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The Machine Is a Garden

In 1898, an unassuming British stenographer hatched the idea of “garden cities” as an antidote to dirty, crowded London. Today, a revival of that idea is spreading from the U.K. to China to India — and some people think it just might help save the planet.

Foreign Policy, September/October 2014 

ON 71ST AVENUE, JUST SOUTH OF QUEENS BOULEVARD, IN FOREST HILLS, NEW YORK, THERE’S A SMALL SHOPPING STRIP THAT LOOKS LIKE COUNTLESS OTHERS IN AMERICAN CITIES. Banks, shoe stores, and delis sit side by side, recalling a time not so long ago when going shopping meant more than a trip to Target. But keep heading south, crossing under an elevated railway, and it feels like entering a different kind of time warp: Abruptly, asphalt becomes brick and spills into a broad, sunny square. Red-tiled, half-timbered buildings suggest an Italian piazza by way of medieval England. Shady sidewalks curve away from the square. The only reminder that it’s the 21st century, and that this is New York, is the rumble of a train on the Long Island Rail Road overhead.

This sense of being in a city, but not of it, is precisely what the designers of Forest Hills Gardens intended. In 1909, after buying 142 acres of open land, the Russell Sage Foundation hired architect Grosvenor Atterbury and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. — son of Central Park’s famous creator — to build a model suburb. It was to be an example of the new developments that the explosion of railroads and streetcars were producing, a place that combined the best of town and country. For inspiration, Atterbury and Olmsted looked to a new trend in England said to offer just this kind of mix: garden cities.

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