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Disaster and Government Response

The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal

Creating a Town

Learning Targets

  • I can explain the reasons that the Greenbelt Project was started.
  • I can describe what the Resettlement Administration was and why it oversaw the Greenbelt Project.
  • I can describe the physical space of Greenbelt, Maryland, and how it was designed to promote a sense of civic pride, community, and cooperation.
  • I can identify important institutions in a community, and explain why these are important for supporting the citizens in a town or city.


As the Great Depression reached into the mid-1930s, the Roosevelt Administration continued to roll out New Deal programs. A well-known program was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The Corps was a work relief program, specifically targeting unemployed and unmarried men who were 18 to 25 years old. The CCC was one of the most popular New Deal programs and provided unskilled, manual-labor jobs working on conservation and development of government-owned property. Building bridges, fire towers, and even trails required a lot of skilled labor, and the program helped thousands of CCC young men to obtain and maintain skilled jobs. The men selected were from families who were unemployed and impoverished. The workers were provided with room and board and were paid $30 a month. Of that amount, they were required to send $25 home to their families and keep $5 for personal use.

While helping families needing money, the CCC also led to a national effort to protect and manage the nation’s natural resources. Many of the CCC’s national projects are still in place in most states, for example national parks like the Crater Lake in Oregon, the Everglades in Florida, and portions of the Grand Canyon. Implicitly, the CCC also led to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors and the nation's natural resources, and the continued need for a carefully planned, comprehensive national program for the protection and development of natural resources. The CCC legacy website lists the following impact and successes of the Corps:

  • They completed projects in 48 states and in Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. More than 2,650 camps operated in all states: California had more than 150. Delaware had three.
  • CCC enrollees were performing more than 100 kinds of work.
  • 505,782 occupied these camps. Other categories, such as officers, supervisors, education advisors, and administrators, swelled the total to more than 600,000 persons.
  • The group planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America
  • They constructed more than 800 parks nationwide and upgraded most state parks.
  • They updated forest-fire-fighting methods, including building 3,470 fire towers, and 97,000 miles of fire roads. [2]

The Greenbelt Towns project was a similar approach to help ease the economic despair from the Depression. Similar to the CCC, the Greenbelt Towns project was popular, considered to be a New Deal success, and still present in America today. Where the CCC was big and spread across America’s states and territories, the Greenbelt project focused on the development of three towns. Townspeople were selected not because they were from unemployed families, but because they were from families with low-income jobs who wanted to move out of urban centers and form a brand new community.

This activity focuses on one town from this project: Greenbelt, Maryland. All three towns are still in existence today, and the towns in Wisconsin and Ohio could be examined as extensions to this learning activity. The following excerpts from the Greenbelt Museum website provide a helpful overview of the concept of greenbelt towns:

Rexford Guy Tugwell, a former economics professor at Columbia University developed the “greenbelt town” program for the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell wanted to establish cooperative communities where the built environment would reinforce community spirit and cooperation among its residents. The greenbelt towns combined the best aspects of a rural life: lakes, woods, and open spaces with the best aspects of an urban life: recreational facilities, theaters and shops.

Construction for Greenbelt started in the fall of 1935. Workers arrived at the site before the town plans were completed so the workers started by clearing land for a lake. The homes built for Greenbelt included apartment buildings, row houses, and a few free-standing prefabricated homes. By 1937, 885 units were nearing completion. The Resettlement Administration received more than 5,000 applications from families interested in moving into Greenbelt.

Applicants had to be married couples, earn between $800 and $2200 per year, and the husband had to be employed to be considered for residency in the new community. The town was integrated religiously—63 percent were Protestant, 30 percent Roman Catholic, and 7 percent Jewish—but the residents all were white.

Greenbelt was one of the first publicly funded, planned communities in the United States. Tugwell wanted Greenbelt to be successful. He knew the town would be scrutinized by politicians making sure government funds were being used appropriately. Therefore, Tugwell had Greenbelt’s first residents carefully screened. Dr. Wendall Lund, a sociologist/historian was put in charge of choosing Greenbelt’s first residents. Each qualified family was interviewed and selected based on their willingness to participate in this new community. The government chose young couples who would embrace the cooperative ideals they were trying to establish.

The Resettlement Administration had three purposes:

  1. Provide financial assistance for “marginal farms through small loans, with the addition of technical and education aid programs.”
  2. Move rural families from unproductive land to more fertile areas.
  3. Build “suburban towns, providing housing for poor urban dwellers outside city centers, where cheap land made the project economically feasible.” [3]

While the first two purposes fit with the migrant and farm workers adversely affected by the Depression-era Dust Bowl catastrophe, the third purpose led to the greenbelt communities. Rexford Tugwell, the man charged with forming these towns, envisioned that he would go to the outskirts of a large city, “pick up cheap land, build a whole community and entice people into it. Then go back into the cities and tear down the slums and make parks of them” (Tugwell diary notes, 1935) [4]. The town of Greenbelt was designed to have central parks and greenways, separation of walking paths from vehicle traffic (including pedestrian underpasses, homes built facing away from streets, and cul-de-sacs), and central stores and meeting places. Greenbelt was not to just be a place, but it was also designed to feel like a neighborhood unit and promote social and economic cooperation. For example, in the first year of its existence, the townspeople formed 35 community organizations (such as Boy Scouts, Men’s Athletic Club, Mother’s Club, Singles Club, Camera Club, and Girl Scouts). Two thousand workers were employed to build the town, including the creation of a lake, which was dug by hand to allow for employing the maximum number of workers with jobs.

Questions to Consider

  • Why did the federal government decide to build entire towns in the middle of empty fields?
  • Is it the role of the government to direct citizens about how to live cooperatively in a community and to oversee the distribution of money earned by local businesses?
  • Could a community such as Greenbelt, Maryland, be built near your home? Would you want to live there? Would it thrive and grow?

Begin the Activity

Have the students take a look at the aerial images of Greenbelt, Maryland, as you tell them that this was a planned community to assist poor workers during the 1930s. Remind students that to be part of this town, people had to agree to living in a planned community. The three guiding principles of Greenbelt were:

  1. The physical space promoted community.
  2. The townspeople valued being part of a community where they engaged with one another.
  3. The economy of the town was built by cooperative businesses that redistributed profits among the town members.

Ask students how aerial photographs function: How can they be used to inspect or survey and area? How do they compare to maps? How do these historical photographs compare current aerial photos? (You may even bring in a current image of Greenbelt from an online source to compare “then” and “now.”)

How it grew into a community allows us to consider what critical elements are needed for a town to survive and the townspeople to thrive. Divide students into groups of two or three and provide the following prompt:

Greenbelt was an experiment in both the physical and social planning that preceded its construction. It provided low-income housing for 885 residences (about 5,700 people). Look again at the aerial photographs, and notice how the homes were grouped in “superblocks,” with walkways that linked the homes to the town center without crossing a major street. Pedestrian and vehicle traffic were intentionally separated. Shops were built to promote a community feel.

  • Would you like to be part of this town? Why or why not?
  • Greenbelt had limited ethnic and racial diversity. Although the town had a mix of religious faiths—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—African Americans (and Latinos and Asian Americans) were not deemed eligible. How might ethnic diversity be established in a new town today?
  • How should a town give people of sense of belonging or identity? (This is often referred to as “civic identity.”)
    • How would you lay out a town for low-income families to promote civic identity?
    • What institutions would you have (schools, hospitals, police departments, government offices, etc.) and why?
    • What businesses would a town of 5,000 people need?
  • Draw a map of an imaginary town that incorporates all of the important features that your group believes should be in a town designed for assisting poor working-class families. Provide a page description of these features of an “ideal town.”

After the students complete their towns, explain that Greenbelt was also unique for its cooperative businesses. The Greenbelt Consumer Services, Inc. was a co-op that operated a grocery store, drug store/pharmacy, variety store, barber shop and beauty parlor, gas station, movie theater, and tobacco store. Co-ops are owned by a group of people (in this case, the townspeople) rather than a private, profit-bearing business. They rely its members to provide some of the labor of running it. Ask students what they think of co-operative businesses. They will likely have questions about this “business model.” Encourage the students to write down their questions for the final step of this activity.

Have the students visit the history page of the official website for Greenbelt: http://greenbeltmuseum.org/history.
    •    How similar is their town to the actual town of Greenbelt? Why are there differences?
    •    What is their assessment of Greenbelt today? Is it still carrying out its original intent to assist the lives of low-income families?


[2]  Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, http://www.ccclegacy.org/CCC_Brief_History.html

[3]  Knepper, 2001, p. 14

[4]  Knepper, 2001, p. 14

next: Maintaining “Home”

Grade Level

High School


Earth and Space Science
English Language Arts
U.S. History


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