Having spent my career in Michigan, I naturally think of Henry Ford as a “car guy”, the man who took a new invention and created an industrial system to bring motorized transit to the masses.

Ford’s legacy is a “car guy” – but he also experimented with town planning necessitated by the need to transport from remote locations coal, wood, and metal natural resources required for the making of automobiles.

Fordlandia chronicles his efforts to tame 75 miles of Amazon jungle necessary to provide rubber for auto production.

The need for a new town came along with this effort, the common infrastructures of potable water, waste water removal, trash disposal, electricity, and transportation plus worker housing, and their medical, social, religious and educational needs.

Ford, closer to home, undertook similar town planning efforts in Michigan with L’Anse, Alberta, Pequaming, and Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula all sharing a Ford company town legacy.

It’s interesting to me, having studied Urban & Regional Planning in the 1970’s new town Park Forest South next door to the post WWI new town Park Forest (Illinois) to compare new town planning with today’s contemporary planning theories.  My familiarity with the Park Forests provides a background to identify similarities between 1920’s, 40’s and 70’s new town planning theory with current smart growth, traditional neighborhood design, higher density transit orientated development, walkable community and cool cities planning theory promoted today.

In general, I’d say we didn’t learn much from the 1920’s, 40’s and 70’s new town experiments but rather repackaged some fundamental truths about new towns for the community development theory of today.

Here are some basic facts:


Whether you walk, bike, drive a car, taxi, take mass transit or work from home, proximity to a job (or other form of income) decides where you live.

Town planning first must consider jobs and how workers journey to and from work, in order to function.  This is why Ford, Pullman and other industrialist chose to invest in town infrastructures and worker housing necessary to gather together the workforce in close proximity to make their business function profitability.

Ford recognized that transportation, not only product transport from remote locations but the worker journey to work trip, would shape worker attitudes towards uprooting families and moving to remote locations for employment.


Land use planning originated as a health and safety need in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  US new towns were invented as a means to move people from the squalor of “big city” slums and tenements into planned communities free of disease and crime where dwelling units had safe drinking water and waste was properly disposed promoting a healthy living environment.

Because of the cost and complexity of installation of public infrastructure to support public health and safety in remote locations, companies such as Ford accepted the provision of infrastructure as being their responsibility and a “cost of doing business” costs which were ultimately passed on to the purchaser of a Ford automobile.

Ford realized that success in attracting a workforce to move natural resources from remote locations to his auto plants would require Ford to be the town planner, town developer and serve as the traditional governmental administrator.


Today, “cool cities and vibrant 24 hour-downtowns” are essential to attract, especially young-aged workers to cities with governments promoting walkable communities “placed based” attraction strategies.

Ford also recognized these same needs.  Ford is quoted saying about Fordlandia, “There will be schools, experiment stations, canteens, stores, amusement parks, cinemas, athletic sports, hospitals, etc. for the confort and happiness of those who work on the plantation.”


In similar fashion, to “round out” the full needs of a new town, provision must be made for a number of services, on- site or within easy communing distance.

Ford recognized this and using his relationship with the Dearborn Michigan Ford hospital had ability to draw upon medical professionals to fill a portion of the community needs, as an example.


The industrial benefactor new town movement was inspired, for the most part the by the need to capture a workforce in close proximity to jobs with the benevolent benefit being a community lifestyle unmatched in another location. 

Government sponsored experiments were somewhat similar, the opportunity to provide the unmatched community lifestyle to attract workers with industry moving to the community to secure its workforce.

Industrial benefactor release of governance was not clearly communicated nor supported in the industrial new town planning era.  The lack of industrial release of governance was the cause of many of the failures of industrial new town plans.

Governmental benefactor release was a bit more assured as the developers of new towns were required by regulation and planning theory to include more resident involvement and eventual formation of a government structure.  However, insufficient funding and a host of other problems lead to the demise of the government supported new town development era.

Ford, in beginning was silent in the social navigation of a form of governance favoring a more dictatorial doctrinaire expounding on his theory of personal and community behavior.


Smart Growth, the planning mantra of the 1990’s always amuses me. 

I queried one of my professors during a presentation about smart growth in 1994 asking him if the planning theory he taught in 1974 was “dumb growth”.

While it got an audience chuckle, it raises an interesting question.

We studied in our environmental planning educational program, as the Park Forest South planners prepared land use plans, the importance of a centralized commercial location within walking distance to most housing, the importance of mass transit to remote “big-city” high-paying jobs, need for close-by quick journey to work trip employment, adequate infrastructures for a healthful environment, need for environment & open space protection, importance of social and recreation facilities, the role of close-by walking accessible education and a system of resident involvement governance.

Time has proven that Ford in the mid-1920 was wrong in declaring the “crowded metropolis doomed, crumbling under the weight of traffic, pollution, vice, and the cost of policing the great mass of people”. 

However, his belief that the “key to creating loyal, more efficient workers was to help them find “comfort and happiness – fulfillment outside the factory” holds relevance today and still serves as a foundation of contemporary community planning theory.

Today, planning theorists like Florida, Duany, Glaeser, and Leinberger expound on the same principal of worker comfort, happiness and fulfillment but geographically located in central cities as the contemporary foundation of urban social reform and community betterment planning.

I happen to agree but I cannot help reach back into history to find many similarities with the new town planning concepts originated during the private sector industrial new town era, the 1940’s returning WWII veterans new town “housing boom” era and the  1970’s HUD funded “anti-sprawl” new town movement.

They say history repeats itself or “what goes around – comes around”.

Much of the todays new “planner speak“ is nothing more than repackaged sound planning principles tested and proven over time.

The new buzz words – smart growth, place based planning, sustainability and the like are not new ideas but rather a call for action to meet contemporary problems with sound time proven planning principles.

Guys like Ford and Pullman had it right and while private sector industrial new town development may not be favored today, much can be learned as we seek to reinvent cities with “fulfilled workers” anxious to live and work new town environments  being created in our cities.

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