Meanwhile, the idea had spread to America, where it was soon being done even better. The apogee of the US garden suburb is the truly sublime Riverside in west Chicago, begun in 1869, and it is also that scheme’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, who is quoted for the book’s cri-de-coeur: “No great town can long exist without great suburbs.” Stern and colleagues also cite Robert Fishman’s vivid summation of Riverside as the ultimate “bourgeois utopia.”
There are many other side-stories—which creates perhaps too much complexity in the chapter structure—and these include the resort suburbs (such as Miami’s Coral Gables) built in the USA as holiday homes rather than for daily commuting, the garden cities (from Letchworth onwards) that acted as entirely new centers of population of their own, and the industrial garden villages (like Saltaire) erected apart from existing cities by factory owners and other capitalists.
There are hundreds of examples in this book, and many are already well known, yet nonetheless the reader feels they are finding out afresh about garden suburbs—whether in lesser-spotted U.S. towns or in Europe, Latin America, Middle East, Asia, and Australasia. The most substantial element of new research, as opposed to simply the collation of existing material, comes in a fascinating account of the munitions housing built by the U.S. Housing Corporation in the latter years of World War One. These small estates, often in the Colonial style, adorn more locations across America than hitherto realized.
With the 1981 AD issue by Stern, many of us in Britain regarded it as a condescending piece of cultural propaganda that was trying to convince us that we too were part of the postmodern family. Like a missionary who can never quite give up their cause, a similar proselytizing spirit animates Stern’s new book. The only differences now are that New Urbanism is presented as the savior and the message is intended for the whole world. Or, as the very last sentence reads, “The garden suburb may well hold the key to the future of our cities.”
Courtesy Denenchofu Association
But can such a claim hold water? Not at all, in my view. The weight of all the historical examples on show, as combed from across the world, merely reinforces the nostalgia of Stern’s vision. By ending the survey of suburbs in 1940, it misses out the unplanned post-war explosion in the U.S. It also misses out on very recent analyses of suburbs which portray the multiple activities and intra-suburb connections as offering their real sense of dynamism and innovation.
Instead, Stern leaves us with a traditional vision of the garden suburb as a place that commuters return home to at night, and where issues of gender equality, racial exclusion, and sexual difference barely register—and where the rich luckily get to live in the choicest places just because they can pay more. As such, this giant book serves as a perfect tombstone for the once-great hope of marrying nature and culture within a planned suburban paradise.