chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
November 08, 2023 Feature

Green Belts and Urban Growth at Sixty

Amy Mandelker

It seems reasonable to look back retrospectively from the endpoint of a narrative to its genesis—in this case, the beginning of Daniel R. Mandelker’s distinguished career as a professor, analyst, writer, and teacher in the fields of housing and environmental law. It is all the more appropriate for his daughter to recall, from her child’s perspective, how it all began.

This took place in England in the 1960s, as Beatlemania swept the states and “England Swings” topped the charts. The era of jet-setting was in its nascency, and so we sailed, crossing the Atlantic four times in as many years. It was during those voyages by sea, and in our school-year lessons at private schools in London and Sussex, that my younger brother and I discovered Europe.

We had a Ford Foundation grant to thank for our father’s fully funded year of research into English planning practices and how the British green belt concept had set the gold standard for post-war planning practice in urban and suburban development. It was my father’s wish to research the British planning system to learn more about it and then to describe its methods and challenges in concise summation to his stateside colleagues. His lapidary and engaging writing style made his monograph, Green Belts and Urban Growth,1 a cross-Atlantic sensation.

When asked which of his many books and monographs is his favorite, my father has always responded, without hesitation, “Green Belts and Urban Growth.” He believes a first book is always a favorite, but, in this case, it is more: a pathbreaking study with ramifications and influences extending across the millennial and digital divide, impacting planning and development globally. English planning has continued to evolve since 1960, with many complexities in administrating and managing land use, but the green belt concept is still tenable and valuable, not only in England but globally.2 Green Belts and Urban Growth remains an important analysis of how planning works when a green belt policy is in place.

The grant was part of a Ford Foundation initiative that created a program to fund empirical field work for law professors. My father was recruited for the grant by the director of the program, who remembered him from the University of Wisconsin Law School. I was raised frequently hearing my father credit his career success to mentors and colleagues “who have helped me like this all through my career.”

In this case, field research meant a fair amount of time spent in the British Ministry of Housing library studying regulations, articles, and reports. The British administration system was welcoming, and my father quickly met the “important people.” Among these new colleagues was Richard Adams, the author of the bestselling novel, Watership Down, whom my father met when interviewing him at the Ministry of Housing where Adams was in charge of advertising. My brother and I often played with Juliet and Rosamund Adams, who kept bunnies and tadpoles in their English garden. Those hours in the Adamses’ garden, and my childhood visits to friends’ cottages in East Sussex with their “victory gardens,” made the green belt concept vivid in my mind as an expression of what seemed to me a cultural commitment to the environment in orderly cultivation and landscaping practices. If, at other times, the narrow cobblestone streets of London, with their overhanging shop fronts, seemed circuitous and cluttered and as disorganized as Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop, the sense of popular support for carefully planned expansion and new beginnings in the countryside was palpable.

In addition to case studies and historical research, my father travelled all over England, visiting several towns and cities to learn how the green belt was managed and to study how the English planning system worked in different environments. He became friends with a barrister specializing in land-use cases and accompanied him when he argued cases before local governments. These were cases at the local level where developers were trying to break the green belt to build housing. The green-belt concept had originated in the Green Belt Act of 1938, related to the Metropolitan Green Belt around London. It was intended to curtail urban sprawl and preserve agriculture. Litigation over the green belt was conducted by hearing officers appointed by the Ministry of Housing, and the issue often was the preservation of the green belt versus the need for housing. As my father explains,

The system at that time was very ad hoc. Decisions on cases were made by hearing officers appointed by the Ministry of Housing. Most cases involved minor incursions into the green belt for which there was no national policy. There was no appeal unless the Ministry called the case in, which was seldom. So the individual cases did not affect the green belt territory that much.3

My father selected East Sussex for a regional study of green belts, and we spent the summer there, where my father spent time with the planning department. To our delight, we took up residence in a more bucolic setting where I sat reading my books in an apple tree and helped myself to the fruit, fleeing in fear when a bull approached on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. While we children attended a one-room school, our father began writing his book that summer on an old manual typewriter. We were in an area where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.

Returning to the United States after a year abroad was challenging. We children experienced terrible culture shock, especially as I had acquired a very RP (“Received Pronunciation” aka Really Proper) British accent, much knowledge of kings and queens, and an abysmal lack of familiarity with the American system of government. This lacuna was soon corrected, as my father became actively involved in Marion County, Indiana, election work, canvassing door to door in an election contest and hosting screenings of election returns in our home. By the time I lost my accent, Green Belts and Urban Growth had received widespread acclaim with glowing reviews in law reviews. It caught the attention of hiring committees at various law schools, and, in 1962, Washington University Law School recruited my father to start a new program in Urban Law. I remember my father talking with excitement about moving to St. Louis, which he characterized as a cultural center with world class art and science museums, one of the nation’s best symphony orchestras, The Muny opera, and, yes, the Cardinals and the top-rated St. Louis Zoo. Upon moving to St. Louis, my schoolteachers and administrators would do double takes upon hearing my last name, asking if I were a relation. They would show me articles about my father in the newspaper.

Washington University Law School believed that my father’s teaching in the areas of housing and environmental law, and his potential productivity as the author of Green Belts and Urban Growth, would spearhead a necessary and vital program in an area of legal studies that was cutting edge.

Once in St. Louis, I would accompany my father on various outings. These seemed like family fun to me at first, but I soon became aware that these trips were part of his professional service to the community. Wilderness hikes in the Rockwood Reservation and his careful scrutiny of trail maintenance and wilderness use fulfilled his role as Trustee of the Reservation, appointed by the chancellor. Hanging out in the Laclede Town coffee house, where I joined the throng of would-be folk singers on open mic night, was our way of gaining familiarity with urban renewal projects, then urgently of the moment with the closure of Pruitt-Igo.

In addition, my father was proactively involved with many neighborhood organizations in Saint Louis that were addressing housing issues, especially enforcement of the local housing code. In particular, he was able to get a bill passed authorizing the city to appoint receivers to manage housing that needed repair, but a court held it was not authorized.

Meanwhile, he authored more studies that became classics in the field of urban law. In addition to his own prolific writing, he established a law journal at the law school, the Urban Law Annual, now published as the Journal of Law and Policy. As director of a graduate program in urban law, he trained lawyers for the practice of land-use law. He performed field studies in urban renewal programs in several cities, keeping his work fresh and relevant and sharpening his methodology. Importantly, he developed a casebook on urban law that became two casebooks, one on land-use law and one on state and local government. Later, he helped develop casebooks on environmental law and property law. He consulted with the State of Hawaii to help preserve the state planning program. The invitation came from a former law student at the University of Wisconsin who recalled my father’s guest lecture in a class and who reached out to my father as a member of the Hawaii State Planning Department.

By this time, I was away at college and recall coming home for a visit to see my father’s office door decorated with maps and photos of Hawaii and newspaper articles about his work there. When I spent a summer session on Washington University’s campus, whenever I used the library, law students I encountered would always tell me that Dan Mandelker was the best law professor that they ever had.

In the years that followed, as I pursued my doctorate in Russian and Soviet studies, my father became what we graduate students fondly and admiringly called a “Turboprof”—a nationally recognized speaker at conferences all over the country and abroad, testifying before Congress, with invited lectures on many campuses, including my own.

I had the rare privilege of collaborating with my father on an article when my competence in Russian became useful. I translated cases and articles for him and, in our conversations, shared my understanding of Soviet cities and “gorodoks”—planned suburban communities of professional enclaves. Of course, he had also travelled to the former USSR to conduct his own field research and formed professional friendships that allowed him insight into the then inscrutable world of Soviet daily life. The result was my father’s article, City Planning in the Soviet Union: Problems of Coordination and Control.4

By the time of my father’s first Festschrift, I had become a professor of Comparative Literature in New York City and had published on the visual arts and literature; theories of time, place, and space; and postmodernism. It was an honor to write for the Festschrift and to comprehend academically, and as a resident New Yorker, my father’s contribution to the field of street graphics, which was a new approach to sign regulation. It was published as a book in 19885 and is now in its fourth edition as Street Graphics and the Law.6 This slim volume, co-authored with William Ewald, continued the same commitment to lived, human experience in designed and planned habitations and communities, first voiced in Green Belts and Urban Growth. I found that my father’s work on street graphics anticipated by decades a shift in street design and marketplace branding that is now in frequent practice. In my article, Writing Urban Spaces: Street Graphics and the Law as Postmodern Design and Ordinance,7 I sought to identify the sweet spot along the spectrum from Soviet totalitarian ordinance and practice in monotonal, propagandistically inflected branding, with “degree zero” wide and empty, to the other extreme: the contingency based fluidity of American laissez-faire, market-determined planning and development.

In many ways, the green-belt concept is emblematic of the desired planning philosophy. Green-belt policies in planning and development reflect recognition that access to nature trails and parks, even on a small scale, is vital to the health of residents in planned urban and suburban communities. As well, green edges offer needed environmental pacing of construction for urban containment, to deflect reflective glare and the greenhouse effect. As my father found in 1962, clarity of policy and effective management is the key to finding the necessary balance for the sustainability of green belts.

Dan Mandelker with daughter Amy on ocean liner to England in 1964.


1. Daniel R. Mandelker, Green Belts and Urban Growth: English Town and Country Planning in Action (1962).

2. See, e.g., Albert Tonghoon Han, Thomas L. Daniels & Chaeri Kim, Managing Urban Growth in the Wake of Climate Change: Revisiting Greenbelt Policy in the US, 112 Land Use Pol’y 1 (Jan. 2022).

3. Interview with Daniel R. Mandelker (Nov. 11, 2022).

4. Daniel R. Mandelker, City Planning in the Soviet Union: Problems of Coordination and Control, 2 Urb. L. & Pol’y 97 (1979).

5. Daniel R. Mandelker & William R. Ewald, Street Graphics and the Law (1988).

6. Daniel R. Mandelker, John M. Baker & Richard Crawford, Street Graphics and the Law (Am. Plan. Ass’n 4th ed. 2015).

7. Amy Mandelker, Writing Urban Spaces: Street Graphics and the Law as Postmodern Design and Ordinance, 3 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol’y 403 (2000).

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Amy Mandelker

Associate Professor of Comparative Literature (retired), Graduate Center of the City University of New York.