Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Exploring the Town for the Motor Age

Rain came down in sheets this past Sunday, so the usual birding/exploration jaunt was curtailed quite a bit. As an alternate, Ivan suggested a trip to the Town for the Motor Age -- Radburn.

New Jersey is home to a number of experiments in community planning, from the uber-exclusive Llewellen Park in West Orange, to the cooperative labor enclave of Roosevelt, and, of course, the concrete houses scattered around the state. Radburn, nestled within the Bergen County town of Fair Lawn, was conceived as a truly walkable living and working place that insulates pedestrians from motor traffic.

Designed and built in 1929 by Henry Wright and Clarence Stein, Radburn adheres to Aristotle's dictum that cities should be built to give inhabitants security and happiness. Rather than looking at property from an individual use standpoint, the development was considered as a whole, taking the totality of residents' needs into consideration. The architecture has an attractive brick, quasi-Tudor look.

Essentially, homes were placed along culs-de-sac, with the front of the structure directed to common park areas. "Service" areas of the home, like the kitchen, were set on the street side of the home so the living areas would have a nice park view. Sidewalks meander nicely through the area, emphasizing walkability. In a state where having a car is virtually a requirement, it was awfully visionary of Radburn's planners to create a haven where kids didn't even need to cross a street to get to their grade school. Instead, there's a charming underpass decorated by murals the kids painted themselves.

Governed by a non-profit community association and designed for a population of 5000, Radburn currently has about 3100 residents living within a variety of homes. Most are single family homes, but townhouses, two-family houses, apartments and condos are available. Thus, a person could have a suitable place to live in the community throughout all stages of life: childhood, young single, married, parenthood and then retirement.

In fact, you probably could live your whole life within Radburn's confines, considering what's there for your use. Food shopping is within walking distance, while the historic Radburn Plaza building offers services from salons to lawyers. There's also a considerable variety of recreation options: playgrounds, tennis courts, pools, an archery plaza, basketball courts, and a ball field. There is also a community center which houses administrative offices, library, gymnasium, clubroom and maintenance shops. If you want to get away, the Radburn train station is served by New Jersey Transit's Bergen Main Line.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression spelled bankruptcy for the community's developers, and the full, expanded vision for Radburn was never realized. Nonetheless, it continues to make an impact on residential design as planners still visit to learn more about the concept and how it works. All in all, pretty darn cool.

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