Robert A.M. Stern, founder of Robert A.M. Stern Associates in New York City, discussed the theme of this new book at a recent ULI New York District Council meeting.

Robert A.M. Stern, founder of Robert A.M. Stern Associates in New York City, discussed the theme of this new book at a recent ULI New York District Council meeting.

Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City
Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove
The Monacelli Press
236 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001; www.monacellipress.com. 2013. 1,072 pages. $95.

Suburbs are an important and distinct part of modern culture, reflecting widely held insecurities brought on by rapid industrialization and excessive land speculation. Paradise Planned is about one particular type of suburb: the planned garden suburb—a type that has its roots in late–18th century England, flourished in England and the United States in the 19th century, then became an international phenomenon in the first two decades of the 20th century before gradually diminishing in impact between the two world wars. Now, however, it is being revalued and reestablished as a development model as part of new urbanism’s “traditional town” movement.

At its best, the planned garden suburb is a remarkable urbanistic achievement. Intended to evoke the physical structure of pre–Industrial Era villages, the finest planned garden suburbs are incomparable works of environmental art combining enlightened land planning, landscape, and architecture to shape neighborhoods and foster a sense of community.

Garden suburbs are valued by the public but little appreciated or even discussed by a majority of today’s social scientists, planners, and architects who, recoiling against the sprawling land use patterns and consequent environmental degradation brought about by the almost exclusive dependence since the 1940s on the automobile, have preferred to indiscriminately lump the garden suburb into a broad-based rejection of suburbanism. In deriding the suburb, the intelligentsia tends to consider only its basest form—placeless sprawl. Moreover, these observers see the popularity of the planned garden suburb with the prosperous classes as testimony to what they deem their inherent triviality, condemning the planned garden suburb, and indeed all suburbs, as escapist.

But the stereotypical view of the planned garden suburb as exclusively catering to the moneyed classes does not hold true. Many such suburbs were deliberately conceived to improve the lot of the average white- and blue-collar worker. Whether built for the affluent or for the working class, the planned garden suburb has proved its enduring value and appeal as an attainable, inhabitable arcadia for everyman—perhaps the closest we have come to a workable utopia.

One reason the garden suburb has been treated so dismissively by many scholars is that, imbued with the prejudices of modernist architects and theorists of architecture, they hold in contempt the scenographic use of stylistic precedent and therefore find it easy to characterize the architecture and urbanism of the garden suburb as trivial and fundamentally opposed to the realities of modern life. The evocation of vernacular styles, however, is more than a matter of packaging; it is an essential ingredient in the place-making process, helping to speed up the establishment of a sense of community by rooting “instant” developments in an evolving tradition. Important as architectural style is in the place-making process, so too are the patterns of streets and squares that evolved naturally in vernacular towns and are used to help structure many of the best garden suburbs.

We hope that architects, developers, and planners will reconceptualize the planning and design of the seemingly inevitable suburban development that takes place on greenfield sites on the fringes of metropolitan regions. We also hope to make clear the garden suburb’s value as a conceptual model for the redevelopment of the vast, virtually empty urban wastelands that lie within some established cities.

We also hope to encourage architects, planners, developers, and government officials to add the garden suburb to their inventory of ideas and help satisfy the hunger of the many who wish to be Hamiltonian by day and Jeffersonian by night—that is to say, to combine the material and cultural advantages of city life with the restorative powers of dwelling amid nature.