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Design For Health

In the 1950s and 1960s, early post-World War II suburban expansion was criticized for its ugliness, cultural conformity, social isolation, and environmental problems. From the 1950s through the 1970s, some real-estate developers and parts of the planning profession responded to these complaints. They proposed master-planned new communities throughout the United States related to the new-towns programs then active in Europe. Ranging in projected population from 10,000 to 500,000, these communities were planned to be phased, coordinated, socially balanced, environmentally aware, and economically efficient. Their developers wanted to create whole communities rather than simple subdivisions. By avoiding many of the problems of unplanned incremental growth—or sprawl—they imagined both improving urban areas and creating a real-estate product that would sell.

While around 150 of these new communities were publicized in the 1960s and 1970s, not all the proposed developments were built. In addition, the developments differed in character. Some developments were relatively small—much closer to 10,000 than 100,000 in population. While the ideal of the new community was the comprehensive new town with employment, retail, cultural facilities, and recreational opportunities, many were more like bedroom suburbs either in their initial concept or due to scaling back of the development after construction commenced.

This project examines three of the biggest and most comprehensive of the satellite new communities. Irvine, California; Columbia, Maryland; and The Woodlands in suburban Houston, Texas, were all initially planned in the 1960s and 1970s but used many techniques currently advocated by the various anti-sprawl movements, such as smart growth and new urbanism. Still under construction, and with relatively few discontinuities in their planning and development, they can now offer the lessons of several decades of continuously implemented cutting-edge suburban design and planning from the private sector. How well did these planned communities avoid the problems of sprawl? Did they create more sustainable or livable places? Are the techniques that they used still viable alternatives or are they now part of the problem? Can private-sector planning achieve important public purposes?

The lesson of these developments is that many techniques for achieving such aims as protecting open space or creating convenient places to live are still relevant. However, even when successfully implemented not all techniques achieved the outcomes they were intended to produce, particularly in the areas of transportation and housing. These failures still have a great deal to teach the current period, because they are likely to be failures, as well, of the current generation of suburban smart-growth projects that use essentially the same techniques. However, to do much more, outside of some small niche developments, such as many of those constructed by new urbanists, would be to go beyond the market, and thus require government intervention. This project explores those limits to marketable urban innovation and examines where the public sector needs to intervene if larger goals are to be met.

Published as:

2011     A. Forsyth. Planned Communities and New Towns. In T. Banerjee and A. Loukaitou-Sideris eds. Urban Design: Roots, Influences, and Trends: The Routledge Companion to Urban Design. New York: Routledge.

2007     A. Forsyth. Irvine Ranch—the “Place Where Urban Sprawl Ends,” The Commissioner Fall, 12.

2005     A. Forsyth, Reforming Suburbia: The Planned Communities of Irvine, Columbia, and The Woodlands. Berkeley: University of California Press.

2005     A. Forsyth. Evolution of an Ecoburb, Landscape Architecture 95, 7: 60-69.

2005     A. Forsyth. Grading the Irvine Ranch, Planning 71, 5: 36-40.

2002     A. Forsyth. Who Built Irvine? Private Planning and the Federal Government. Urban Studies 39, 13, 2507-2530.

2002     A. Forsyth. Planning Lessons from Three US New Towns of the 1960s and 1970s: Irvine, Columbia, and The Woodlands. Journal of the American Planning Association 68, 4: 387-415.

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