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Suburban Planning: If We Build It, They Will Come


A Nakoma Realty Company Billboard located at the corner of Breese Terrace and University Avenue, Madison, Wisconsin. From the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives collection. (WHi)(D487)9372

In the United States the first suburban plans developed around the more populous and congested cities and were often located some distance from the city. These new communities departed from the prevailing grid by establishing system of curvilinear streets and open areas. For example, Olmsted, Vaux and Company's 1869 plan for the Chicago suburb of Riverside, proposed a curvilinear plan to "suggest and imply leisure, contemplativeness and happy tranquility."

Early success of a planned neighborhood depended on establishing clear boundaries within which the developer could retain control. These boundaries often included natural features, such as waterways or steep slopes, or bordering institutional properties, such as religious or academic campuses. In many of the more successful developments, such as College Hills outside of Madison and Washington Highlands in Wauwatosa, a landscape architect or designer was hired to lay out the subdivision and to select the home sites. As a result, these neighborhoods used the varied topography of their settings to create a bucolic landscape.

Many planned neighborhoods also used deed restrictions to control land use, setbacks, maintenance of open space, sale of liquor, owner occupancy, and outbuildings. Architectural approvals were often required to create visual cohesiveness and an overall sense of scale and design. In Waukesha,  Caples' Parkimposed further restrictions upon the minimum price of houses to be erected as a means to enforce social exclusivity. Some deed restrictions also limited residency by race and religious background, creating segregated enclaves that were later ruled unconstitutional.

The end of World War II brought dramatic changes in suburban planning and building practices. To provide much need housing stock, builders applied the principles of mass production, standardization and prefabrication to house construction. The wide availability of FHA and GI Bill home loans contributed to the emergence of a new class of developer, the "merchant builder," who acquired large tracts of land upon which houses could be constructed quickly. For many Americans these changes allowed for the realization their dream of home ownership.

More examples from the National Register:

Nakoma Historic District, Madison

Washington Highlands Historic District, Wauwatosa

North Grant Boulevard Historic District, Milwaukee

Caples' Park Historic District, Waukesha

College Hills Historic District, Shorewood Hills

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