Fallacies of masterplanning – Levittown is almost alright

Richard Florida’s ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ examines creativity and its effects on economic development. Its publication in 2002 caused reflection and a certain amount of hand-wringing, not to mention expenditure of time and money, in City Halls around the Western hemisphere as public servants tried to grasp their options for transforming their particular municipality into a creative hub. Desire for ‘Creative-class appeal’ added another layer to traditional inter-city rivalries as the race to attract all the ‘right’ kinds of people for the post-industrial sectors of the future gathered pace.

According to Florida’s more recent work, being in the Creative Class and living in a Creative City brings happiness. He correlates the impact of ‘post-industrial structures and values’ (a broad and predictable set of information-age values such as personal autonomy, opportunity to create, coexistence with like-minded people) with personal happiness:

Our research examines the role of post-industrial structures and values on happiness across the nations of the world. We argue that these structures and values shape happiness in ways that go beyond the previously examined effects of income…
Our results indicate that post-industrial structures and values have a stronger effect on happiness in higher income countries, where the standard of living has surpassed a certain level. Income, on the other hand, has a stronger impact on happiness in low-income countries.

This is consistent with other recent happiness and well-being findings which report that above the income level necessary to support a comfortable but not luxurious existence, the relationship between increasing income and happiness diminishes. Business Week recently put this figure at $US75,000.

All of this appeals to the notion that cities, physical and social environments dictate or substantially influence happiness and wellbeing. Architects have claimed the correspondence between the quality of a dwelling and its inhabitant’s experience of living since Vitruvius. Their argument is somewhat weakened by their role as beneficiary of such design investment. A bigger and more relevant question for most of us is what we know about the effect of a city’s structure on wellbeing. This question runs deeper than considerations of proximity to public transport and community services prevalent in our media today.

So how does the experience of living in a master-planned city (say, Milton Keynes) differ from that of a highly evolved city (say, Cambridge or any of a hundred other centuries-old British regional towns and cities)? For a brief lesson in the wider effects of urbanism, historians find it hard to go past Levittown, an estate in Nassau County, New York.

Levittown is what we would today call a housing estate. It is distinguished by the fact that it was one of the first such estates to be planned, built and sold by a single developer, Abraham Levitt and Sons. The Levitts devised a mass production scheme that allowed them to build inexpensive housing for the post-war flood of veterans and their families. Architects, planners and sociologists have since iconised Levittown as the first and archetypal American suburban estate, maligning it for its emphasis on self-containment, lack of community facility, social dis-integration and expressionless uniformity.
Levittown left an important imprint on design thinking at the end of the modernist era. The houses, each being relatively plain and indistinguishable as a result of the Levitt’s drive for economy, began to sport various forms of symbolic décor. Occupiers built post-and-rail fences reminiscent of southern ranches, nailed old wagon wheels to feature walls, put coach lights either side of the door, and erected flagpoles. The architectural cognoscenti were delirious with ridicule—the appearance of kitsch appliqué evidenced the general public’s lack of taste and provided proof of the meaninglessness of such symbolic accumulation.

In time, almost all of these criticisms would be disproved or reinterpreted. Levittown resident and sociologist Herbert Gans conducted a detailed social study of the community between the years 1958 and 1962. Gans observed that a new community is shaped not by the builder, the architect/planner, the organisational founder, but by the aspirations with which the residents come. After the designers and builders create the physical shell of the community, informal social institutions form, migrate and establish within the new community in response to the needs of the residents.

New towns, Gans reported, are ‘ultimately old communities on new land, culturally not significantly different from suburban subdivisions and urban neighbourhoods inhabited by the same kinds of people, and politically much like other small American towns’. In Gans’ final analysis, the Levittown phenomenon, so maligned by America’s architectural thinkers as anti-community and anti-style, influenced its inhabitant’s lifestyles and choices very little.

The basic drivers of change came from the duties of home ownership and outdoor living not previously available to some of Levittown’s ex-Philadelphia apartment dwellers, and the ability to form community with people of similar family status and demographic. Many changes previously attributed to the impact of the Levitt’s architectural theme park on its inhabitants were traced to general trends across American society that became endemic in subsequent years. Gans exposed the spell of Levittown and his observations were echoed by other sociological observers of New Towns across America, Britain (the New Towns), and Australia (Garden City in Melbourne) during the decades to follow.

Levittown was a scapegoat, Gans argued, for America’s inability to come to grips with post-war middle-class consumerism and the changing roles and aspirations of the educated upper middle class families (particularly women).

The Levittown story was extended with the smashing of the modernist monologue into a thousand post-modern voices. In 1970, Robert Venturi, prominent postmodern theorist, demolished the arguments against Levittown’s uniformity and lack of architectural style. In his studio sessions at Yale (‘Learning from Levittown’) he validated the use of symbolic decor attachments, the wagon wheels, post and rail ranch fences, coach lights and flagpoles that were becoming the standard appliqué of middle-class American homes.

Far from being kitsch architectural detritus that the Modern movement had fought so hard to wash away, these mass-produced do-it-yourself appliqués were legitimate symbols of working and middle-class aspirations that were entirely consistent with emerging the post-modern movement. Venturi considered Levitttown to be ‘almost alright’ in the sense that it represented a kind of aesthetic-in-opposition to modernist uniformity. Even where the modernists had driven bulldozers through socially coherent tenement communities (as was the case of Pruitt-Igoe), the people’s social institutions and norms rose Phoenix-like to reclaim their environment. Today, it is apparently difficult to find a Levittown house anywhere in the suburb that has not been evolved, extended and modernised almost beyond recognition.

In an interview in 2000, Herbert Gans (then Professor of Sociology at Columbia University) talked about New Urbanism and the pin-up master-planned villages of Seaside and Celebration (Florida).

‘If people want to live that way, fine, thought it is not new urbanism as much as 19th century small town nostalgia… Seaside and Celebration are not tests of whether it works; both are for affluent people only, and Seaside is a timesharing resort. Ask again in 25 years’.

So how does the experience of living in a master-planned city differ from that of a highly evolved city? Visuals aside, not all that much, given sufficient time. As Stewart Brand has so eloquently documented, people will always adapt their surroundings to suit their needs if they can. The passing of time rubs off the rough edges, fills the gaps, and heals the hurt of an artificially forced or insensitively conceived design.

Today’s Creative Class is far more mobile than the Levittowners who were locked into their estate as a result of their class and means. The Creatives inhabit real and virtual worlds for social and intellectual stimulation, and are free to choose work and a city of their liking. But the degree to which our particular city appeals should not be taken as a barometer of the quality of life it offers. This is a far more complex question than a designer alone can tackle.

Stewart Brand, 1994. How Buildings Learn.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, 1970. Learning from Levittown or Remedial Housing for Architects, Yale University, unpublished.

Herbert Gans, 1967. The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a new Suburban Community


2 thoughts on “Fallacies of masterplanning – Levittown is almost alright

  1. Really interesting article, thank you for posting it. I’ve always ben particularly intrigued by the class arguments against Levittown, and how they also fail to hold up.

    • Thanks for posting your reaction to the story, Megan. I also was struck by how Herbert Gan’s sociological research found quite the opposite of a bland featureless social landscape in Levittown. His book is an excellent read and opens up many preconceptions about communities.

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