top of page


GREENDALE, WISCONSIN                                                                                                                                                                                                October 27, 2003




The depression during the I930s in the United States created the necessity for the federal government to become heavily involved in housing reform in an attempt to relieve overcrowded cities, address housing shortages, and revive a sluggish housing industry.  The greenbelt towns program was part of the New Deal relief package created  by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 that resulted in the construction of new towns by the federal government. [1]


With 1936 being a presidential election year, it was essential that many people be put to work as soon as possible.  Social planners of the New Deal hoped to overcome the depression  by establishing a new beginning through greenbelt towns that would restore traditional small conununity  values such as those expressed  by Norman Rockwell. [2]  The new towns were to be located just outside of major cities.  Although many new towns were envisioned, only three were actually built: Greenbelt, Maryland, between Washington D.C. and Baltimore; Greenhills, Ohio, near Cincinnati; and Greendale, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. [3]   The government initiative in creating Greendale, as with the other greenbelt towns, had the potential to become a premier model to guide and control rational development while bridgit1g the barrier that existed between urban and rural communities.   While the Greendale plan used sound design principles and had clearly stated goals and objectives that were initially reali zed to a fair extent, the government  did not continue the commitment  necessary to sustain the original visions for the commnity as it matured.


New Town Philosophy and Purpose


Greendale and the other new towns were called "greenbelt  towns" because they were each to be surrounded  by several thousand acres of open space, not only for recreational and agricultural use, but primarily as protection from encroachment and blight. It was hoped that the long existent barrier between urban and country areas would be broken with farmers selling directly to townspeople, possibly, through cooperatives.  The sizes of the communities were to be set within the restrictive greenbelts.  Property and homes were to be rented and not sold to residents. [4]   While the primary focus was to create jobs during the depression, a major objective of the program was also to incorporate environmental and social planning, to provide decent housing for city workers and demonstrate efficient subdivision  techniques. [5]




During 1935, four persons were primarily obligated for implementing the greenbelt towns program:  Rexford G. Tugwell, Administrator, Resettlement Administration (a mix of rural relief and land rehabilitation programs); Jolm S. Lansill, Director, Suburban Resettlement Administration (planning arm of the Resettlement Administration); Frederick J. Bigger, an architect who was Lansill's chief of planning; and Warren J. Vinton, an economist and Lansill's chief of research. In about the fall of 1937, the Resettlement Administration was reorganized as the Farm Security Administration (FSA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Numerous planners, architects, and housing experts were also heavily involved.  Each new project had additional staff that was hired based upon their familiarity with local traditions and laws.  Elbert Peets was appointed as head of site design for Greendale with assistance fi'om Jacob Crane.

Peets was a landscape architect with expertise in American Colonial and European Renaissance civic planning.  Harry H. Bentley and Walter G. Thomas headed the architectural section for Greendale. [6]


Greendale, Wis.  (1939)


Development of Greendale


The Greendale site was located on a tract of 3,410 acres of farmland about eight miles southwest of downtown Milwaukee.  The bulk of the land, 2,000 acres, was designated as a one-half mile greenbelt surrounding the residential area which was to contain 750 homes on 335 acres.  Working farms would make up about 1,000 acres outside of the greenbelt while the remaining  land would be returned to its natural state.  A linear parkway and pathway followed a creek through the middle of the development.  Jacob Crane eventually viewed the Greendale plan as a model for future metropolitan land preservation. Broad Street is Greendale's primary thoroughfare with a community complex, shops, and a village hall located at the apex.


Milwaukee area residents had some involvement in creating the plans through questionnaires  that were distributed to them in an effort to determine the importance of particular housing elements for the intended blue collar residents.  Greendale "was to be a workingman's actuality and in appearance it must be direct, simple, practical, free of snobbishness,  not afraid of standardization." [7]  The small budget reduced frills and gave way to functionality.  The questionnaire responses along with the topography of the site influenced a varied housing mix of which about one-half were single family or detached units. The remainder consisted of row houses and duplexes.  Density of about ten to twelve units per acre was comparable to some English garden cities.  Peets felt that this was actually quite generous and that higher densities could be planned for future additions.  The residential sites provided privacy and escape while the commercial center on Broad Street encouraged socializing and collective identification.


Although tested principles of town planning and management were used, there were shortcomings.  Greendale and the other Greenbelt towns did not house minorities, however, blacks were targeted for rural resettlement programs during about the same time.  By the time families began moving into Greendale in early 1938,  potential resident income increased from low to moderate as rents went up to recoup costs.  The project was about $3.4 million over the projected budget of$7,050,000. The number of construction workers peaked at about 2,000 which was well below projections.  Plans for public transit did not materialize as many of Milwaukee's industries were scattered about the urban fringe. It was assumed that most families would own a car or be able to car pool. [8]


Physical Design Principles


Peets stated that "... in an urban region the greenbelt is a factor of regional texture, not of town planning..." meaning that a development plan of half-acre and one acre lots would ruin the regional esthetic and recreative value ofthe land.  In addition, the municipal and site costs would be too exorbitant for the income level targeted.  A primary principle of the project was that the low gross density justified high average residential density.  Two objectives were to keep street and utilities costs to a minimum and to hold down municipal operating costs.  The typical Greendale house had a garage that also served to enclose the neighbor's porch and create a partially enclosed  rear lawn.  The homes were located on narrow residential streets which provided for short utility connections.


The Greendale design incorporated preferable looped residential streets as opposed to short cui-de-sacs.  Dead-end streets increase costs for construction and maintenance of collector streets which, in turn, are less safe and convenient  than the special residential street.  Many of the homes designed were located on north-south streets for superior lighting effects in both summer and winter.  These "solar houses" had all rooms with windows facing the south except for the bathroom.  The north sides of these homes did not have any windows which helped give unusual privacy to each yard and house.  These homes were bordered by a fringe of homes on the north side with views facing the greenbelt.  The greenbelt provides a more pleasant view from the highway. [9]   Present day planners and developers often do not recognize this important concept with the way rear lots of many homes are placed directly adjacent to highways.


The Colonial Revival architecture of Greendale served to bring the diverse ethnic groups together by providing the residents identification with American history.  As opposed to the typical bungalows of Milwaukee, the living rooms of Greendale residences faced the backyard allowing gardens to be viewed rather than the streets.  The closeness of the houses to the streets was comparable to the plan of Williamsburg and numerous colonial and post colonial town plans prior to 1850. [10] Photographs of the Greendale streetscape and homes are attached.


There are two characteristic elements concerning the relationship  of the streets and homes with the natural environment  in Greendale.  First, a very effective safety feature was created through the use of a proficient arrangement of road classification and function and the locating of housing with respect to the different types of roads.  Secondly, the internal greenways, which often function as natural drainage channels, encourage pedestrian activity and offer welI used recreational activities. [11]

Greendale, Wis. (2004)

The Greenbelt and Cooperativism


The greenbelt permanently limits expansion of the community it surrounds so that the planned utilities, civic institutions, and structures do not need to be added to and patched out past their social and economic limits.  In addition, it prevents intrusion from the outside by other developing areas.  It prohibits, or at least hinders, the disfigured fringe development that affects our cities. [12]


The Greendale Cooperative Association was formed by residents and operated a food store, service station, and other shops.  This consumers' cooperative served to increase resident involvement in village life and, further, became a means to promote pacificism and collective propaganda. However, many residents became dissatisfied with the numerous rules to abide by and the social pressures to join the many organizations.  A sharp rise in incomes during World War II resulted i nde-emphasizing the need for communal interdependence and encouraged home ownership, self-rule, and large-scale town expansion.  By 1945, this trend was reflected in a revised political purpose for Greendale which stated, "to create a sound community and village corporation  in which a group of people, representative of the Milwaukee region, may live comfortable  and at a reasonable cost, without federal aid". [13]


The intent of creating an adjacent farm area was to maintain Greendale as a "rurban" development  to prevent suburban Milwaukee fiom infringing on the community and ultimately causing  it to lose its identity as a village.[14]   According to the Resettlement Administration  in September 1936, the greenbelt  was to integrate the economies and the physical plan of the tural area and urban community.   Rural homes were improved, however, the idea of creating farmers markets in town to enhance agricultural  production and marketability did not become a sustainable feature.  In fact, this concept failed long before the government divested itself of the towns.  Thjs failure was due, in part, to the fact that the consumers market in Greendale was not of adequate size and there was not a skilled management entity to promote this idea.


The large change in land prices and tax assessments that eventually took place just outside of Milwaukee as in other near-in metropolitan areas effectively moved farmers away from these areas as speculative land development  began. [15]   This was inevitable as evidenced by suburban sprawl that has occurred in and around all U.S. metropolitan areas since World War II. While planners of the greenbelt towns may not have envisioned the extent this would occur they did envision the need to protect the towns' from undesirable encroachment. Certainly progressive and comprehensive regional planning in Milwaukee County and other metropolitan areas could have prevented  the major cities and their surrounding  suburbs fi:om growing together.  The rural-urban integration concept was a bold, sensible and promising  innitiative during times of the depression. It was not this aspect that failed, rather, it was the failure of future residents, government  agencies, and politicians to recognize the value of limiting development.


Early Evaluation of the Population


The population of Greendale in 1941 was about 2,800.  From a study of approximately 500 families it was found that Greendale appeared to have a lack of adherence to any particular institution or community-mindedness. Self-interest  and a value system interwoven with the concept of efficiency were very evident.  Interviews found that 50 percent of families primarily came to Greendale to save money to eventually buy a home in Milwaukee. [16]  It was found that about 60 percent of families leaving Greendale did so because of the undue pressure  to comply with guidance from the Resettlement Administration.  Many families successful in assimilating in Greendale cited the controlling nature of the Resettlement Administration as a negative aspect.


Although a primary goal stated by the Administration  was that the rural farm residents were to be an integral part of the community, such was not the case and the efficiency of the community was defmitely lowered.  Farm families primarily visited only with other farm families and did almost no trading in Greendale up to 1943.  Their social and economic lives were not part of Greendale and it did not appear that this would change. [17]

Greendale, Wis. (2004)

Post World War II


Public hearings were held prior to the government  relinquishing its interest over the greenbelt  towns through Public Law 65 passed by Congress in 1949.  "There was no reference to the original goals, no restatement ofthese goals, no mention of master planning as conditions of the sale.  The government for all practical purposes abandoned  the projects as part of the post-war desire to get government  out of everything."[18]


The Public Housing Administration (PHA), which had become the caretaker of the greenbelt towns, declined to sell the entire Greendale project to any one organization.   In 1951, the PHA began selling the homes individually to residents for a total of about $4,000,000.  The PHA sold the greenbelt lands and evicted the rural tenants from their farms.  The Milwaukee Conununity  Development  Corporation (MCDC) purchased 2,236 acres of Greendale land and municipal buildings from the PHA for $825,000. The MCDC hired a professional staff headed by architects and Elbert Peets as a consultant for a master plan of residential development. During the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, rapid development of Greendale increased the population from about 2,700 in 1950 to 6,800 in 1960.  In 1964, the MCDC sold 1,110 acres of the remaining greenbelt to a Milwaukee realtor for one million dollars. The realtor then sold the prime acreage of the old greenbelt as lots for homes. Population increased to more than 15,000 in 1970 to about 17,000 in 1980.  Up through 1980, the black population of Greendale only reached 2 percent of the total Greendale population as compared to 23 percent in Milwaukee during that year.  The low percentage of minorities in Greendale  is unlikely to change significantly given the small amount of subsidized  housing and the lack of consensus on how to build a mixed community. [19]


Greendale has been divided by major highways due to uncontrolled metropolitan development. The uncontrolled market forces creating skyrocketing land values and the resulting pressures for zoning changes effectively excluded those with lower incomes from being included in new developments. These land values made it economically feasible for developers to ruin topography by bulldozing hills and filling valleys as opposed to skillfully following the contour of the land. In addition, these land values ended any possibility of the coexistence of nearby farming with the village. [20]


Resident Satisfaction


A 1978 resident preference survey provides some insight to the question as to whether the original plan of the Resettlement Administration or the less dense development after 1950 provided more resident satisfaction.  The survey findings support the original garden city hypothesis that suburban residents, perhaps a majority, will adjust to and actually choose compact living arrangements if architectural and site relationships are in harmony with human scale and a generous amount of open space is provided.  Further, the more diverse population of the Village Center area seems to be more fully and economically  satisfied than the Overlook neighborhood which is more typical ofsuburbia. [21]




The govenment initiated plan for Greendale used comprehensive design principles and had clearly stated goals and objectives that were initially realized to a moderate extent, however, the government did not maintain the required commitment to sustain the original visions for the community as it matured.  Perhaps the most successful aspect of Greendale was that the compact design and spatial arrangements  of the homes, business district, and open spaces fostered resident  satisfaction in their living enviroronment. Values such as civic pride and community cohesiveness have been sustained. Initially, the greenbelt  prevented  encroaclunent and sprawl.


Greendale fell short of its early egalitarian ideals of providing primarily  low income housing  and relieving the overcrowding of cities. [22]  Today, Greendale has a significant population of higher  income residents. [23]  The cohesiveness envisioned for the town and the surrounding rural area and farms  never  materialized  but could have with proper management. One glaring  philosophical fault was pointed out in 1943 by Marshall during his study of the community: It appears contradictory that, on the one band, Greendale was planned  as a place of cheaper  rent where one could never buy their home yet, on the other hand, it was projected that it would be a typical, prosperous American  community. It is obvious that a large proportion of the population will only  live in Greendale before moving to another  area.  How then can  it be expected that the community will remain stable and progressive? [24]


Unfortunately, Greendale succumbed to the perils of post  World War II suburbanization when the government abandoned the project and sold off all of the land.  It is unconscionable that most of the greenbelt was allowed  to be subdivided for homes that became part of the very sprawl  it was supposed to prevent.  The original  physical  design  of Greendale created a successful mixture  of high density  single  family and multi-unit housing clustered within walking distance ofthe main business district  and plentiful  parks.   This pedestrian friendly community encouraged bonding  amongst residents while allowing for privacy as necessary. The 2,000  acre greenbelt provided more than ample open space and helped blend the development to the 

outside farm land.


"We have inherited smoke and stones and dirt, chaos and confusion: these experiments may help lead us back to air and grass and sunlight, order and harmony." [25]  Greendale and the other greenbelt towns were not a cure-all for the housing problem, however, the projects would show what could be done to create a better quality of life for many. [26]   A greenbelt town project could be implemented successfully today if it was supported by complimentary regional planning, long-term commitment to goals and objectives, and management expertise.  However, the problems of the depression that led to the greentowns:  overcrowded inner city housing; extremely high unemployment; and a stagnate housing industry, were certainly different than the planning challenges facing us today.  Planners must now confront issues such as:  the lack of affordable housing; urban sprawl; creating in-fill development; and revitalizing inner cities.  The primary new town development features that can be applied to address these problems today are the time-tested physical design techniques, spatial relationship concepts, and supporting research used in creating the homes, streets, parks, greenbelt, and business district of Greendale.





1.  Arnold R. Alanen and Joseph A. Eden. "Looking Backward at a New Deal Town". Journal of the American Planning Association 49:I (Winter 1983), 40.

2.  RobertS. McEivaine. Book Review of"Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin". The Journal of American Hist01y (Dec. 1988), 1002.

3.  Arnold R. Alanen and Joseph A. Eden. Main Street Ready-Made, The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin, Madison, Wis: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin (1987), 12.

4.  H.S. Churchill. "America's Town Planning Begins". The New Republic 87: (June 3, 1936) 96.

5.  Alanen . "Looking Backward at a New Deal Town".  40.

6.  Alanen . Main Streel Ready-Made, The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin. 6-11.

7.  Alanen, "Looking Backward at a New Deal Town". 41-46.

8.  lbid.  4 I -46.

9.  Elbert Peets.  "Studies in Planning Texture for Housing in a Greenbelt Town", Architectural Record I 06:130-7 (Sept. 1949). 133.

10.  Christy M. Szczesny, "Americanization in a Greenbelt Town, The Colonial Revival in Greendale, Wisconsin" (Masters thesis, University of Virginia, 2000). 33, 60.

11. Albert Mayer.  "Greenbelt Towns Revisited".  Journal of Housing 24:1-3, (Jan., Feb., Mar. 1967) 16.

12. Ibid. 18.

13. A lanen, "Look ing Backward at a New Deal Town". 47-49.

14. Douglas Marshall, "Greendale: A Study of a Resettlement Community" (Ph.D. d iss., University of Wisconsin, 1943), 1-5.

15. Mayer. 19.

16. Marshall. 28-33.

17. Ibid. 66.

18. Mayer. 8-10.

19. Alanen, "Looking Backward at a New Deal Town". 50-51.

20.  Mayer. 10-11.

21. Alanen. 52-55.

22.  Howard Gillelle Jr., Howard. Book Review of"Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Commun i ty of Greendale, Wisconsin". Joumal of the American Planning Association, (Winter 1987) 116.

23.  McEivaine. I 002.

24.  Marshall. 72.

25.  Churchill. 98.

26.  Ibid.




Alanen, Arnold R. and Joseph A Eden.  "Looking Backward at a New Deal Town".  Journal of the American Planning Association 49:1, 40-58, 1983.


Alanen, Arnold R. and Joseph A. Eden.  Main Street Ready-Made, The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin, Madison, Wis: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1987. Churchill, H.S.  "America's Town Planning Begins".  The New Republic 87: 96-98, 1936.


Gillette Jr., Howard. Book Review of"Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin".  Journal of the American Planning Association, Winter 1987.


Marshall, Douglas G.  "Greendale, A Study of a Resettlement Conummity".  Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1943.


Mayer, Albert.  ''Greenbelt Towns Revisited".  Journal of Housing 24:1-3, Jan., Feb., Mar.1967. McElvaine, RobertS. Book Review of"Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Conununity  of Greendale, Wisconsin".  The Journal of American History, Dec. 1988.XX


Peets, Elbert.  "Studies  in Planning Texture for Housing in a Greenbelt Town", Architectural Record 106:130-7, Sept. 1949.


Szczesny, Christy M.  Americanization in a Greenbelt Town, The Colonial Revival in Greendale, Wisconsin, Thesis, Vir: School of Architecture, University of Virginia, 2000.

bottom of page