Levittown

We've been looking at historical U.S. town plans, mostly based on some type of a grid. The plan structured growth so that development followed the grid. Parks and squares were designed into this form as the primary consideration for public space and a natural relief from the urban condition.

In Boston, on the other hand, centuries of expanding its isolated land mass developed haphazardly and left little room for the park. This problem was resolved by Fredrick Law Olmsted in the Emerald Necklace. In his scheme, the parks were found after the urban condition had already been established. In figure ground terms, they were leftovers.

Sketch of Levittown, NY

Sketch of Levittown, NY

Fast forwarding to about 70 years later, the car had become the most common mode of transportation, World War II had been won, and millions of GIs were home and ready to resume life with a baby boom and houses funded by the government's gratuitous mortgage rates. It took William Levitt and his sons less than two years to capitalize on the opportunity and break ground on his first ambitious neighborhood on Long Island for 17,000 homes, named eponymously, Levittown.

Much has been written about the eventual four developments that Levitt & Sons created and the countless more that were inspired by them. (This architect was raised in two.) The social impact of Levittown was profound. A few references regarding these cultural consequences are linked in the Notes below.

For now, let's see what we can discern from just the plan itself.

Initial plan of Levittown, NY

Initial plan of Levittown, NY

Obviously, Levittown had no grid. The town plan had been redefined into a weave of roads that reduced the lengths of sightlines and created random variations among homes that were very similar. Notice that no single road through the neighborhood connects to more than one main road. Shortcuts through the neighborhood to save time were discouraged by the design. Driving to nearly any home required at least one or two turns if not half a dozen or more.

Minimizing long, straight through roads also reduced the speed of traffic and its accompanying road noise and danger to children playing in yards. (And the street.) This is interesting, because the long road at the top of the plan was the Old Motor Parkway and the first motor parkway, a concoction of William K. Vanderbilt Jr. used for auto racing.2

Instead of a town center, the neighborhood was not connected to the rest of humanity other than via highway. Like a commune, the weave implied a more inward focus and fenced off outsiders. At the same time, new technologies in the car, radio, telephone, and television connected citizens more abstractly instead of face-to-face on the community's streets. Visual connections were minimized in favor of more abstract ones.

Even internally within the neighborhood, spacial connections were less formal. Houses never faced each other directly across a street. Neighboring lots were usually oblique at the front face to some degree and angular next door.

Levittown, New York today, via Google maps

The occasional school or park was circuitously secluded as far from the main roads as possible. Test this in the map above. How many turns does it take to get from the main road to the school in the center?

Planning like this reduced outsider use of parks since the were difficult to find. Theoretically, this also increased the neighborhood's sense of ownership. But the same design disconnected the larger community and its services, like police, fire department, school buses, and even the residents themselves. The developer's offices on the outskirts had to help new residents find their homes several times a day!

Clearly, the most important thing to the Levitts was the maximization of lots along roads that could easily be appended and woven around minor obstructions like retainage ponds, power lines, and existing motorways. You can see directly in the plan that financial interests outweighed any other social or community ones. This certainly made economic sense for the developer since no one would pay for any unsold areas. But compared to Savannah, Levittown and its imitators made obvious sacrifices of public space and parklands for thousands of residential units and private yards.

Would you expect the developer, with the primary financial interest in success, to have a romantic view of the planned neighborhood?

Levittown, 1947. A Report to Home Builders

Notes

1. The Long Island Motor Parkway, by Howard Kroplick and Al Velocci, Vanderbilt Cup Races.
2. Levittown: The Imperfect Rise of the American Suburbs, by Crystal Galyean.
3. Levittowners, a site dedicated to Levittown, Pennsylvania.

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