In his 1908 thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton placed his novel on London’s Ealing outskirts in a place he called Saffron Park as a scarcely concealed stand in for the renowned crucible of the garden suburb planning template called Bedford Park (1875). His approval crescendos from, “But although its pretensions to be an intellectual center were a little vague, its pretensions to be a pleasant place were indisputable,” to “It was not only pleasant, but perfect, once there the stranger who looked for the first time could regard it not as a deception but rather a dream.” Nothing its pretentious residents did could diminish the place they had the good fortune to inhabit as pioneers in a whole new manner of place. If not utopia, it was still dream-like in its shared grace.
Such passionate regard for a suburban paradigm as evolved throughout history from its English origins, across Europe, occasionally into Asia, and especially in ever accumulating form and frequency in America enlivens Robert A.M. Stern and his co-authors through this seminal enterprise to dispel “the impression that the garden suburb movement was something of a minor distraction in the history of the modern city.”
The writers reveal to denigrators and tougher still to disdainful deniers that there is a great divide between good suburban planning and the banal sprawl too often seen as its inevitable byproduct. In instances ranging from the rustic—like West Orange, New Jersey’s precedent-setting Llewellyn Park—to the more interstitially urban—like Kew Gardens and Forest Hills Garden in New York’s borough of Queens—the true garden suburb incorporates a civic overlay of connection, shared amenity, and hopeful aspiration as point of formal departure as absent from the cookie-cutter zoning of the McMansion-dotted subdivision where the ground plan seems more like an abattoir.
Nearly one thousand pages unfold chronologically with site descriptions laced by broad era-defining thematic chapter heads that provide theoretical reference points for what would otherwise prove an overwhelming sweep of planning enterprise. All of the more than one hundred case studies propel a story of an underappreciated and often overlooked design at its optimistic best. Lewis Mumford’s ode in his book The City in History to those planners and builders “accepting the co-operation of nature instead of stamping out every trace of environmental character” as the prototype of a new form of community here finally get the detailed historic monograph he specifically called for.
At the outset of one of the most anchoring chapters, “The Garden City in Europe and America 1869–1940,” the text traces back from Mumford to one of the many unknown and under known planning masters this door-stop volume underscores. In this instance, it is a self-trained Englishman named Ebenezer Howard, whose 1898 book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform promoted a suburban great chain of being that in turn spawned the Garden City Association and along the way a codified system with roots back to no less than 1490s Leonardo and his schemes for satellite cities ringing Milan. Howard distinguished the garden city as a self-contained town with zones of industry and housing alike buffering a continued influx into overcrowded and filthy urban capitals from a garden suburb as a place reliant on the economic energies of a nearby city, yet allows that the continued growth of the central polestar might unfurl in a more “healthy line” as a result of the garden suburb’s advent. (He also adds “garden villages” as dependencies on specific far-off companies or symbiotic industries with an according array of contiguous employee housing.)
Courtesy History Miami
It is of course the garden suburb as urban satellite that takes center stage in the ensuing continuum of placemaking. Those the authors deem as most precedential enjoy extended prose, such as the great resort garden suburbs of southern Florida, which set the stage for a way of life and later the seeds of sprawl despite intact plans here uncovered and critically illuminated.
Another is Hampstead Garden Suburb in North London, which was conceived by another emergent planning pioneer, Raymond Unwin, and later enhanced by Edwin Lutyens’ civic center, free of commerce and truly the common refuge of collective cultural enlightenment and refreshment: The garden suburb at its finest. Another place that interrupts the summary flow are such American models as Radburn, New Jersey, and Valley Stream, New York, where initial promise in part went fallow through tougher Depression-laden times. Economic forces thus left the land-use door open just enough to later accommodate the sprawl of cheaper construction costs and the automobile and its disconnection from the systems of rail and trolley access that played such a key part in the garden suburb prototype flourishing throughout this now essential reference compendium.
Bob Stern with John Massengale set this career-long consideration of the garden suburb as a vital ingredient in a healthy modern city with a small 1981 Cooper-Hewitt Museum exhibition and catalog (published as a special volume of Britain’s Architectural Design magazine) entitled simply enough Suburb. Just as then when many critical elites ignored if not delighted in the open space, landscape devouring, equal opportunity despoliation of land (a holy trinity of cheap real estate, cheap gas, and unregulated zoning) that defined sprawl, the two curators looked to the brighter angels of cohesive and ennobling urban plans. To that end, they gathered and interpreted a sample record for those willing to look. These two trained architects put such planning excellence ahead of individual structure design despite their professional credentials and proved to be well ahead of their time even as the urban rediscovery of gentrification gained full steam and the cost of fuel had long ceased its status as inevitable bargain.
Now with the Traditional Town movement of the New Urbanists, which serves as subject of the book’s forward-looking epilogue of future practice as informed by all the history that goes before it, there is an ever greater community of modern practitioners who will keep Paradise Planned in ready, well-thumbed proximity to their desks. There could be no better prop for prospective client meetings, especially when among elected and appointed officials making land-use decisions at a time of shrinking available land and rising property values.
Who could have imagined 30 years on from the Suburb exhibition that plugged-in, grid-dependent hipsters, whose idea of hell is sitting behind the lonesome wheel of a traffic-choked highway, would come around to demand the trains and connectivity of cities and of garden suburbs. Paradise Planned reminds its readers that modernism comes in waves and is not a liner progression. Sometimes past precedent cannot be dismissed as nostalgia, but must be accepted as a template of reinterpretation grounded in proven civic value.
As the authors conclude, “Suburbs will not go away, nor should they. Planned as part of a metropolitan city, the garden suburb is the best template yet devised to achieve a habitable earthy paradise.” And while the order may be a tall one, the evidence so abundantly and densely arrayed here provides a long list of well-tested recipes.