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Town & Country: A Garden City for America

Jeffrey Syken

In November 1910, the Russell Sage Foundation for Social Betterment announced its plans to build a model suburban community along the lines of a European Garden City in “the suburban district of New York.” Over one-hundred and fifty newspapers nationwide carried the story. Some praised the boldness and altruism of the plan to bring a “Garden City” to America while others condemned it as “the plaything of a wealthy widow.” However, there was no doubt that the Sage millions could/would make it possible and the best talent in the fields of real estate, architecture, landscape architecture and management would be involved.

In his book: Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898), urban theorist Ebenezer Howard outlined a solution to the endemic problem of the late 19th / early 20th Century/s: Housing. The industrial revolution had brought the masses out of the country and into the cities in Europe and America with squalor, poverty, pollution, crime and slums the result. The middle-class living in these overcrowded, dirty and dangerous industrial cities romanticized and longed for the idyllic country life. Howard’s Garden City concept seemed to provide the answer to the problem: bring the best of both worlds together in a controlled, scientifically planned community with the amenities of town life (i.e. transportation, community life) along with the charm, peacefulness and beauty of country life.

So it was that the Sage Foundation – a charity, would build the first Garden City in America: Forest Hills Gardens. It would be based on the European model of Garden Cities such as Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb (North London). To do the job right, the son of the most prominent landscape architect in America: Frederick Law Olmsted, would take care of things “on the landscaping side” while society architect and progressive Grovenor Atterbury would take care of the architecture. Forest Hills Gardens would be the first of only a handful of Garden Cities built in America in the 20th Century. In understanding what went right and what went wrong at Forest Hills Gardens, the answer to why this was so can be found.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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