homes aren’t big but neither are the prices. Many of the houses are simple 2-3 bedroom two-story townhouses, some as small as 800 square feet. They attract residents from across the educational spectrum. The draw is not a fancy house with lots of amenities – it is community.
So many of the lifespaces I have been discussing have important elements in common with cohousing communities. When they differ, it is usually in the direction of fewer key characteristics and less formality. Pocket neighborhoods, for example, often do not have a common house. Neighbors living in cul-de-sacs rarely try for formal consensus in decision-making, even if their geographical good fortune has brought them emotionally closer than they had ever anticipated. What is rare in any iteration of the combination of private homes within genuinely neighborly communities is to add elements missing from cohousing, and especially to add economic interdependencies. But that’s what Greenbelt has done, starting from when it was first founded (long before cohousing was a recognized way of living, even in Scandinavia) and continuing to this day. Along with all of the houses, the New Deal Coffee Shop, the grocery store, and the kindergarten are all cooperatively owned and governed.
In 1952, the government was ready to sell the Greenbelt land. The people, though, were not about to let it go to developers who might rob the place of its history and sensibility. They knew what to do – they had been doing it for decades. They organized. They founded the Greenbelt Veterans Housing Corporation, a housing cooperative, and bought 1600 of the homes.
[Notes. How We Live Now is getting some attention in the media. I’ll post updates on the Facebook page I created for the book, as well as the relevant page of my personal website. Here I’ll mention just a few things. First, several of the people interviewed in the book have blogged about it, including April McCaffery and Marianne Kilkenny. Thank you, both! Second, one of my favorite media stories is this one in Longreads, by Jessica Gross. Although the focus is on my new book, the article also covers much of my other work on single life and even my earlier work on the psychology of lying and detecting lies. It also mentions this blog.]
Tranquil path photo available from Shutterstock