Attend any number of presentations on the subject of “sprawl” or read any number of articles denouncing it, and very often you’ll find the example of Levittown USA being used as a case study in what not to do. The 1950s era mass-produced housing development has been pilloried by designers, new urbanists, smart growthers and creative classists from the US to Europe to Australia. Admittedly, its design when first completed was far from inspiring. But the critics omit to mention some very important and enduring features of Levittown, some of which we could use more of today.
Figure 1 Levittown USA in the 1950s
What is Levittown? It’s the name given to a number of post World War II housing developments in New York and Pennsylvania. Developers the Levitt family sought to provide low cost detached housing, especially for servicemen returning from WWII and their families. Houses were manufactured using a Henry Ford assembly line approach, with construction teams devoted to particular components, allowing for an entire house to be built in as little as a single day. Houses with land came with appliances installed, lawns and of course a white picket fence. They sold like hotcakes.
Largely uniform designs on low cost land with efficient building techniques were the keys to making these homes affordable. Keep in mind, many residents were escaping cramped, unhealthy and relatively expensive rented accommodation in New York urban tenements. For them, the hope offered by a new home they could afford to own, with space around them, was a no contest compared with the lifestyles they and their parents’ generations had known.
Figure 2 Urban living was a dystopian nightmare for residents of New York in the 1920s and 1930s. Cramped housing, disease, crime - all were rampant. Figure 3 The opportunity to own their own home, with internal room and external space, free from the conditions they and their parents had experienced, made Levittown an obvious and logical choice.
But for urban design critics at the time, Levittown represented everything they detested. The writer and urban critic Lewis Mumford had this to say in his 1961 booked “The City in History”:
…a multitude of uniform and unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every respect to a common mould.
That set in train a repeating pattern of criticism over the decades that followed, all of which seems to have two things in common: first, the criticism is based on initial design (making next to no mention of the improved housing conditions it provided, liberating a generation of families, nor the affordable prices at which it could be purchased). Second, the criticism reflects mainly the early days of Levittown. Indeed, the opening photo in this article is the one I have seen used most in articles and at conferences where scorn is freely piled upon Levittown. The image is 70 years old people! Why not use a recent image to show what Levittown looks like today? Here’s one below for example - which looks very much like any middle-class suburban environment anywhere. Criticising projects like Levittown in their very early days is a bit like criticising a 2 year old for their lack of literacy and numeracy skills. Give it a rest.
Figure 4 Levittown today looks more like a bucolic scene of middle class suburban life.
Below is another image. Over time, owners have planted trees, the area has matured, schools filled, community facilities established, and transit connections improved. In fact, the demographic profile of Levittown today is that of a healthy middle class, middle income, well educated community with very high levels of home ownership (much higher than the Australian average).
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