Sited amid the farms and open fields of northern New Jersey, just twelve miles west of New York City, the unincorporated community of Radburn was established in the late 1920s as one of the earliest adaptations of the English garden city movement in the United States. Despite external factors including a loss of funding partway through construction and extensive development of the surrounding landscape over time, Radburn has remained largely intact for the better part of a century. “Making Life Worth While,” as the Saginaw Daily News headline read after the Radburn town plan was announced in 1928, the neighborhood represented the American ideal for a new kind of suburb, a self-sufficient community where public safety and access to schools and shared outdoor space were paramount. The Radburn model, variously known as Radburn design housing, the Radburn principle, the Radburn Plan and the Radburn Idea, has been formalized and used as a basis for planned housing estates throughout the country, as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia.
In 1923 architect Clarence Stein founded the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA), assembling a diverse group of intellectuals to creatively address city planning issues. The Association dismissed the popular model of the large metropolitan hub, instead favoring a “regional city” concept, with design ideals derived from the garden city movement first put forth in 1898 by English urban planner Ebenezer Howard. Against the backdrop of the social activism and mobility of the 1920s, followed by the Great Depression and New Deal, the RPAA sought to adopt planning principles leading to the development of decentralized, self-sustaining suburbs, which would be accessible to the growing lower and middle classes rather than restricted primarily to the wealthy.
Developed between 1928 and 1934 by Stein and his frequent collaborator, architect and planner Henry Wright, Radburn was the realization of the RPAA’s vision. While variations on the garden city methodology had already been successfully implemented in other communities, the rise of the automobile necessitated an updated approach at Radburn.
The 149-acre landscape was envisioned as an experimental community with an emphasis on pedestrian access to shared indoor and outdoor public space. Stein and Wright’s plan for Radburn featured several hundred single-family homes and townhouses in the Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival styles divided into the three superblocks; additional houses as well as several low-rise apartment complexes and commercial structures were constructed within the bounds of the original site in the years that followed, with most in place by the 1960s. Significantly, houses are situated back-to-front, with primary entrances facing interior garden spaces rather than public roads. Integral to the design is a hierarchy of roads for vehicular traffic, often terminating at a cul-de-sac or dead end, and an alternate network of pedestrian paths—this separation of ways insured that major car thoroughfares never intersect the walkways at grade. Reminiscent of Central Park’s grade-separated carriage, equestrian, and pedestrian circulation routes, Radburn features an overpass/underpass system, enabling residents to experience the community’s park-like setting while traversing the neighborhood safely distanced from cars.
Landscape architect Marjorie Sewell Cautley was hired by Stein and Wright in 1929 to implement a design for Radburn’s parks and open spaces. Cautley had studied landscape architecture at Cornell’s College of Architecture and developed her skills in the employ of Warren Manning before opening her own firm in the early 1920s with a focus on public projects. She had first joined forces with the pair in 1924 to collaborate on Sunnyside Gardens, a garden city project in Queens, New York, and would go on to work with them on several others, including Phipps Garden Apartments (1931-1935), an extension of Sunnyside Gardens; and Hillside Homes (1932-1937), also located in New York City. Cautley’s background in designing planned communities intended for families of more limited means, who were increasingly priced out of larger metropolitan areas and other suburbs, meshed with the RPAA’s ideals and led to her success as the landscape architect for Radburn.
Over the course of four years, Cautley worked on a Naturalistic landscape design for Radburn, intentionally selecting plants native to northern New Jersey and transplanting trees from local woods where feasible. Not only were these plantings harmonious with the regional landscape aesthetically and ecologically, but they were cost-effective and easier to maintain. Her planting plan included hawthorn, dogwood, willow, birch, viburnum, azalea, spirea, wild roses, pine, hemlock, oak and maple, among others. While the selected flora evoke the untamed nature of the community’s native setting, Cautley crafted site-specific groupings of different species within each cul-de-sac and pedestrian area with her meticulous design. Examples include her use of sweet mock orange on Ashburn Walk and hawthorne on Berkeley Place. She set distinctive planting schemes along each street, with the intent that prospective homeowners would not only be selecting their home based on desired architectural style, but would also be purchasing a landscape design unique to their property. Many of Cautley’s original plantings are extant, and have since grown into mature trees and shrubs, forming a dense canopy over many of the neighborhood’s major pedestrian and vehicular right-of-ways.
Cautley also introduced Naturalistic landscape features to the interior parks facilitated by the reverse-facing houses, including meandering paths, gazebos, stone walls and steps, benches, and rock gardens. One such example, at Randolph Terrace within Park R, is an elaborate terrace designed to meet the higher grade of the front yards of the houses there, with a masonry wall, built-in stone bench, and pebble-clad concrete steps.
Because of the Great Depression, only a portion of the original plan for Radburn was realized when Alexander Bing’s City Housing Corporation, the project’s sponsor, ran out of funding in 1934. Of the six superblocks envisioned at the start of the project, two were developed to completion (Park A and Park B) while a third, Park R, was partially constructed, with its roads fully laid out but only a portion of the buildings and features realized. While the surrounding land was eventually sold and developed into more traditional suburban housing following World War II, the Radburn that did come to fruition remains true to its original vision within a new context.
Though the setting for Radburn has changed significantly since the postwar era, with traditional suburbs cropping up on all sides in the latter half of the twentieth century, the social-minded plan for Radburn remains intact, visibly distinct from its neighboring developments. The planning principles and spatial organization implemented at Radburn were the basis for the development of other suburbs designed by Stein and Wright, such as Baldwin Hills Village (now Village Green) in Los Angeles. Furthermore, it set a precedent for the New Deal’s 'green towns,' including Greenbelt, Maryland, and for 1960s 'new towns' such as Reston, Virginia. Radburn was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005.
Radburn has established preservation policies (The Declaration of Restrictions) limiting modifications to the architecture, and the original layout of roads, pathways, and interior parks remain intact. Additionally, much of Cautley’s design and plantings do remain, and as noted in the National Register of Historic Places nomination, there is a “…high degree of integrity in the shrubs and trees that were planted under the supervision of landscape architect Marjorie Sewell Cautley. Today many of the oaks, maples, and sycamores transplanted from nearby woods and fields and planted under Cautley's supervision between 1929 and 1933 have achieved considerable height and form a dense canopy. Scattered remnants of her other plantings, including flowering dogwoods and hemlock hedges, are visible along Radburn's walkways and paths.”
However, aspects of Cautley’s original design have been lost, in particular at the edges of individual properties, where successive owners have replanted over the years. Additionally, The Radburn Association is grappling with years of deferred maintenance and increasingly the need to control erosion, enhance drainage, repair deteriorated sidewalks, and replace some landscape features. They are currently undertaking a major repair program for their sidewalks (the "paths"), and Falcon Engineering has been retained to address drainage and erosion issues, in conjunction with Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA), who is devising a master plan for future restoration, rehabilitation, and maintenance of facilities. In all of this work care and consideration must be taken to ensure that Cautley’s vision is maintained during this process. MNLA will work closely with Bartlett Tree Experts on a tree plan, including an index of trees. As of August 2020, the first stage of sidewalk repairs is underway.
Particular locations of note that retain Cautley’s design and should be carefully retained and cared for include: the native cedars and the mature London planes planted along Plaza Road in R Park; the original field trees, which predate Radburn and that Cautley intentionally retained, and three original red pine and Japanese red pines (the rest of the willows are no longer extant) at B Park; and the grey birches, white pines, red and black oaks, red pines, and two original American elms at A Park - this park, Radburn Association proclaims, is the “best-preserved of Cautley’s landscape design in Radburn (or maybe anywhere).”
In general, many of the mature trees in Radburn--both in the parks and on residents’ properties--are threatened by diseases, reaching maturity, and even climate change. Their preservation will require a considerable investment of resources and expertise.
What You Can Do to Help
Reach out to the Landscape Committee of the Radburn Association, to continue to encourage them to align their goals with Cautley’s original design intent, by emailing: [email protected]
Support the fundraising efforts of the Radburn Association, to enable them to conduct the necessary repairs to deteriorated landscape features. You can donate here, or submit letters of support to:
29-20 Fair Lawn Ave.
Fair Lawn, NJ 07410