views updated May 14 2018


Suburbanization is one aspect of the more general process of the expansion and spatial reorganization of metropolitan settlements. Settled areas that are beyond the historical boundaries of what have been considered cities but still are clearly functionally linked to the cities or may not be considered suburban. What is suburban is a matter of social definition. For example, when small cities are enveloped by the expansion of larger cities, at what point should they be considered suburbs, if they should be called suburbs at all? As some cities extend their boundaries outward, will the newly settled areas not be considered suburban if they are within the new boundaries?

Many researchers in the United States have chosen to adopt conventions established by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The term "suburban" refers to the portion of a metropolitan area that is not in the central city. This definition depends on what is defined as metropolitan and central city, and those definitions change over the years. Such changes are not simply technical adjustments; they respond (among other criteria) to assumptions about what cities and suburbs are. For example, as many U.S. "suburbs" have become employment centers in the last two decades, altering traditional patterns of commuting to work, Census Bureau scientists have adjusted the definition of "central city" to include some of those peripheral areas.

For many purposes, it may be preferable to avoid these categories altogether. "Suburban" may be intended to reflect distance from the city center, recency of development, residential density, or commuting patterns—all of which can be measured directly. The main substantive rationale for accepting definitions tied to the juridical boundaries of cities is to emphasize the differences between cities and suburbs (and among suburbs) that are related to municipal governance. An important class of issues revolves around disparities in public resources: In what parts of the metropolis are taxes higher, where are better schools available, where is police protection greater? What are the effects of these differences on the opportunities available to people who live in different parts of the metropolis? Another dimension concerns local politics: How do localities establish land use and budget policies, and what are the effects of those policies on growth?

Because many suburban residents have worked in central cities while paying taxes in the suburbs, John Kasarda has described the city–suburb relationship in terms of "exploitation." Political scientists in particular have studied this issue in terms of arguments for the reform of structures of metropolitan governance. The normative implications of their arguments have explicit ideological under-pinnings. Some, such as Dennis Judd, emphasize the value of equality of life chances and interpret differences between cities and suburbs as disparities; others (public choice theorists such as Elinor Ostrom) emphasize freedom of choice and interpret differences as opportunities for the exercise of choice.

Sociologists on the whole have been less willing to be proponents of metropolitan solutions and have shown more interest in the causes than in the consequences of suburbanization. Nevertheless, there are differences in theoretical perspective that closely parallel those in political science, and they hinge in part on the importance of political boundaries and the political process. The main lines of explanation reflect two broader currents in sociological theory: Structural functionalism is found in the guise of human ecology and neoclassical economics, and variants of Marxian and Weberian theory have been described as the "new" urban theory.

Ecologists and many urban economists conceptualize suburbanization as a process of decentralization, as is reflected in Burgess's (1967) concentric-zone model of the metropolis. Burgess accepted the postulate of central place theory that the point of highest interaction and most valued land is naturally at the core of the central business district. The central point is most accessible to all other locations in the metropolis, a feature that is especially valuable for commercial firms. At the fringes of the business district, where land is held for future commercial development, low-income and immigrant households can compete successfully for space, though only at high residential densities. Peripheral areas, by contrast, are most valued by more affluent households, particularly those with children and a preference for more spacious surroundings.

The key to this approach is its acceptance of a competitive land market as the principal mechanism through which locational decisions are reached. More specific hypotheses are drawn from theories about people's preferences and willingness (and ability) to pay for particular locations or structural changes (e.g., elevators, transportation technology, and the need for space of manufacturers) that affect the value of a central location. Many researchers have focused on gradients linking distance from the center to various compositional characteristics of neighborhoods: population density (Treadway 1969), household composition (Guest 1972), and socioeconomic status (Choldin and Hanson 1982). Comparatively little research has been conducted on the preferences of residents or the factors that lead them to select one location or another.

Other sociologists have argued that growth patterns result from conscious policies and specific institutional interventions in the land and housing markets. Representative of this view is the study done by Checkoway (1980), who emphasizes the role of federal housing programs and institutional support for large-scale residential builders in the suburbanization process of the 1950s. The move to suburbs, he argues, was contingent on the alternatives offered to consumers. The redlining of inner-city neighborhoods by the Federal Housing Administration, its preference for large new subdivisions, and its explicit discrimination against minority home buyers are among the major forces structuring these alternatives.

There have been few studies of the housing market from an institutional perspective, although the restructuring of real estate financing and the emergence of new linkages between large-scale developers and finance capital have begun to attract attention. More consideration has been given to the explicitly political aspects of land development (Logan and Molotch 1987). Following Hunter (1953), who believed that growth questions are the "big issue" in local politics, later studies found that the most powerful voices in local politics are the proponents of growth and urban redevelopment and, in this sense, that a city is a growth machine.

In applying this model to suburbs, most observers portray suburban municipalities as "exclusionary." Suburban municipalities have long used zoning to influence the location and composition of land development. Since environmentalism emerged as a formidable political movement in the early 1970s, it has become commonplace to hear about localities that exercise their power to preserve open space and historic sites by imposing restraints or even moratoriums on new development. The "no-growth movement" is a direct extension of earlier exclusionary zoning policies.


These two theoretical perspectives can be illustrated through their application to research on socioeconomic differences between cities and suburbs. It is well known that central cities in most metropolitan regions have a less affluent residential population than do the surrounding suburbs. There is much debate, however, whether this class segregation between cities and their suburbs represents a natural sorting out of social classes through the private market or whether its causes are political and institutional. Similar debate surrounds the phenomenon of differentiation within suburbia, where there is great variation in economic function, class and racial composition, and other characteristics of suburbs.

Research from an ecological perspective has stressed a comparison between the older, larger, denser cities of the North and the more recently growing cities of the South and West. The principal consistent findings have been that (1) the pattern of low central city relative to suburban social status is more pronounced in older metropolitan regions but that (2) controlling for metropolitan age, there appears to be a universal generalization of this pattern over time (Guest and Nelson 1978). These sociologists propose that suburbs have natural advantages over central cities. For example, their housing stock is newer, their land is less expensive, and they are more accessible to freeways and airports. The socioeconomic differences between cities and suburbs reflect those advantages.

Others argue that disparities are generated primarily by political structures that allocate zoning control and responsibility for public services to local governments and require those governments to finance services from local sources such as taxes on real property. They propose that the typical fragmentation of metropolitan government creates the incentive and opportunity for suburbs to pursue exclusionary growth policies (Danielson 1976).

Seeking to test these theories, Logan and Schneider (1982) found greater disparities in metropolitan areas where central cities were less able to grow through annexation (thus where suburban municipal governments were more autonomous) and where localities were more reliant on local property taxes (hence had greater incentive to pursue exclusionary policies). They also found a significant racial dimension: Greater disparities were evident in both 1960 and 1970 in metropolitan areas in the North with a larger proportion of black residents. (This did not hold for the South and West, however.) This disparity is due both to the concentration of lower-income blacks in central cities and to a greater propensity of higher-status whites to live in suburbs in those metropolitan areas. This finding is reinforced by Frey (see Frey and Speare 1988; Shihadeh and Ousey 1996), who reported that the central-city proportion of black residents is a significant predictor of white flight, independent of other causes.

If suburbs follow exclusionary growth policies, it seems counterintuitive that suburbs experienced much more rapid growth than did cities in the postwar decades. The findings on city–suburb disparities, of course, indicate that exclusion has selective effects. Nevertheless, it is surprising that in a study of northern California cities, Baldassare and Protash (1982), found that communities with more restrictive planning controls actually had higher rates of population growth in the 1970s. Similarly, Logan and Zhou (1989) found that suburban growth controls had little, if any, impact on development patterns (population growth, socioeconomic status, and racial composition). In their view, the exclusionary policies of suburbs may be more apparent than real. The more visible actions, such as growth moratoriums, often are intended to blunt criticisms by residents concerned with problems arising from rapid development. Unfortunately, few studies have looked in depth at the political process within suburbs; there is as little direct evidence on the role of local politics as there is on the operation of the land market. Most research from both the ecological and the political-institutional perspectives has inferred the processes for controlling growth from evidence about the outcomes.


A central problem for early studies of suburban communities was to identify the patterns of functional specialization among them. It was recognized that older industrial satellites coexisted with dormitory towns in the fringe areas around central cities. Both were suburban in the sense that they were integrated into a metropolitan economy dominated by the central city. Their own economic role and the nature of the populations they housed were quite distinct, however. The greatest population gains in the 1950s occurred in residential suburbs, communities that were wealthier, younger, newer, and less densely settled than the towns on the fringes of the region that had higher concentrations of employment. Schnore (see Schnore and Winsborough 1972) distinguished "suburbs" from "satellites" to acknowledge these different origins.

The metaphors of suburbs and satellites reflected the reality of early postwar suburbanization, a period when established towns and small cities were surrounded by successive waves of new subdivisions. Those metaphors are no longer appropriate. Since the late l950s, the bulk of new manufacturing and trade employment in the metropolis has been located in small and middle-sized cities in the suburban ring (Berry and Kasarda 1977, chap. 13). Downtown department stores compete with new suburban shopping malls. The highly developed expressway network around central cities frees manufacturing plants to take advantage of the lower land prices and taxes and the superior access to the skilled workforce offered by the suburbs. For the period 1963–1977, in the largest twenty-five metropolitan areas, total manufacturing employment in central cities declined by about 700,000 (19 percent), while their suburbs gained 1.1 million jobs (36 percent). At the same time, total central-city retail and wholesale employment was stagnant (dropping by 100,000). Trade employment in the suburbs increased 1.8 million (or 110 percent) in that period. Thus, total employment growth in the suburbs outpaced the growth of population (Logan and Golden 1986). This is the heart of the phenomenon popularized by Garreau (1991) as the creation of "Edge City."

How has suburbanization of employment affected suburban communities? According to microeconomic and ecological models, locational choices by employers reflect the balance of costs and benefits of competing sites. New employment maintains old patterns because the cost–benefit equation is typically stable, including important considerations such as location relative to workforce, suppliers, markets, and the local infrastructure. In the terms commonly used by urban sociologists, this means that communities find their "ecological niche." Stahura's (1982) finding of marked persistence in manufacturing and trade employment in suburbs from 1960 to 1972 supports this expectation. Once it has "crystallized," the functional specialization of communities changes only under conditions of major shifts in the needs of firms.

In this view, to the extent that changes occur, they follow a natural life cycle (Hoover and Vernon 1962). Residential suburbs in the inner ring, near the central city, tend over time to undergo two related transformations: to higher population density and a conversion to nonresidential development and to a lower socioeconomic status. Thus, inner suburbs that gain employment are—like older satellites—less affluent than residential suburbs.

By contrast, those who emphasize the politics of land development suggest very different conclusions. A growing number of suburbs perceive business and industry as a significant local resource. Once shunned by the higher-status suburbs, they now contribute to property values and the local tax base. Prestigious communities such as Greenwich, Connecticut, and Palo Alto, California, house industrial parks and corporate headquarters. The "good climate for business" they offer includes public financing of new investments, extensive infrastructure (roads, utilities, parking, police and fire protection), and moderate taxes (Logan and Molotch 1987).

Competition among suburbs introduces a new factor that has the potential to reshape suburban regions. Schneider (1989) reports that location of manufacturing firms is affected by the strength of the local tax base, suggesting that wealthy suburbs are advantaged in this competition. Logan and Golden (1986) find that newly developing suburban employment centers have higher socioeconomic status, as well as stronger fiscal resources, than other suburbs; this is a reversal of the pattern of the 1950s.


The suburbanization process also increasingly involves minorities and immigrants, and the incorporation of those groups into suburban areas has become an important topic for research on racial and ethnic relations. As Massey and Denton (1987) document, the rate of growth of nonwhites and Hispanics in metropolitan areas is far outstripping the rate of growth of non-Hispanic whites. Much of this growth is occurring in suburbs. During the 1970s, for example, the number of blacks in the non-central-city parts of metropolitan areas increased 70 percent compared with just 16 percent in central cities, and the number of other nonwhites in those locations shot up 150 percent compared with approximately 70 percent in central cities. One reason for the rapidly increasing racial and ethnic diversity of suburbs may be that some new immigrant groups are bypassing central cities and settling directly in suburbs. Equally important is the increasing suburbanization of older racial and ethnic minorities, such as blacks (Frey and Speare 1988).

This phenomenon has encouraged researchers to study suburbanization as a mirror on the social mobility of minorities. Consistent with classical ecological theory, suburbanization often has been portrayed broadly as a step toward assimilation into the mainstream society and a sign of the erosion of social boundaries. For European immigrant groups after the turn of the century, residential decentralization appears to have been part of the general process of assimilation (Guest 1980).

Past studies have found that suburbanization of Hispanics and Asians in a metropolitan area is strongly associated with each group's average income level (Massey and Denton 1987, pp. 819– 820; see also Frey and Speare 1988, pp. 311–315). Further, again for Hispanics and Asians, Massey and Denton (1987) demonstrate that suburban residence typically is associated with lower levels of segregation and, accordingly, higher probabilities of contact with the Anglo majority. However, these and other authors report very different results for blacks. Black suburbanization is unrelated to the average income level of blacks in the metropolitan area and does not result in higher inter-group contact for blacks. The suburbanization process for blacks appears largely to be one of continued ghettoization (Farley 1970), as is indicated by high and in some regions increasing levels of segregation and by the concentration of suburban blacks in communities with a high incidence of social problems (e.g., high crime rates), high taxes, and underfunded social services (Logan and Schneider 1984; Reardon 1997).

These findings regarding black suburbanization have been interpreted in terms of processes that impede the free mobility of racial minorities: steering by realtors, unequal access to mortgage credit, exclusionary zoning, and neighbor hostility (Foley 1973). Home ownership indeed may be one of the gatekeepers for suburban living. Stearns and Logan (1986) report that blacks were less likely to live in suburban areas where higher proportions of the housing stock were owner-occupied.

Further evidence is offered by Alba et al (1999), who based their conclusions on an analysis of individual-level data from the 1980 and 1990 censuses. They find that suburban residence is more likely among homeowners and persons of higher socioeconomic status. There are strong effects of family status (marriage and the presence of children in the household), but for many immigrant groups, measures of cultural assimilation (English language use, nativity, and period of immigration) have declining relevance for suburban location. Assimilation traditionally has been a major part of the suburbanization process for most groups, especially those arising out of immigration, but large pockets of relatively new immigrants have now appeared in the suburban ring.

Parallel results are found for the racial and ethnic sorting process within a suburban region (the New YorkNew Jersey suburban region, as reported by Logan and Alba 1993; Alba and Logan 1993). Two sorts of analyses were conducted. First, members of different racial and ethnic groups were compared on the average characteristics of the suburbs in which they resided. Second, regression models were estimated for members of each major racial or ethnic group to predict several of these indicators of place advantages or community resources.

There are important differences between whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in regard to the kinds of suburbs in which they live. As some researchers have suspected, suburban Asians have achieved access to relatively advantaged communities that are similar in most respects to those of suburban non-Hispanic whites. Hispanics in the New York region have not. Suburban Hispanic by and large live in communities that are about the same as black suburbs: communities with low average income levels and low rates of home ownership and, perhaps more important, high crime rates (Alba et al. 1994).

Is the disadvantage of blacks and Hispanics attributable to individual qualities of group members, or do these groups face collective disadvantages? Analysis of individual characteristics that may predict the quality of the suburb in which one resides shows that the same location process does not apply equally to all minorities. The pattern for whites, who are relatively advantaged in terms of access to community resources, lends clear support to assimilation theory. Human capital and indicators of cultural assimilation are strongly associated with access to higher-status suburbs. The same can be said of Asians (who are relatively advantaged overall), with the exception that cultural assimilation variables seem not to be important for Asians.

The results for blacks call attention to processes of racial stratification. Even controlling for many other individual characteristics, blacks live in suburbs with lower ownership and income levels than do non-Hispanic whites. Further, most human capital and assimilation variables have a smaller payoff for blacks than they do for whites. The findings for Hispanics are supportive of the assimilation model in several respects. Hispanics gain more strongly than whites do from most human capital characteristics; therefore, at higher levels of socioeconomic achievement and cultural assimilation, Hispanics come progressively closer to matching the community resources of whites. It should be noted, however, that Hispanics begin from a lower starting point and that black Hispanics face a double disadvantage that is inconsistent with an assimilation perspective.


Suburbanization continues to be a key aspect of metropolitan growth and is perhaps of growing importance in the global era (Muller 1997). The political boundaries between cities and suburbs accentuate interest in substantive issues of metropolitan inequality. They also create special opportunities for theories of urbanization to go beyond economic models and incorporate an understanding of the political process. Research on suburbanization has been most successful in describing patterns of decentralization and spatial differentiation. The movements of people and employment and the segregation among suburbs by social class, race, ethnicity, and family composition have been well documented. However, these patterns are broadly consistent with a variety of interpretations, ranging from those which assume a competitive land market (human ecology) to those which stress the institutional and political structuring of that market.

The principal gaps in knowledge concern the processes that are central to these alternative interpretations. Few sociologists have directly studied the housing market from the perspective of either demand (how do people learn about the alternatives, and how do they select among them?) or supply (how does the real estate sector operate, how is racial and ethnic segmentation of the market achieved, how is the complex of construction industries, developers, and financial institutions tied to the rest of the economy?). Rarely have sociologists investigated government decisions (at any level) that impinge on development from the point of view either of their effects or of the political process that led to them. Of course, these observations are not specific to research on suburbanization. It is important to bear in mind that neither the theoretical issues nor the research strategies in this field distinguish suburbanization from other aspects of the urban process.

(see also: Cities; Community; Urbanization)


Alba, Richard and John R. Logan 1993 "Minority Proximity to Whites in Suburbs: An Individual-Level Analysis of Segregation" American Journal of Sociology 98:1388–1427.

——, ———, and Paul Bellair 1994 "Living with Crime: The Implications of Racial and Ethnic Differences in Suburban Location" Social Forces 73:395–434.

——, ———, Brian Stults, Gilbert Marzan, and Wenquan Zhang 1999 "Immigrant Groups and Suburbs: A Reexamination of Suburbanization and Spatial Assimilation." American Sociological Review 64:446–460.

Baldassare, Mark, and William Protash 1982 "Growth Controls, Population Growth, and Community Satisfaction." American Sociological Review 47:339–346.

Berry, Brian, and John Kasarda 1977 Contemporary Urban Ecology. New York: Macmillan.

Burgess, Ernest W. 1967 "The Growth of the City." In R. E. Park, E. W. Burgess, and R. D. McKenzie, eds., The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Checkoway, Barry l980 "Large Builders, Federal Housing Programmes, and Postwar Suburbanization." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 4:21–44.

Choldin, Harvey M., and Claudine Hanson 1982 "Status Shifts within the City." American Sociological Review 47:129–41.

Danielson, Michael 1976 The Politics of Exclusion. New York: Columbia University Press.

Farley, Reynolds 1970 "The Changing Distribution of Negroes within Metropolitan Areas: The Emergence of Black Suburbs." American Journal of Sociology 75:512–529.

Foley, Donald 1973 "Institutional and Contextual Factors Affecting the Housing Choices of Minority Residents." In Amos Hawley and Vincent Rock, eds., Segregation in Residential Areas. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences.

Frey, William, and Alden Speare 1988 Regional and Metropolitan Growth and Decline in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Garreau, Joel 1991 Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday.

Guest, Avery M. 1972 "Patterns of Family Location." Demography 9:159–171.

—— 1980 "The Suburbanization of Ethnic Groups." Sociology and Social Research 64:497–513.

——, and G. Nelson 1978 "Central City/Suburban Status Differences: Fifty Years of Change." Sociological Quarterly 19:723.

Hoover, Edgar, and Raymond Vernon 1962 Anatomy of a Metropolis. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Hunter, Floyd 1953 Community Power Structure. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Liska, Allen, John R. Logan, and Paul Bellair 1998 "Race and Violent Crime in the Suburbs." American Sociological Review 63:27–38.

Logan, John R. and Richard Alba 1993 "Locational Returns to Human Capital: Minority Access to Suburban Community Resources." Demography 30:243–268.

——, and Reid Golden 1986 "Suburbs and Satellites: Two Decades of Change." American Sociological Review 51:430–437.

——, and Harvey L. Molotch 1987 Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

——, and Mark Schneider 1982 "Governmental Organization and City-Suburb Income Inequality, 1960– 1970." Urban Affairs Quarterly 17:303–318.

—— 1984 "Racial Segregation and Racial Change in American Suburbs: 1970–1980." American Journal of Sociology 89:874–888.

——, and Min Zhou 1989 "Do Growth Controls Control Growth?" American Sociological Review 54:461–471.

Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton 1987 "Trends in the Residential Segregation of Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians: 1970–1980." American Sociological Review 52:802–825.

Muller, Peter O. 1997 "The Suburban Transformation of the Globalizing American City.: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 551:44–58.

Reardon, Kenneth M. 1997 "State and Local Revitalization Efforts in East St. Louis, Illinois." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 551:235–247.

Schneider, Mark 1989 The Competitive City: The Political Economy of Suburbia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Schnore, Leo, and Hall Winsborough 1972 "Functional Classification and the Residential Location of Social Classes." In Brian Berry, ed., City Classification Handbook: Methods and Application. New York: Wiley.

Shihadeh, Edward S., and Graham C. Ousey 1996 "Metropolitan Expansion and Black Social Dislocation: The Link between Suburbanization and Center-City Crime." Social Forces 75:649–666.

Stahura, John 1982 "Determinants of Suburban Job Change in Retailing, Wholesaling, Service, and Manufacturing Industries: 1960–1972." Sociological Focus 15:347–357.

Stearns, Linda, and John Logan 1986 "The Racial Structuring of the Housing Market and Segregation in Suburban Areas." Social Forces 65:28–42.

Treadway, Roy C. 1969 "Social Components of Metropolitan Population Densities." Demography 6:55–74.

Warner, Kee, and Harvey Molotch 1995 "Power to Build: How Development Persists Despite Local Limits." Urban Affairs Review 30:378–406.

John R. Logan


views updated May 18 2018


SUBURBANIZATION describes the general trend of city dwellers to move from the city into residential areas in ever-growing concentric circles away from the city's core. The trend began briefly in the nineteenth century and then exploded after World War II (1939–1945). Suburbs

developed their own shopping and service districts and bred their own distinct lifestyles.

Historians and sociologists have long had difficulty defining the start of suburbanization. Researchers have noted that even before the American Revolution (1775– 1783), land speculators were offering land outside of cities like Boston and New York for development as residential areas. The term "suburban" was in use by 1800.

Crowded Urban Centers

Large American cities at that time were heterogeneous. They contained no distinct boundaries for commerce centers, artisan shops, stores, or residences. All existed side by side, often with one building performing several different functions. Indeed, contiguousness was one of the hallmarks of presuburban American cities. Kenneth T. Jackson, author of the classic Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1985), has termed these areas "walking cities." Jackson notes that walking cities were very congested. Lots were small, usually no more than twenty feet wide; streets were narrow; buildings were crowded together and tended to grow up rather than out. Any visitor to modern Wall Street—one of lower Manhattan's earliest developed streets—will quickly note the narrow, choked character of the street. People added to the congestion. While early American city population densities would be something less, average European densities ranged from 35,000 to 75,000 people per square mile. Because of the congestion, but also because foot-and horse-travel were the only transportation options for city denizens, inhabitants lived close to their work. Indeed, many lived in apartments above or behind their shops.

City elites tended to congregate near the centers of power, which included governmental buildings and dockside entry points. In the preindustrial days, those were the true seats of commerce. The first areas termed "suburb," in fact, were not pleasant escape destinations for city lead-ers, but rather odious peripheral sites where city law relegated such malodorous businesses as tanneries, slaughterhouses, and soap-making shops. On the periphery, houses of prostitution, vagrant camps, and, later, homes for urban slaves also grew. When the elite did begin moving away from the bustle of commerce centers, it was usually because commercial real estate developers offered them lucrative sums for their homes, or perhaps they wanted to enjoy a country life more fitting a moneyed, genteel society. However, it was important that their homes remained within easy walking or carriage distance of commerce.

Transportation Advances

Transportation advances were the key to modern suburbanization. One of the first was the adoption from Europe of omnibus lines. An omnibus was a large, horse-pulled carriage capable of carrying many passengers. Omnibus lines typically ran to and from city centers, dropping off and taking on paying passengers at different established depots along their line.

After the advent of steam power in the early nineteenth century, it was but a short time before steamer ferries offered easy and practical escape from city congestion. In 1810, using technology perfected by Scottish inventor James Watt, Robert Fulton demonstrated the effectiveness of steam power for river travel. By 1814, steamer ferries connected Manhattan with Brooklyn across the East River. Brooklyn, then isolated and rural, offered a pastoral setting away from the bustling docks and Wall Street for New York's new wealthier class.

Steam-powered railroads, another English invention but one that Americans would exploit to magnificent effect, also helped drive early suburbs. New York City had railroad commuter service by 1832; Boston had it by 1834. Railroads helped transform suburbs into higher-class areas because only the wealthier citizens of a city could afford the rail fare.

Industrial Growth and Immigration

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the United States in the 1830s and continued into the 1880s, had a major impact on the creation of suburbs. Industries, located at first near ocean or river ports, situated themselves near established cities. They drew workers from rural areas, adding to the urban congestion. As more people crowded in, a percentage of people left for the suburbs.

Foreign immigration also fed the urban flight. Revolutions across Europe in 1848, the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, and nationalist unification movements in Italy and Germany in the 1860s all created a class of European émigrés seeking relief in the United States. Immigrants arrived in the United States full of hope, but frequently found those hopes dashed when they discovered it difficult to escape urban areas. Ward heelers working for city municipal "boss systems" or "machines" often met immigrants at their point of entry, gave them a grub-stake of money, and offered them jobs and residences—both in the crowded urban core—in return for perpetual political support. To scared new arrivals, the offers sounded good, but they trapped many in cities, compounding the congestion and grime.

Suburban Growth

As urban cores grew, suburbs grew by a parallel rate. For example, New York City continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. By the 1890 census, it held more than 2.5 million people. Suburban Brooklyn's population always remained less than half that of New York City's. By the 1890 census, Brooklyn had slightly more than 800,000 people. Philadelphia and Boston experienced similar urban/suburban growth rates.

As Jackson points out, the movement of middle and upper classes to suburbs was "not inevitable." Indeed, such had not necessarily occurred in the great cities of Europe. But Americans carried with them certain emotional, romantic baggage leftover from the early days of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers had vigorously connected republican virtue with agrarian (or at least rural) lifestyles. Reformers during and after the Second Great Awakening (c. 1825–1840) equated rural lifestyles with health. Periodic smallpox, yellow fever, and dysentery outbreaks in crowded cities tended to prove them correct. But the cities could not be erased: by 1870, cities and agricultural areas existed in a state of mutual support, and too many urbanites made their living off the commercial centers.

People with enough money to achieve mobility, however, could enjoy the benefits, both healthful and aesthetic, of the country by moving to the suburbs. In sub-urban homes they would not have to rely on subsistence gardens for food, as rail transportation ensured adequate produce from the countryside. Rather, they could turn their grounds into romantic garden areas, replete with manicured lawns, shrubs, and relaxing fountains.

The Automobile Age

The twentieth century saw the rise of the machine that would cause the explosion of modern suburbia—the automobile. Like so much other technology, autos came to the United States from Europe. But it took American entrepreneur Henry Ford to make them accessible to average Americans. Using the assembly line system to speed and cheapen the production of cars, then enabling Americans to buy them on credit, Ford revolutionized not only the auto industry, but American roadways and city growth as well.

After World War I (1914–1918), when the United States experienced an economic boom that lasted until 1929, modern suburbia began to take shape. The Ford Model T, long the staple of American auto consumers, was quite durable and could, in fact, negotiate dirt roads and ditches, but paved roads became the preference of the driving public. Macadamized roads led into the suburbs, creating a freeway system that fed both metropolitan area sprawl and urban deterioration. As historian Lewis Munford criticized in his book City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (1961), city planners began to subjugate every other consideration to the car. Still, suburban growth was slow. Only 17 percent of the nation's population lived in suburbia in 1920. As with everything else, the Great Depression retarded growth. By 1940 only 20 percent of the population was classified as suburban.

The great suburban explosion, however, came after World War II (1939–1945). In 1945 and 1946, millions of servicemen returned home, all entitled to education benefits under the G.I. Bill and housing benefits under the Veterans Administration (VA) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The subsequent issuance of thousands of new bachelors' degrees created a new professional class in the United States, and those veterans who chose vocational education beefed up the service sector. Both classes began having the children that would become the baby boomers, and they needed low-cost housing. Despite the federal backing of home loans, a postwar housing shortage proved an obstacle. The suburbs provided a resolution.

Suburbs, in fact, were an ideal solution to the problem, for transportation was no longer an obstacle. New car sales slowed during the war for obvious reasons: first, men—the primary buyers of cars then—were out of the country by the millions; second, gasoline rationing impeded travel during the war; third, American auto manufacturers produced no new models after the 1942 model year, their plants turned over to military production until the end of the war.

But after Japan surrendered in September 1945, Americans began buying cars once again. They bought a staggering 70,000 cars in the last few months of 1945; that number jumped to more than 2 million in 1946, and more than 5 million in 1949. Many American families, with men drawing army pay and women working in war industry plants, emerged from the war with tidy nest eggs. That gave them plenty for a down payment on a house, and it enabled many to buy their first car or perhaps buy a second car. The advent of two-car families eased any commute for the breadwinner from suburbia: he could take one car while his wife had a second vehicle at home for shuttling children to school and running errands.


Nevertheless, with Americans eager to buy, the housing shortage remained. It took enterprising real estate speculators to break the logjam. None became more famous than builders William and Alfred Levitt. William, a salesman, and Alfred, an architect, wanted to apply mass production techniques to housing. They bought land in Hempstead, Long Island, New York, some thirty miles from New York City, then put together teams of non-union builders who erected simple two-bedroom, one-bathroom homes on sixty-foot by one hundred-foot lots. There the Levitts built 17,000 homes that would ultimately house more than 80,000 people. They integrated parks and swimming pools, and buildings for schools and churches, into their neighborhoods. The first "Levittown" was born, offering mass-produced homes and prepackaged neighborhoods.

When the first Levittown houses went on sale, New Yorkers stood in line to get them. The average price for a two-story, Cape Cod–style home was $7,900. Down payments were about $90; monthly payments averaged $58; that at a time when the average family income was about $3,000 a year. The Levitts followed up their Long Island success with Levittowns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Other speculators and developers followed suit, so that more "Levittowns" sprang up outside other American urban areas. Between 1947 and 1960, the population in suburbs grew by 50 to 100 percent. By 1960, one-third of the nation's population lived in suburban areas. In fact, by 1960, a new phenomenon had occurred—that of "strip cities": one, two, or perhaps more urban areas connected by almost continuous suburbs and suburban shopping areas. The U.S. census counted thirteen of those areas by 1960, obviously including Boston to New York to Washington, D.C., but also Albany to Erie, New York; Cleveland to Pittsburgh; Detroit to Muskegon, Michigan; Toledo to Cincinnati; Atlanta to Raleigh; Miami to Jacksonville, Chicago to Milwaukee, St. Louis to Peoria; Kansas City to Sioux Falls; Dallas–Fort Worth to San Antonio–Houston; San Francisco to San Diego; and Seattle to Eugene.

The Levitts became famous. In 1950, William's likeness appeared on the cover of Time magazine. But they also became the subject of criticism from architects, sociologists, and city planners. Some said Levittowns were undermining vital urban sectors. In truth, the automobile had been doing that for three decades. Other critics, like Lewis Mumford, decried the homogeneity—the same-ness—of the Cape Cod homes in Levittowns.

But of course, one man's cookie-cutter, prefab house is another man's castle. The people moving into Levittowns were not architectural designers or enlightened romanticists. Rather, they were working people desiring, like their suburban forebears, a chance to get out of the congestion, grime, and, with thousands of cars on the streets, pollution of the cities.

Levittowners tended to love their new homes. They had spacious closets and ample cooking room in the kitchens; the Levitts even supplied television sets with each new home! On weekends, homeowners could putter in their new lawns, planting shrubs and trees. Children could safely bicycle up and down the wide streets of their neighborhoods. Adults, accustomed to the dark, cloistered, often lonely existence of the city, suddenly found themselves sharing backyards with neighbors and actually taking time to visit with them. Neighborhood coffee or bridge clubs sprang up, giving mothers a weekly break from housewifely duties. (Routinely in the 1940s and 1950s, it was the man who made the daily commute from suburbia to the city.) The backyard barbecue became a symbol of suburban freedom, and many a couple struck enduring friendships over the grill. Many suburbanites recall the thrill and pride of moving from a crowded city apartment into their own homes; of having the chance to create a new neighborhood as they had never done before. In that, suburbia reflected the great American optimism of the immediate postwar years.

The Downside of Suburbia

But Levittowns and other suburbs were not all "beds of roses." The togetherness and friendships that suburbs offered

could often become double-edged swords. Proximity and the fact that neighborhoods, especially front yards, were open—hence many a suburbanite's activities were open to neighborly review and criticism—gave rise to an intense competition often called "keeping up with the Joneses." The second car (especially a Cadillac, Lincoln, or perhaps a sports model), a boat parked out front, the grass in the front yard, even the barbecue grill could all become competitive status symbols. The comings and goings of teenagers was hard to hide, and sometimes harder to explain. The Tuesday afternoon coffee club was both a time for women to get together and an invitation to engage in intense, often cutting, criticism. If a woman's floor was not clean enough or her cups and saucers not spotless, the news was soon all over the neighborhood. The flight to the suburbs also frequently cut families off from traditional support groups such as parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. With those connections harder to maintain, many a young woman found herself home alone with nothing but diapers to wash and floors to clean, and, in fact, doubting her abilities to do that properly. Suburban living played no little part in the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

An element of racism also crept into the suburbs. The rise of suburbia did indicate a "white flight" from the urban core, and critics charged the Levitts and other suburban developers with racism. Levittowns and other neighborhoods had restrictive covenants barring African Americans from buying homes there. The covenants also extended to renting. William Levitt, a Jew who had seen what horrors racial prejudice had wrought in Nazi Germany, chafed under the accusations, and he countered that he was only selling the type of neighborhoods that buying suburbanites wanted. In that Levitt had hit the root of the sociological phenomenon of suburbs: most homebuyers were white, and they wanted to settle in homogenous neighborhoods.

Civil rights advocates also charged in the early 1970s that largely white suburban schools were in violation of the desegregation mandate the Supreme Court handed down in the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case. In Milliken v. Bradley, a 1974 case that attempted to desegregate urban and suburban Detroit schools, the Court maintained that no constitutional violation existed, as the suburban schools were not created with overt intent to segregate. The Detroit area school system remained the same.

Urban businessmen also griped about the loss of business to the suburbs. All suburban areas, given their distance from cities, generated their own support services and businesses—grocery stores, five-and-dime stores, gas stations, restaurants, laundries, doctors' offices, movie houses. Businesses left in downtown areas not only suffered from an undermining of their customer pool, but the customers who were left tended to be of a lower class with less disposable income.

Simultaneously, by 1960, New York, Chicago, and other large cities had ceased to grow; soon their population would start to decline as more people fled to the suburbs. Consequently, the urban tax base also dwindled, cutting into revenues for capital improvements. Inner cities started a period of decline and decay. Tenements remained overcrowded; gangs began offering inner-city youth some type of affiliation and made robbery the order of the day; murders increased as police became over-worked and were unable to maintain an authoritarian presence; graffiti defaced public transportation and buildings. By the late 1960s and 1970s, inner cities had become synonymous with—if not stereotypical of—crime, violence, and filth. Public-housing projects (often notoriously known simply as "the projects") sprang up in cities as alternatives to run-down tenements, but they often quickly deteriorated into new centers of crime.

Not until the 1990s did cities effectively get control over, and in fact revitalize, run-down urban areas. Cities as vastly different in size and culture as Boston and Oklahoma City funded projects to clean up downtown areas, attract businesses back to the city, and pull customers back into the city by cleaning up streets, lighting them, ridding them of crime, and building public attractions like parks, river-walks, and sports facilities. By 2000, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York was being praised for drastically lowering the crime and homicide rates there.

While the flight to suburbia has by no means abated, an interesting phenomenon occurred in the early 1990s. Researchers recognized that some professionals were in fact moving out of the suburbs and back into cities. They could spend less time commuting; commutes in some areas, including mileage and traffic tie-ups, might eat up three hours a day, seriously eroding sleep and family time.

Nevertheless, suburban areas continue to grow. The new millennium, however, has seen downtown urban areas strive to create a more beneficially symbiotic relation-ship with suburbs.


Dobriner, William M. Class in Suburbia. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Norquist, John O. The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1998.

Patterson, James T. Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945– 1974. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

R. StevenJones

See alsoCity Planning ; Urbanization .


views updated May 23 2018


Suburbanization became a significant dynamic in urban development during the latter part of the nineteenth century, as professional people and better-paid artisans followed the example of successful entrepreneurs in taking up residence in new homes on the outskirts of the growing factory towns and commercial centers. This process was aided by the emergence of inexpensive forms of mass transit that loosened the ties between home and workplace for those with secure jobs and relatively "social" hours of work. With the growth of private car usage beginning in the 1920s, the process surged ahead; by the second half of the twentieth century, suburban living had become the modal pattern in many countries including the United States (see Table 1).

Over time, however, the nature of suburbanization has changed considerably. The most significant change has been in terms of the geographical scale of the process. Once experienced chiefly in the form of the lateral extension of the urban core, suburbanization has come to involve residential decentralization over a much broader commuting field. As in the case of Great Britain (see Table 2), the main commuting "ring" was already the zone of most rapid population growth by the 1950s, but the growth of outer areas accelerated in the 1960s and overtook that of the rings in the 1970s. Also very notable in the British case is the population turnaround of the rural areas since the 1950s, with a growth rate exceeding that of the suburban rings in the 1980s.

This more extensive outward movement of population has been interpreted by many commentators as a distinctive phenomenon going beyond suburbanization. To the extent that it has involved the


growth of relatively self-contained, medium-sized and smaller settlements lying beyond the main commuting reach of the major metropolitan centers, it has been seen as a process of "urban deconcentration" rather than of "urban decentralization." Given that this is not simply overspill from a too-full urban core but is commonly associated with absolute population loss from the latter, urban deconcentration has been interpreted as evidence of the loss of appeal of urban life and of the quest for a rural idyll, hence dubbed "counterurbanization" by Brian Berry (1976). Though most of those involved in this centrifugal movement are destined for small towns rather than the deep countryside, and very few are seeking out an alternative lifestyle without modern urban facilities, the majority see themselves as escaping the hectic pace of metropolitan life, with most sooner or later switching to nearby jobs rather than commuting back to the city.

This notion of an escape from metropolitan life in general is supported by a second major change that has affected the suburbs in recent decades: the urbanization of the suburbs or, in the words of David Birch, a transformation "from suburb to urban place" (1975, p. 25). Traditionally, the term suburb carries connotations of being something less than urbs, the city. Suburban areas were once largely residential in character, acting as dormitories and being dependent on the city center for work, recreation, and all but the most basic of shopping needs. Notably since the 1950s, however, outward residential movement has been followed by the decentralization of industrial, commercial, and high-level retail activities, and more recently by the growth of office and high-tech sectors, the latter being seen as the "third wave" of suburbanization in the United States. While commentators seem reluctant to abandon the epithet "suburban"–using terms like "the new suburbanization" with its "suburban downtowns"–it would seem that the once-clear distinction between city and suburb is fading fast. Joel Garreau's (1991) "edge city" concept better captures the nature of recent changes, as these threaten to turn the traditional metropolitan area inside out–or at least replace the monocentric city with an essentially polynuclear form of urban region.

Not surprisingly, the demographic character of the suburbs is also changing. As portrayed most effectively by the Chicago School of urban sociology in the 1920s, the suburbs in the United States were the domain of the white family where the wife was engaged full-time in raising children while the bread-winner husband commuted to work in the city. Partly through the process of in situ aging, over time these areas have seen a steady increase in the proportion of older couples whose children have left home and–despite some exodus of retirees–of the elderly. Along with the decentralization of non-dormitory urban functions, these areas have also witnessed a suburban apartment boom, drawing in younger single adults and childless couples.

The ethnic complexion of the suburbs has also been changing. While in aggregate there remains a considerable contrast between city and suburb in the proportion of non-whites, the suburb is now far from being a preserve of white families. According to the 2000 U.S. census, as many as 41 percent of the United States' non-whites lived in suburbs, not far short of the 47 percent accounted for by central cities. In 1990, minorities in the United States already accounted for one in six suburban residents, following a decade when their number grew by 53 percent compared to an increase in the minority population of the city by only 25 percent. In the United Kingdom, too, the suburbanization of ethnic minorities was already well advanced by 1991, with non-whites comprising 17 percent of the residents of Outer London, compared to 26 percent for Inner London. According to William Frey (2002), this process is linked to a "new white flight" that in America is helping to push people further away from suburbia towards the metropolitan periphery and into communities that have a rural ambiance.

See also: Cities, Systems of; Internal Migration; Residential Segregation; Rural-Urban Balance; Urbanization.


Berry, Brian. 1976. Urbanization and Counterurbanization. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Birch, David. 1975. "From Suburb to Urban Place." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 422: 25–35.

Cervero, Robert. 1989. America's Suburban Centers: The Land Use–Transportation Link. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Champion, Tony. 2001. "A Changing Demographic Regime: Consequences for the Composition and Distribution of Population in Polycentric Urban Regions." Urban Studies 38(3/4): 657–677.

Frey, William. 2002. "The New White Flight." American Demographics June: 20–23.

Garreau, Joel. 1991. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday.

Robert, Stephen, and William Randolph. 1983. "Beyond Decentralization: The Evolution of Population Distribution in England and Wales, 1961–81." Geoforum 14: 175–192.

Tony Champion


views updated May 18 2018


As the Industrial Revolution (1877–1900) turned America away from agriculture toward an economy based on industry and labor, cities grew. As cities developed, it became clear that mass transportation was needed to help people get from place to place. By the mid-1880s, the streetcar had become the primary source of urban transportation. Trolleys (electrified streetcars) replaced them later that decade, and in 1904 the first underground subway opened in New York City. By the 1940s, the city's subway lines provided more than eight million rides a day.

Since people now had convenient travel, they were able to live in neighborhoods on the outskirts of city limits called suburbs. The suburbs tended to attract people of the same race, ethnicity, or income. By the end of World War II (1939–45), houses in the suburbs were in great demand as sixteen million soldiers returned home and America enjoyed a promising postwar economy.


One particular suburb was the model upon which all others were built. Levittown, New York , started out as a low-cost experiment in mass-produced housing and became the most famous suburb in the United States.

William Levitt (1907–1994) was a homebuilder with a vision. He recognized the immediate need for inexpensive housing when World World II ended, and he convinced his father and younger brother to divide some family property, a former potato field, into small lots and build mass-produced homes for war veterans and their families. The suburb became known as Levittown.

Levitt & Sons publicly announced its plan to build two thousand rental homes on May 7, 1947. Within two days, one thousand of those homes had already been rented. Levitt knew he had to get these houses built quickly, so to save time, he decided to build on concrete slabs rather than include basements, which was a common feature of homes at the time. He used the production-line technique to get Levittown homes built— all lumber came precut from a family-owned lumberyard in California , and each worker focused on just one job. To keep costs down, Levitt hired only nonunion contractors so that he did not have to pay them as much. By July 1948, the company was constructing thirty houses a day.

When the rest of the two thousand homes were rented before they were even built, Levitt decided to construct another four thousand. The community had its own schools, post office, phone service, and street-lights. By 1949, Levitt & Sons stopped building rental units and began building homes it could sell for $7,990. Buyers needed just $90 for a deposit and paid $58 a month to buy not only the house, but also the appliances within. Each house measured 32 feet (10 meters) by 25 feet (8 meters). There were five models, and the only difference between them was the exterior color, the roofline, and the placement of windows.

Levittown was such an amazing success that Levitt appeared on the cover of Time magazine on July 3, 1950. Levitt was the idea man, organizer, and salesman of the company. His brother, Alfred, was the designer of the homes, while their father, Abe, designed and landscaped the properties. By 1950, the Levitts had built nearly seventeen thousand homes. War veterans and their wives began raising children in their community. The suburb was lined with sidewalks, and fences were not allowed. This blurred property lines and gave Levittown dwellers great expanses of lawn and common areas in which to play and socialize. Everyone's backyard on any given block intersected with their neighbors' to form one gigantic, well-kept field.

Levittown today

The last Levittown house was purchased in 1951, and Levitt & Sons enjoyed the distinction of having conceived and developed the largest housing development ever constructed by one building company. In the twenty-first century, most Levitt houses still stand and remain occupied, although they have been expanded and remodeled to meet modern needs.

Levitt & Sons sold the company in 1968, after having built more than 140,000 houses around the world. They received $92 million in stock in ITT, the company that bought them. Most of it went to William Levitt. The Levitts had to agree not to build in the United States for ten years after the sale, so William Levitt built communities in Iran, Venezuela, and Nigeria. He funded the building of these suburbs with his ITT stock. Within four years, the stock lost 90 percent of its value, and Levitt found himself millions of dollars in debt.

Before his death in 1994, Levitt acknowledged Levittown as his crowning achievement. It was not fancy; it was not the best in terms of quality. But his famous suburb provided the answer to a national housing shortage at a time when people needed a place to call home.

Other suburbs

Just as Levittown was built for a specific population (war veterans), other suburbs were built for other specific groups. Most neighborhoods were built around a particular industry. As suburbs grew to include shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues of their own, residents soon had no reason to travel outside their suburban limits for daily needs.

Through the years, as people desired to separate their home lives from their work lives, the suburban population grew. This trend continued into the twenty-first century, although an interesting phenomenon occurred. As communication technology, such as wireless communication, broadband, and e-mail developed, more and more Americans made the choice to work from home either full time or part-time. So while the trend to live in suburbs continued, the line between work and home life blurred. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, 46 percent of all Americans lived in the suburbs.


views updated May 14 2018

suburbanization Suburbanization denotes the process by which cities expand peripherally, initially by out-migration of population and economic activity from dense urban cores, to less dense contiguous settlements. Developments in transport technology—such as railways, tramways, and improved roads—have aided suburbanization.

There are several partially competing explanations of the process. Economists and geographers stress the importance of competition in urban land markets, driving out activities which can no longer afford to locate centrally, and of market developments which make suburban business location desirable. Sociological studies have shown how individuals are motivated to relocate in suburbs to improve their quality of life. Marxists and others have traced the links between suburbanization and capital accumulation. Each account has some relevance to understanding this complex social and geographical phenomenon. See also COLLECTIVE CONSUMPTION; CONCENTRIC ZONE THEORY; SUBURBANISM; URBAN SOCIOLOGY.