In broad swaths of northwest DC and nearby Montgomery County, single-family houses are the only buildings allowed. This was the most remarked-on feature of the zoning map of the Washington region that Tracy Loh published here last month. It is also the work—not alone, of course, but directing all its parts—of a single man.
Harland Bartholomew (1889-1989) was a figure of national importance. His role in creating our landscape of sprawl and automobile dependence was enormous – equal to, if not greater than, the far better known Robert Moses. And nowhere did he leave a stronger imprint than in the Washington region.
Bartholomew began his planning career at the dawn of the profession. A few years after starting work as a civil engineer (he had been forced by lack of funds to drop out of Rutgers short of a degree), he was assigned to do surveys, traffic counts, and population maps for the newly-formed planning commission of Newark, New Jersey.
The commitment to planning as a “scientific” endeavor based on data collection would stick with him throughout his career. As he said in 1960 about plans for what is now I-270, the design of highway systems is “becoming a scientific process or engineering matter, just as the design of sewer and drainage systems.”
But Bartholomew’s legacy demonstrates with particular clarity that planning is never truly neutral; value judgments are always embedded in the objectives engineers set for themselves.
As the Newark project proceeded, the firm’s partners were drawn away on other projects, and most of the work fell on Bartholomew. In 1914 he went to work for the city as the first full-time municipal planner anywhere in the country, completing its first master plan a year later.
Bartholomew was earning a reputation in planning circles, and in 1916 St. Louis hired him as that city’s first full-time planner. Richard Rothstein, in The Color of Law, reports on his work there:
According to Bartholomew, an important goal of St. Louis zoning was to prevent movement into “finer residential districts… by colored people.” He noted that without a previous zoning law, such neighborhoods have become run-down, “where values have depreciated, homes are either vacant or occupied by colored people.”
The survey Bartholomew supervised before drafting the zoning ordinance listed the race of each building’s occupants. Bartholomew attempted to estimate where African Americans might encroach so the commission could respond with restrictions to control their spread.
The St. Louis zoning ordinance was eventually adopted in 1919, two years after the Supreme Court’s Buchanan ruling banned racial assignments. With no reference to race, the ordinance pretended to be in compliance. Guided by Bartholomew’s survey, it designated land for future industrial development if it was in or adjacent to neighborhoods with substantial African American populations.
Bartholomew left his St. Louis job in 1919 and started a consulting firm that specialized in writing plans and zoning ordinances for municipalities. This was a growing business in the 1920s, and Bartholomew’s firm was the most active in the field. It prepared plans and ordinances for dozens of cities in the 1920s, including Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Vancouver.
The District of Columbia was among his first clients – he had begun consulting for it even before leaving his St. Louis position. In that time before home rule, the city was run by two presidentially-appointed commissioners, Louis Brownlow and Charles Kutz. In 1920 they charged Bartholomew’s new firm with writing the city’s first zoning ordinance. Berkeley planning professor Mel Scott, in his 1969 history American City Planning Since 1890, recounts what happened:
Washington real estate men put pressure on the two officials to permit the construction of apartment houses in the northwest section of the city, which contained most of the good single-family residential areas. But upon advice of their consultant, Brownlow and Kutz decided not to allow multifamily structures between Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues, north and west of Rock Creek Park.
By 1926, however, the agitation for a change of zone to authorize apartments was so great that the commissioners were almost persuaded to make some concessions. Bartholomew then suggested that a detailed study of land use in the entire city should be made, as well as a determination of how much land was absorbed each year by the construction of new apartment houses.
The extensive land-use survey took more than a year to complete but enabled Brownlow and Kutz to stand firm against the real estate men. To the surprise of the commissioners and the consternation of those who wanted a zoning change, the survey revealed that less than one percent of the city was actually used for apartment houses and that there was a considerable amount of vacant land zoned for such structures in other parts of the city.
Bartholomew was appointed in 1941 to the seven-member National Interregional Highway Commission, which developed the plans that later became the Interstate Highway System. As a planner, he pushed back against the highway engineers who otherwise dominated the commission and wanted their roads as straight and cheap as possible. Expressway locations must fit into city plans, he insisted, but given his planning doctrines such coordination would hardly lessen the highways’ destructive effect.
The principles he convinced the commission to adopt were later summarized by his long-time consulting colleague and admirer Eldridge Lovelace: Urban expressways “could revive central areas by making them more accessible, enabling slums to be replaced more rapidly, enabling the city to decentralize even more rapidly, and making it even easier for people to escape the increasing problems of the deteriorating central city.”
Meanwhile, Bartholomew continued as consultant to the District, his influence peaking after World War II with his “great friend” Harry Truman in the White House. The 1950 regional plan drafted by his firm warned of the “danger of further overconcentration” of government offices in downtown Washington and called for dispersal of federal workplaces into the suburbs.
In 1953 he became chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission. There he adjudicated the already-fierce battle between transit advocates and road-builders. Finding from his studies that automobiles alone could not meet the growing city’s future travel needs, he opted for what is now called “all of the above.” The plan issued by the 1959 Metropolitan Transportation Study combined the entirety of the highway lobby’s desired freeway network with 33 miles of rail lines. It was this proposal, with a multitude of expressways crisscrossing the District and its environs, that triggered the anti-highway uprising of the following 15 years.
As his chairmanship ended in 1960, Bartholomew took on the job of preparing the first master plan for the entirety of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. This was the famous On Wedges and Corridors plan adopted in 1964. The concept here was not new to him – it echoed his 1944 highway location principles, which talked of “wedges of open space” around cities.
On Wedges and Corridors is regularly cited as the framework underlying Montgomery’s current plans, and the county’s agricultural reserve faithfully fulfills its vision for the wedges. But the county’s success in creating lively urban centers rests on its rejection of the plan’s prescription for the “urban ring” – the area inside and just beyond the Beltway that suburbanized before 1960.
As he had in the District in the 1920s, Bartholomew made preservation of upscale single-family neighborhoods a paramount goal. “How many more people,” On Wedges and Corridors asks, “can crowd into your community before you feel completely ‘hemmed in’?... Without planning, a prospective home owner can buy a piece of property and a house, but he cannot purchase an unchanging environment.”
The urban ring, where “high-density cores… are not feasible,” was to remain residential. The ring’s population would grow, but only by low-rise development on vacant or “blighted” land. Planners would be vigilant against “the ever-present danger of rezoning for a gasoline station, shopping center, or apartment project.” New jobs would go in dense “corridor cities” built farther out on undeveloped land.
Soon after the Planning Board adopted On Wedges and Corridors, the County Council ignored its recommendations by zoning the downtowns of Friendship Heights, Bethesda, and Silver Spring for dense development – a decision that has endured through years of political back-and-forth. But elsewhere in Montgomery’s urban ring, as in adjoining areas of northwest DC, land use has largely remained static. The single-family splotch on the zoning map is the “unchanging environment” of Harland Bartholomew’s plans.
Royce Hanson, Suburb: Planning, Politics and the Public Interest, Cornell University Press, 2017.
Eldridge Lovelace, Harland Bartholomew, His Contributions to American Urban Planning, 1993, https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/archive/harland-bartholomew/
Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission, On Wedges and Corridors, 1964, http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/general_plans/wedges_corridors/wedges_corridors64.shtm.
Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law, Liveright, 2017.
Zachary Schrag, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Mel Scott, American City Planning Since 1890, University of California Press, 1969.