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Levittown: Visionary Urban Design or Just Urban Sprawl?

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Levittown: Visionary Urban Design or just Urban Sprawl?

Gail A Bigelow

April 23, 2006

University of Central Florida

Levittown: Visionary Urban Design or just Urban Sprawl?

Levittown isn’t a visionary product of high design, there weren’t any major architects to give it pizzazz yet it endures today, by sheer force of will, to be the working stiff’s utopia, his escape from the inner city, the place where he could get away from the noise and dust of the city, a place that was affordable, where he could be king of his own single-family detached castle, he could enhance his quality of life and be just far enough away, but not too far…

After World War II the returning veterans demands for housing became more insatiable, it was a right, given what they had been through. Returning veterans were living in attics, basements and Quonset huts or sharing housing with others in the same boat. The young men and women were ready to get back to a normal life – get married and have families and that meant finding a place of their own. The houses were their reward. A single-family house in the suburbs, fully equipped with the best appliances, became a patriotic mission. Many were looking for something new and different than what they had grown up with, they wanted to get out of the inner cities. They knew they’d have to work in those cities, but they didn’t have to live there or raise a family there.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, 20 million people were drawn to mass housing developments on the outskirts of America’s cities. The move to suburbia became greater than the westward migration of the 1800’s. With cheaper materials and a government willing to back mortgages, homeownership became the newest American dream. The federal government enacted the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which created the Veterans Administration mortgage program. It was similar to that of FHA. This assurance of federal mortgage guarantees stimulated an unprecedented building boom. Single family housing starts exploded and by 1950, housing starts topped 1.69 million. (The Baby Boom and the Age of the Subdivision, Kenneth T. Jackson, 1985) Obviously, these houses were built in newly created suburbs, in places like Levittown. The houses were built quickly and inexpensively and the design accommodated the needs of family life both inside the house and outside in the open air.

Housing for the returning veterans was predominately located in the newly designed suburbs. However financed and by whomever built, the new subdivisions that were typical of American urban development between 1945 and 1973 tended to share five common characteristics. (The Baby Boom and the Age of the Subdivision, Kenneth T. Jackson, 1985) These characteristics include: locations peripheral to large cities, low densities of houses, the architectural similarity of the housing units, availability of the units and the economic, age and racial homogeneity of the residents. These subdivisions were strategically located to serve the population because land in the inner cities was unavailable for large tract development and those parcels that were available were too costly to build on for the average American returning from the war and looking to start a home. The next best option for developers was to look outside the cities where land could be attained in large tracts and inexpensively. Ultimately, farmland was the key to the success of the new subdivisions and in Long Island particularly for those in New York City’s bouroughs.

When William Levitt first spied the land that was to become Levittown it was a flat, dusty prairie with a one-room schoolhouse and a patchwork of farms and fallow land tended to by Dutch and German families. For these farmers hard times fell in the form of the golden nematode, a worm like pest that was destroying the potato croplands. Farmers with land in quarantine were especially eager to sell land at a very reasonable price. It was this land, known as Island Trees, which became the first Levittown. Slowly, Levitt purchased land until he amassed the first 1200 acres and in 1947 the first Levittown sprang to life in the potato fields of Long Island.

Levitt and Sons boasted that this new development would be “the most perfectly planned community in America” and Bill Levitt quipped to House and Home in December 1951 “We bought 5,000 acres and we planned every foot of it.” The key ingredient was a master plan that plotted the location of virtually every sapling, screw, and shingle, however the Levitt’s later admitted that there was no grand design for Levittown, it was planned a section at a time and corrections were made as they went along. (www.newsday.com/community/guide/lihistory/ny-leivitown-hslevone,0,7345274.story)

The Levitt’s took the land and began by laying out streets. With no master plan for traffic, the streets were routed generally along the boundaries of the old farms evidenced by the winding lanes that promoted that country feeling and tended to slow traffic. Levittown Parkway (the main road) was built across the development. Side streets and feeder roads linked to the Parkway. Levittown was unique due to the arrangement of the streets. In the beginning there were no stop signs and no four way corners, all the internal streets led to natural T intersections where you had to slow down to make the turn. In later years, stop signs sprang up as the development, traffic and children grew.

The basic planning unit for Levittown was the master block; a roughly mile-square area that encompassed three to five variously sized neighborhoods, also known as “sections”. Each contained on average 300 to 500 houses with all roads leading to a central site that contained the activity center of the unit. Within this activity center were the community pools, little league fields, neighborhood parks, a multipurpose community building as well as churches and schools. The Levitt’s set aside land for these areas and donated land for churches but did not donate land for schools as was once reported. The sections or basic planning units had themes that coincided with general features or current activities. A few of these sections were named after trees, birds, tradesmen and heavenly bodies, but by the end of the building of the development the section names relied heavily on the alphabet. One little known fact outside of the development is that in each section all the street names correspond to the area they are in. As an example, the streets in the bird section were named after birds and the street names in the alphabetical section all started with the same letter as the name of the section.

Elementary schools were located at the center of each master block so that no school-age child would have to cross a busy intersection, or walk more than half a mile from his or her home. Levitt’s emphasis on rationally planned, centrally located public elementary schools was a major draw for early residents, most of whom had young children. An emphasis on “kid friendly” was associated with the limited access and curved streets that helped to reduce and slow traffic through sections so that children could play more safely. Recreational facilities were primarily for the benefit of children as evidenced on any given summer day when the swimming pools and the Little League fields were packed with kids and their parents.

Levitt hoped to avoid the problems associated with haphazardly placed shopping areas and unsightly commercial strips by building a few large centralized shopping areas. Levittown’s main shopping area was not only large (at the time the largest east of the Mississippi), but also meticulously landscaped. The L-shaped pedestrian mall was placed at the edge rather than the center of Levittown. This makes it less obtrusive for residents but more accessible to outside shoppers. This shopping area was so large that the parking lot could accommodate 6,000 cars! During the 1950’s, as Levittown grew, the commercial hub was the Shop-a-Rama, a 60 acre pedestrian mall featuring over 65 retailers and a variety of special events. To many residents, this was Main Street.

The attraction of Levittown was as a community, not a neighborhood; it was too big for that. Levitt instead built it in a new form, that of an extended cluster of neighborhoods with what he called “village centers” as the cement to hold the neighborhoods together. Houses were arrayed along cul-de-sacs and curved streets forming something closer to organic clusters than the sort of neighborhoods often formed by the rigid grid plans of other subdivisions.

At first, this form of land planning worked. Large numbers of people found themselves homeowners with room to grow. Land was plentiful, and with cheap oil and labor, it appeared the answer had been found: one could work in the city and live in the country. Cars were also cheap, allowing the workers to drive to town and be home by sundown. This was the way to go, or was it? What was happening to a known way of life? Where were we going?

The first quarter of this last century the American landscape was developed in the form of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. The pattern began to change with the availability of the automobile and the changes in architecture and zoning. Conventional suburban development or sprawl, as we know it, became the new system of development replacing neighborhoods. Sprawl carries a significant price as it spreads out to consume large areas of countryside. Communities spring up with no town centers or pedestrian scale relying on the automobile to make the necessary trips to shopping areas or work locations.

Today, tract housing, suburbia and the automobile centered way of life don’t seem to be the solution to the problem. Rather than the solution, it may be part of a bigger more complex problem affecting our lives. Urban sprawl, as it is known, affects us in insidious ways.

Urban/ Suburban Sprawl and Levittown

What is Urban/Suburban Sprawl? Urban/suburban sprawl is a term for the expansive, rapid, and sometimes reckless, growth of a greater metropolitan area, traditionally suburbs (or exurbs) over a large area. Sprawl is characterized by several land use patterns which occur in unison. These are: ♣ Single use zoning – tracts of land are devtoed to the same type of development, separated generally by roads, greenspaces or other barriers. ♣ Low Density land use – buildings are spaced further apart and have fewer stories and are separated by lawns, landscape, roadways and/or parking lots due to automobile usage and parking. ♣ Car dependent communities – sprawl communities are extremely dependent on automobiles for transport to and from activities such as shopping, commuting to work and children activities. These communities are not walkable due to the spread out nature of the community. ♣ Scale of Development – Larger houses, wider roads and larger stores with gargantuan parking lots requiring massive infrastructure to connect the low-density sprawl. ♣ Homogeneity of design – because developments are built as large scale tract projects, neighboring buildings tend to resemble one another, lack diversity and are characterized as “cookie cutter” houses.

Urban/Suburban Sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention, conceived by architects, engineers and planners, promoted by developers in that great sweeping aside of tradition that occurred after World War II. Suburban sprawl, unlike the traditional neighborhood model which evolved organically as a response to human needs, is an idealized artificial system. Not to say it is without beauty, it is consistent, comprehinsive and rational with performance that is predictable, however it is now showing itself as unsustainable. Sprawl tends to not pay for itself, consumes land at an unprecedented rate and produces nearly insurmountable traffic conditions. Sprawl by its sheer enormity causes isolation and social inequality. One unforseen result of the flight from the cities is the internal decay of traditional neighborhoods. These once vital neighborhoods continue to pay the price of the loss of residents and businesses to newer, fresher locations on newer suburban edges. Sprawl can be and is truly destructive.

If sprawl is destructive, why has it been allowed to continue? One reason is that sprawl’s crawl is seductive and simple. It creeps up on us before we know it and then it’s too late to stop. Characteristics of this attack have been identified and include: ♣ Housing subdivisions (clusters or pods), those places that contain only houses. Developers also call them villages, towns, and neighborhoods but they have no characteristics of any of those areas. One identifying factor is the names of these places which normally identify the natural or historic place they displace. (In Levittown, the master block was named after the area it displaced.) ♣ Shopping Centers – also called strip centers, shopping malls or big box retail were the exclusive places to shop. They come in all sizes, but one fact is predominate, you don’t walk to them, you drive, park the car in the gargantuan lot that borders the roadway and go in. No more do you stroll down the Main Street shopping district where the street is tree lined and the buildings are multi-storied. ♣ Office parks or business parks – these, too are only for one purpose, work. These are easily identified not by the setting in a pastoral landscape, but as large glass boxes in the middle of parking lots bordered by multi-laned highways. No resemblance to the countryside or a park. ♣ Civic Institutions – nowhere in suburbia will you find the traditional public square, town hall, local church or neighborhood school. Traditionally these places are where people gather for communication and culture. Today these normally unadorned buildings sit on the periphery of the subdivision, are large and uninviting and surrounded by the ubiquitous parking. No more are the neighborhood schools that children walked to an from in the early part of the century, now schools are set apart from the homes with access only by bus or car. ♣ Roadways, the final component of sprawl. Miles and miles of asphalt pavement, necessary to connect people with places. In today’s society massive amounts of money are expended to build and maintain the road systems that service every facet of life today. Consider that the most movement of automobiles is with single occupants making traffic much heavier in the suburbs than in larger traditional towns. ♣ The final assault of sprawl is the unseen portion. To connect everything it takes infrastructure that is at work underground. Low density land use patterns mean that there are greater lengths of pipe and conduit to distribute those municipal services that are demanded and whose cost is failing to pay for itself.

By the descriptions above, Levittown would be classed as Urban Sprawl in today’s world. Certainly the development was single use zoning and definitely low density housing predominately of a few types and designs. It was automobile and roadway dependent considering it was twenty five miles from the city in which most residents worked and the large shopping centers were on the outside edges of the development forcing use of the automobile as a means of transport both to and from work as well as for shopping and errands. It was true that the scale of the development was large in and of itself and that meant many miles of unseen services infrastructure to build and maintain.

In the world of the 50‘s and 60‘s, would Levittown really be called Urban Sprawl? More than likely not. In the times of cheap oil and labor the mass move to the suburbs wasn’t an issue and the place and type of housing wasn’t important. The important thing to the returning veterans was that they could find a place of their own to expand and grow that they could afford. It didn’t matter that the development had “cookie cutter” homes. Coming from the city, they understood buildings that were laid out ten, twenty or thitry at a time in relentless self-replication. No matter that the houses were small, they only knew the inner cities with small apartments crammed with all the extended family and no place to move around. To them, this was heaven no matter that they would have to commute to the city to work, cars were cheap and gas was as well. The one thing the new homeowners could count on was the completeness of the offering of the Levitts. Where else could you find a complete home, one that came with all the latest gadgets, ready to move in and set up housekeeping? As for the raw surroundings, what difference? Soon enough lawns would sprout, trees and shrubs would grow and flowers would bloom creating the one thing that was seldom seen in the “tenements” of the city, green space. Levittowners ultimately understood their surroundings and worked with them to make the place an appealing home. To many, the inconveniences of living in the suburbs were temporary. In time all things would come to be as they should. Schools would be built, roads expanded to accommodate the increasing traffic, small shopping areas would pop up in the middle of the neighborhoods and rememberances of the crampted, crowded life in the city would be nothing more than a memory. All they had to do was wait…..

Five decades later, Levittown is the most studied, scorned and mythologized community in America. Some idealize Levittown as a planned working man’s utopia, others criticize it as the grandfather of Urban Sprawl, just another characterization of the conformity that marks modern suburbs. History bears out that neither charge is true. As mentioned earlier in this work, Levitt admitted that “there was no grand design for Levittown, it was planned a section at a time and corrections were made as they went along”. What he did do, however, was place his development where he could find land even if that meant the potato fields of Long Island, twenty-five miles from the City. Create sprawl, perhaps so, but for Levitt this approach worked to give Americans what they yearned for. For the New Urbanists of today, another story was in the making.

New Urbanism and Levittown
For the new urbanist of today, Levittown is a new urbanist planner’s nightmare come true. All the wrong things in the wrong places. If Levittown is all the wrong things in the wrong places, let’s examine what new urbanism is all about.

New Urbanism is the reflex reaction to sprawl. New Urbanism is based on the principles of planning and architecture that work together to create human-scale, walkable communities that contain a diverse range of housing and jobs. There are a wide variety of approaches to new urbanism. Some focus on small scale infill projects, others are transit-oriented developments in nature and others are looking at reworking/transforming the suburbs with still others working in all the categories. New Urbanism includes traditional and modern sensibilities, but all believe in the power and ability of traditional neighborhoods to restore functional, sustainable communities. (“The New Urbanism: An alternative to modern automobile-oriented planning and development”, Robert Steuteville, New Urban News, 2004)

This trend has taken hold with more than 600 new towns, villages and neighborhoods planned or under construction in the United States. The bigger news is that these principles are taking hold in decaying cities. New urban infill projects are taking hold to reestablish the walkable streets and blocks of these cities. New Urbanism is taking hold in regions as well as cities influencing where the regions choose to grow by linking transportation and land use policies to the fundamental building block of the region, the neighborhoods.

The trend toward new urbanism goes by a multitude of names including, neotraditional design, transit-oriented development and traditional neighborhood development to name a few. The concepts behind new urbanism borrows from urban design throughout history, but does not nor will it replicate old communities. Examples of the new urbanism trend relies on modern living spaces and amenities that consumers demand, stores and businesses that have ample/sufficient parking, homes with modern floor plans, garages in the rear of houses, neighborhood greens and mixed use town centers with connections to automobile and pedestrian traffic and/or transit systems.

It is said that the heart of new urbanism is the neighborhoods. These neighborhoods contain most if not all of the thirteen elements identified as their components. These are: ♣ Discernible centers – most often a square or green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner with a transit stop located here. ♣ Most or many of the dwellings are within a five minute walk of the center or roughly 2,000 feet. ♣ A variety of dwelling types – houses, rowhouses, apartments. All economic levels may find living quarters here. ♣ Neighborhood edges have shops and offices of varied types to supply the weekly needs of the residents. ♣ Small ancillary buildings or garage apartments are permitted at the back of the main structure for work or rental. ♣ Schools close enough to walk to by small children. ♣ Small playgrounds accessibly located to dwellings, not more than 1/10th of a mile away. ♣ Streets that form a connected network providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination. ♣ Streets that are relatively narrow and shaded by trees creating an environment for pedestrians and bicycles. ♣ Buildings in the center that are placed close to the street that create a well defined outdoor room with a feeling of safety. ♣ Parking lots and garage doors that are rarely seen from the main streets. Parking is ample and at the back or rear of buildings accessed by alleys or secondary roadways. ♣ Prominent sites are reserved at street terminations for civic buildings providing sites for community and cultural gatherings. ♣ A self governing neighborhood that decides matters of maintenance, security and physical changes.

It is not to say that some elements of urban sprawl cannot coexist in the new urbanist way of thinking. Large office and even big box retail can fit in to the new urbanist philosophy by situating the buildings and parking lots in a different manner or utilizing parking garages. In this manner, even Levittown could be revitalized at the block plans neighborhood’s cores.

Levittown already has some elements of the new urbanist style by way of the modified grid of a majority of the streets within the block plan. Levitt set up the streets so that they had T intersections that created calmer traffic and increased visual interest in the hearts of the neighborhoods.

Levitt’s block plans were designed as neighborhoods with some elements of tradition in mind. The blocks were roughly one mile square so that those who wished to could walk to the center where he included recreation, civic gathering places and open spaces for the residents as well as spaces for schools and other activities.

There are criticisims of the new urbanist plan from those who decry new urbanism as nothing more than conventional sprawl dressed up in stylish clothes. Those who cry the loudest argue that new urbanism is too dense with too much mixed use and round the clock activity. Other criticisms point to the idea that the movement is grounded in nostalgia for an American way that never was.

So in the end, how much different is new urbanism from sprawl? Is it just as some critics point out, conventional sprawl dressed in new clothes? And where does Levittown fit in when describing what it is? Does Levittown embody the principles of new urbanism or is it just urban sprawl at its worst?

All these questions are not easily answered. Levittown is many things to many people. Home, haven, the place where one grows up and has fond memories of the activities as a child or a new homeowner. Others remain staunch in their criticisms of the ticky-tacky houses, the location, the differing way of life in the suburbs, the development and the characteristics of the development and not to be ignored, the automobile dependent way of life.

But, is Levittown really visionary urban design of the age or just new urbanist style dressed in the stylish clothing of urban sprawl?

To decide this, a general comparison of what Levittown is and is not.

On the is visionary side we have: ♣ The time frame in which Levittown was built. The 50’s and 60’s principally. A time when the mass migration was beginning to take place from the cities. ♣ A plan to provide new complete housing to those most in need, the veterans returning from the war. ♣ Subdivision design that incorporated many of the elements of then known design principles, but of a type that hadn’t been tried on a grand Levitt style. o Single family detached housing, small but adequate o Curving streets and terminations in T junctions to slow/calm traffic. o Neighborhood centers with amenities of recreation and local shopping. o Amenities within walking distance from most areas of the blocks.

On the New Urbanist side: ♣ A discernable center, at least in the block plan ♣ Considering most block plans were approximately 1 mile square, most dwellings are in a 5 minute walk of the center. ♣ At the zenith, block plans had shops at the center core. ♣ Small playgrounds withing the neighborhoods, vest pocket parks. ♣ Streets that formed a connecting network ♣ Streets shaded by trees, eventually that would create an environment for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The greater interest is in the sprawl category: ♣ Subdivision with principally houses. Blocks named for the places they displaced. ♣ Shopping centers at the periphery with visible parking lots. ♣ No civic institutions characterized by the traditional public square or town hall. ♣ Access only by car for work or some amenities such as shopping ♣ Miles and miles of roadways and much traffic. ♣ Many miles of underground infrastructure to maintain.

As we can see, there are both positives and negatives in the determination of what category Levittown fits into. Perhaps in today’s world, Levittown wins hands down in the sprawl category, but from a new urbanist point of view, it has good bones and could be a candidate for restructuring and reclamation.

It is interesting to look at Levittown today. It’s a far cry from the flat, dusty prairie that Levitt first eyed as his new development. It seems that Levittown has grown into its surroundings. Trees have matured, lawns have grown in and some are overgrown and some manicured to perfection, houses once described as ticky-tacky have now morphed into nearly palatial dwellings that sit alongside those that are a bit rundown. Levittown is no longer a one class community of small homes, it is a multi-class, multi-ethnic community with. Only here and there, the original houses to bear witness to what it once was.

So, is it visionary urban design or just urban sprawl? Today I see both, tomorrow, who knows!

References:

Suburban Nation , Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, 2000
The Baby Boom and the Age of the Subdivision, Kenneth T. Jackson, 1985
Valuing America’s First Suburbs: A policy Agenda for Older Suburbs in the Midwest, The Brookings Institution, 2002 http://tigger.uic.edu/~pbhales/Levittown.html http://www.newsday.com/community/guide/lihistory/ny-levittown-hslevpro,0,721552.story?coll=ny-lihistory-navigation
http://server1.fandm.edu/levittown/default.html

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