views updated May 18 2018


The development of suburbs—residential communities on the outskirts of cities—was one of the most dominant features of American life in the twentieth century. Far from being merely a way Americans organized their housing and ordered their landscape, the suburbs created an entirely new way of ordering American social life and culture. The result was a phenomenon known as "suburbia," a term denoting not only a physical place but often a cultural and social mind-set as well. The rise of suburbia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a major role in the development of American culture, extending long-cherished American beliefs in individuality and an agrarian ideal in new ways while simultaneously working to reshape both the American physical and social landscape.

While suburbia had its major impact during the twentieth century, it originated and developed in the nineteenth century. "I view large cities," Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man." Jefferson's anti-urban view was shared by a growing number of people in the nineteenth century. As cities became crowded with people, bringing increased sanitation, transportation, and crime problems, those Americans who could afford to, namely the growing middle class, began moving to larger, single-family homes on the outskirts of major American cities. This was in direct opposition to European cities, where the middle and upper classes preferred to remain in the central city, and poorer people were pushed to the outskirts. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, work and home were closely intertwined, and cities reflected this mixture as well with residential buildings coexisting with commercial ones. As industrialization advanced, home and work became increasingly separated as men went off to work and women stayed at home. New innovations in transportation, from ferries and omnibuses to steam railroads and horse-drawn streetcars, helped make this transition possible.

These new 1840s and 1850s suburbs contributed to the monumental shift in middle-class culture in key ways. New suburban homes became a measure of success for these middle classes, a way of telling the world they had arrived. Having money and success meant that the man of the house was able to move his family out of the increasingly grimy and dangerous city to a more pastoral, Edenic place separated from the world of work and commerce. It also allowed these families to reestablish at least a symbolic connection to Jefferson's agrarian ideal, where every family owned its own piece of land and thus remained independent—a key necessity for the success of liberty, and thus the republic. With fewer people making their living in farming as the century progressed, suburban homes with their often ornate gardens offered the closest approximation possible to this agrarian ideal. The suburbs also contributed to the development of the cult of domesticity. Separated from the world of work in their suburban enclaves, women were placed at the center of the domestic world, caring for hearth and home, husband and children, a role exalted as one of supreme importance. Women were viewed as the centers of morality and the important transmitters of this morality to their children and thus to future generations.

These ideals were not unique to the nineteenth century. The exaltation of the domestic sphere for women, the intense desire of Americans to own their own homes, the need to keep some kind of connection to the rural past in an increasingly urbanized present, the desire for social status, and the need for physical and economic security continued to find resonance within American culture throughout the twentieth century. Transportation factors again played an important role, from the development of streetcars in the late nineteenth century to the increasing dominance of the automobile after the 1920s and particularly after the development of the national highway system that began in the 1950s. Suburbs throughout the twentieth century continued to act as an increasingly attractive alternative to inner-city living for those who could afford it. Suburbs grew tremendously throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as bungalow houses and other styles sprang up one after the other on the more affluent sides of major cities around the United States. Throughout this period, suburbs remained closely tied to their urban cores, and their growth accompanied the larger process of urbanization occurring in the United States. In 1920, the number of people living in urban centers became a majority of the population (51.7 percent) for the first time.

With this increase in urban growth, developers across the country took advantage of the continuing desire for suburban living, buying up huge parcels of suburban land and developing it into neighborhoods and subdivisions. One of the most successful was J. C. Nichols of Kansas City, Missouri, whose Country Club District development played upon the deep cultural imperatives behind suburbanization. Nichols combined the lure of the new with the pastoral beauty of the past. His homes built during the 1920s had the most modern of conveniences: gas and electric service, the latest household appliances, and access to transportation connections. He set the homes amid a park-like setting, with generous set-back lines from the street, and ensured his development's success by enacting permanent deed restrictions that limited the extent to which residents could change their houses and yards. He also enacted racially restrictive covenants, ensuring that no resident sold his or her house to African Americans, Jews, or members of other minority groups. In doing so, Nichols ensured that his development remained exclusive. His homes were expensive, and both he and his buyers made sure their investments did not decline in value. More importantly, these restrictions preserved the reason many people were moving to the suburbs in the first place: to avoid the problems (and peoples) of the cities and to provide an environment in which they would not only be surrounded by the bounty of nature, but also by their own kind of people. Nichols's formula, and success, proved a powerful example to developers across the country who mimicked the restrictive covenants, design, and prestige of Nichols's Country Club District. Many similar developments sprang up across the United States during the 1920s.

The depression of the 1930s, and the collapse of the housing market, brought a temporary end to the great wave of exclusive suburban developments, but suburbia, and the needs it served, was hardly finished. After World War II, the United States experienced its greatest wave of suburban development, one that showed little sign of abating at the end of the 1990s. The same cultural factors that had influenced suburban development in the period in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remained in the postwar period. One crucial difference was that as suburbia grew, it became available to a wider spectrum of Americans, reflecting the growth of the middle class during the postwar economic boom; however, it still remained largely closed to minorities. No longer were suburbs the exclusive domain of the well-to-do. Indeed, it is the 1950s that many associate with the suburbs, even though they existed long before, and continued long after, that decade. That association is the result of the vast cultural and social impact suburbia had on the United States in the postwar years.

The widening access to suburbia largely can be attributed to one man, developer William Levitt. Like his predecessor Nichols, Levitt's approach proved immensely successful and thus very popular, spawning an untold number of imitators. Levitt's idea was rather simple: he brought mass-production techniques and low prices to suburban housing just as Henry Ford had done in the automobile industry. Taking advantage of the great demand for housing, and benefiting from federal government housing policies which provided mortgage guarantees for both developers and homeowners, Levitt purchased a large parcel of rural land in suburban Long Island. There, he used mass-production techniques to construct more than ten thousand small, inexpensive homes. All were virtually identical, and all sold almost immediately. They proved immensely popular with young couples eager to raise their new families in a comfortable and safe environment. The result was an almost instant community, called Levittown. With low initial and monthly payments for houses in such communities, many families could afford to leave the cities in greater and greater numbers for the relative space, comfort, and security of the suburbs. The result was "white flight," as urban whites moved out of the inner cities to escape the growing influx of black, Hispanic, and other minority groups. This population movement eventually took jobs, tax money, and a diverse population away from America's inner cities, contributing to the decline of cities across the country.

But for those who could enjoy these new suburban developments, suburbia had a strong impact on American social life, so much so that the suburban lifestyle dominated American culture from the 1950s on. Television shows such as Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet centered around white middle-class families in the suburbs. Their lives were idyllic ones, representing peace and harmony. The suburbs and their images on television also worked to promote a reworking of gender roles. Fathers were usually dressed in business suits and were often shown coming home from work to discover the mishaps or other plot twists that had occurred during the day. Women were portrayed as homemakers content with baking cookies, making dinner, and caring for their children and husbands. This idyllic view of suburbia was not entirely incorrect, however, as the suburbs reinforced traditional notions of family and gender that had been challenged by working women during the World War II years. With the strict division of the home from the world of work, suburbia in the 1950s and after continued trends that had begun in the mid-nineteenth century. The suburbs also contributed to what many soon labeled the "culture of conformity." New suburban developments such as Levittown were homogenous places. Not only were the houses virtually identical, but their inhabitants were as well. These new communities were quickly filled by new families, many of them headed by young veterans eager to return to a normal life after the traumas of World War II, with similar backgrounds, experiences, needs, and ages. Group socialization and the adherence to established social norms was encouraged; individuality and isolation were not. Many found this new environment appealing, but critics soon began to criticize the social conformity demanded by the suburbs. John Keats, in his book The Crack in the Picture Window (1956), attacked the conformity of suburbs as a "postwar, homogenous hell" of rigid social roles that produced an environment of mediocrity. Folksinger Pete Seeger sang in "Little Boxes": "Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky … little boxes all the same." And not only were the houses all the same, but the people were as well, going through exactly the same experiences, living in identical social boxes that, as Seeger sang it, might well have been coffins.

In addition to its cultural impact, suburbs also had a great impact on the American landscape and environment, encouraging the development of an automobile culture and suburban sprawl. Spread out away from cities, without access to older public transportation systems such as subways and rail lines, suburbanites depended on their cars for access to jobs in the city. This development was encouraged by the 1956 Federal Highway Act which provided more than $25 billion to construct more than forty thousand miles of highways. It was the largest public works project in the history of the United States. In a culture that was already in love with the automobile, the suburbs encouraged even greater reliance on them. The result was suburban sprawl. Instead of tightly compacted centers where most services, entertainment, and employment were easily accessible on foot, suburbs encouraged all of these functions to spread out. Thus restaurants, stores, and other facilities each occupied their own buildings with parking surrounding them. Some were clustered in strip malls or enclosed shopping malls, but like the suburbs as a whole, all were geared to the need of the automobile.

Suburbia also encouraged the unique American social phenomenon of obsession with lawns and lawn care. Among the deeper ideological bases for suburbia was the need to recreate an Edenic natural setting that was believed to be superior to the concrete jungles of city life. Preserving the image of life in a garden, however, was difficult with so many houses so close together. As a substitute, Americans began to view their lawns as each contributing to a seamless expanse of grass that created as much of a park-like setting as possible. Maintaining this lawn became an important cultural imperative, as homeowners were responsible for keeping up their portion of the "park." Encouraged by magazines, advertising, seed companies, and often by homeowners associations' restrictive clauses that mandated proper upkeep of lawns, lawn care became a major suburban activity. In suburban developments during the warmer months, weekends were filled with the drone of lawn mowers. Competitions were held in neighborhoods to establish the "yard of the month," and people who refused to do their part were often shunned and occasionally sued for their noncompliance. The lawn obsession was also part of a larger cultural interest in outdoor life, and suburbs promoted such things as outdoor barbecues, swimming pools, and gardening.

While the classic 1950s image of suburbia still exists at the turn of the century, suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s were in the midst of change. The biggest shift came in the relationship between suburbs and the cities they surrounded. By the 1980s, many suburbs were beginning to evolve into self-contained communities where people not only lived, but worked. In Orange County, California (outside Los Angeles); Cobb County, Georgia (north of Atlanta); Tyson's Corner, Virginia (outside Washington, D.C.); and in similar communities across the country, suburbs became the locations for major office complexes that were home to thousands of workers. With their living and working needs now available in the suburbs, there was less and less need for suburbanites to travel to the downtowns of central cities. They developed into their own small cities that writer Joel Garreau labeled "edge cities." That trend, which historian Jon Teaford called "postsuburbia," was indicative of a new age in the history of suburbs. While still a relatively new phenomenon, this shift may also portend a change in the ability of suburbia to fill certain cultural needs. With work and home sites now close together, the role of suburbs as an idyllic retreat from the world of commerce was changing by the late 1990s, reversing a trend that began in the early nineteenth century. These developments, and the increasing concern over suburban sprawl with its often negative effects on the environment and on what many were calling a loss of community in American life, were still in their infancy by the late 1990s. The long-term effects of these changes on the historic roles suburbia has played in American social and cultural life remain to be seen.

—Timothy Berg

Further Reading:

Gans, Herbert. The Levittowners. New York, Pantheon, 1967.

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

Hayden, Delores. Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life. New York, W.W. Norton, 1986.

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

Jenkins, Virginia Scott. The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Palen, J. John. The Suburbs. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Teaford, Jon C. City and Suburb: The Political Fragmentation of Metropolitan America, 1850-1970. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

——. Post-Suburbia: Government and Politics in the Edge Cities. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.


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Every true suburb is the outcome of two opposing forces, an attraction toward the opportunities of the great city and a simultaneous repulsion against urban life (Fishman 1987, p. 26). Though suburbs are defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as any territory within a metropolitan area yet outside of the central city, the formation of suburbs is not simply based on geographic location. Suburbs are largely the product of peoples desire for separation based on social factors. These factors vary between instances of suburb formation, but frequently include separation of class, religious, cultural, ethnic, or racial groups. The traditional pattern of white populations and wealth found in U.S. suburbs is not mirrored internationally, although the common feature of suburbs around the world is separation of populations. For instance, the suburbs of Mumbai, India, house many of the citys poor, while in Paris the suburbs are ethnically stratified, with suburban ethnic minority populations suffering from high rates of unemployment and other forms of discrimination.

The early suburbs of London, as well as several in the United States, were built around the separation of different economic classes. During the eighteenth century, wealthy business owners in London began to use landholdings around Westminster as a way to avoid the lower classes within urban areas. A century later, the same happened in the United States around the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Suburbs such as these, based on class separation, can best be described as bourgeois enclaves. Here the wealthy could establish communities that reflected their own values and beliefs (Fishman 1987).

The formation of middle-class suburbs in the United States beginning in the early twentieth century and expanding rapidly after World War II (19391945) is the result of a number of factors. A strong economy at the beginning of the century made the suburban lifestyle more accessible to many Americans. The development of lower-cost homogenized housing, such as the Sears Catalog home, made purchasing a house a realistic prospect for the middle class. In the 1920s, U.S. suburban growth surpassed urban growth for the first time (Weeks 1981). Economic factors during the Great Depression caused the growth of suburbs to decline drastically. In the late 1940s and 1950s, however, suburban growth rates resurged and reached their highest levels (Rothblatt and Garr 1986). This resurgence is frequently attributed to strong economic growth and social programs like the GI Bill that provided opportunities to service members after the war.

In 1947 construction began on Levittown on Long Island, New York, a project considered the start of the middle-class suburban revolution in America. The rapid expansion of the freeway system during the early 1950s made possible the development of many similar communities, as is evident in the expansion of freeways and homes in the Los Angeles area (Fishman 1987; Weeks 1981). Levittown has since become a term used to describe various social problems accompanying the formation of suburbs, including white flight, cultural wasteland, and separate spheres of family and economic life (Keller 1998).

Home ownership, achieved through the development of suburbs, is the most important factor of wealth accumulation in American society. While economic factors played a significant role in the formation of suburbs, they do not explain why middle-class Americans felt the need to escape urban areas that had previously been acceptable to them. In fact, economic factors have helped constrain suburban growth that has been driven by other factors, such as race. Prior to the twentieth century, there had been a relatively small African American population in U.S. cities. However, the migration of African Americans from rural areas in the early twentieth century brought significant white resistance and a push for racially segregated housing areas (Massey and Denton 1998). White flight, the mass migration of whites out of the cities, was hindered by economic factors during the Great Depression. Following World War II, however, the movement of whites to the peripheral areas around cities, coupled with social and institutional policies of racially restrictive housing, resulted in high degrees of racial segregation. White flight became a major factor in school desegregation policy; in the mid-1970s a debate arose over whether busing for the purpose of school desegregation would lead to increases in white flight.

School desegregation has had numerous effects on the formation and structure of Americas suburbs. In the midst of the period of white flight, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) led to the integration of many schools in neighborhoods that had previously been white enclaves. A number of measures were taken by white communities and conservative local and state governments to resist school integration. School busing during the 1960s and 1970s became a strongly debated issue, and residents of suburbs found they could maintain racial segregation of schools more effectively than had been possible in inner-city areas. Due to the effectiveness of suburbs as residential enclaves, white residents could gerrymander school districts in order to halt integration (James 1989). By the late 1970s, school busing had become a less pressing issue (Woodard 1998). While affirmative action policies remained in effect, opposition to such policies rose during the 1980s with the idea that the United States had transcended racial issues. As a result, there has been an increase in school segregation in suburban areas since 1989 (Reardon et al. 2000). In addition, policies still in place to aid school integration are being challenged throughout the country, despite the fact that public schools remain heavily segregated. In 2006 the Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases regarding school integration policies that some parents considered discriminatory. Cases from Seattle, Washington, and Louisville, Kentucky, reviewed whether public schools can take race into consideration in campus assignments in order to achieve racial integration. In a 54 decision the Court declared that schools attempting to achieve or maintain racial integration cannot do so by measures that take explicit account of the students race (Greenhouse 2007).

Despite the passage in 1968 of the Fair Housing Act, little progress has been made toward racial integration of suburbs (Orser 1998). The Fair Housing Act prohibited owners, real-estate agents, and renters from denying access to housing on the basis of race. The act also outlawed lying about the availability of a dwelling, and prevented blockbusting (telling white residents that minorities are moving into a neighborhood in an effort to convince them to sell) (Sidney 2003). As of 1990, only 20 percent of Americans lived in desegregated neighborhoods (Darden 1998). Housing segregation between whites and Hispanics, as well as between whites and Asians, has risen since 1980. However, studies have shown that suburbanization is tied to socioeconomic status among Hispanics and Asians, but suburbs have remained mostly closed to blacks whatever their socioeconomic status (Darden 1998). Housing discrimination has also contributed to higher levels of poverty, a lower average income, and lower life chances for those trapped in declining inner-city neighborhoods.

One result of the formation of suburbs was that people who were left behind in urban neighborhoods were forced to deal with urban decay brought about by the flight of millions out of the cities. Buildings were left empty, and businesses were forced to close and move to more profitable areas. Resources previously available within cities were shifted to peripheral areas as suburbs grew. The 1949 Housing Act was designed to facilitate redevelopment in areas that had been affected by urban decay; this process came to be known as urban renewal . The act sparked a debate over how to handle such renewal. Federal subsides were given to private developers in order to generate new business within urban areas. But development was centered heavily around the interests of those in suburban areas, and little attention was paid to the needs of those living within urban areas. In addition, most urban development took place in residential areas, forcing many out of their homes. Eventually, a compromise was reached, and developers were required to find alternative housing for those displaced by urban renewal (Hays 1995). Urban-renewal plans have consistently favored the interests of the suburbs. As far back as 1766 an urban-renewal plan for London was designed around the needs of business owners with little regard for workers and lower-class citizens (Fishman 1987). Today, urban renewal still often functions in the interests of suburban residents over the poor and minorities who remain in inner cities.

From 1970 to 1990, the number of high-poverty metropolitan areas doubled; these areas are more likely to be home to traditionally disadvantaged minorities (Sidney 2003). American suburbs formed out of a desire for racial segregation. In the twenty-first century, continuing housing discrimination in Americas suburbs leads to a continuation of racial segregation with increases in economic stratification.

SEE ALSO Segregation, Residential; Sociology, Urban; Towns


Barnes, Robert. 2006. Supreme Court to Review Tw o School Integration Plans. Washington Post, December 3: A3.

Darden, Joe T. 1998. Desegregation of Housing. In Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs, ed. Neil Larry Shumsky, 247249. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Fishman, Robert. 1987. Bourgeois Utopias the Rise and Fall of Suburbia . New York: Basic Books.

Greenhouse, Linda. 2007. Justices Limit the Use of Race in School Plans for Integration. New York Times, June 29.

Hays, R. Allen. 1995. The Federal Government and Urban Housing: Ideology and Change in Public Policy . 2nd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press.

James, David R. 1989. City Limits on Racial Equality: The Effects of City-Suburb Boundaries on Public-School Desegregation, 19681976. American Sociological Review 54 (6): 963985.

Keller, Mollie. 1998. Levittown. In Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs, ed. Neil Larry Shumsky, 431432. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. 1998. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Orser, W. Edward. 1998. White Flight. In Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs, ed. Neil Larry Shumsky, 877878. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Reardon, Sean F., John T. Yun, and Tamela Mcnulty Eitle. 2000. The Changing Structure of School Segregation: Measurement and Evidence of Multiracial Metropolitan-Area School Segregation, 19891995. Demography 37 (3): 351364.

Rothblatt, Donald N., and Daniel J. Garr. 1986. Suburbia an International Assessment . New York: St. Martins Press.

Sidney, Mara S. 2003. Unfair Housing: How National Policy Shapes Community Action . Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Weeks, John R. 1981. Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues . 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomason Wadsworth. 9th ed., 2005.

Woodard, J. David. 1998. Busing. In Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs, ed. Neil Larry Shumsky, 113114. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Ben Snyder

Paul Ketchum

Suburbs, Rise of

views updated Jun 11 2018


The growth of U.S. cities in the nineteenth century was integrally linked with expanding industrialization and economic development. This process of urbanization led to the formation of a "classic" pattern for U.S. cities by the 1930s. Commercial centers that included banking districts and retail establishments were located in downtown areas. Enclaves of working-class neighborhoods were often distinguished by a predominance of ethnic or minority populations circling the downtown. There were industrial and manufacturing pockets, and a growing white middle class concentrated in residential developments toward the ever-expanding city boundaries. Bus and trolley lines radiated outward from the city center to provide a transportation network. The city was a socioeconomic mosaic.

Immediately following World War II (19391945), urbanization quickly transitioned into suburbanization. Suburbs are largely independent communities located in close proximity to large central cities. Many suburbs have their own local governments with mayors or city managers and police departments; county governments govern others. Federal investment in economic development immediately following the war included low-cost mortgages for veterans and highway construction programs. Reorganization of American life resulted. The average white middle class family moved to newly created communities on less expensive land outside the city boundaries. Suburbs offered yards, lower density single-family housing, less noise and air pollution, and relief from declining city neighborhoods with their escalating social ills. Millions of farmland acres were converted into bedroom communities. The exodus left cities with declining property values, significant loss of tax revenue, and diminished political and social importance.

Just as urban areas were experiencing a new wave of Southern African Americans migrating to cities in search of employment, white taxpayers, jobs, and capital were migrating in mass to the suburbs, leaving the cramped ghettos and industrial areas behind. Suburbs replaced cities as the place of upward class mobility and economic prosperity. In contrast to urban social mosaics of the early twentieth century city, suburbanites most valued racial, religious, and social class homogeneity. The African American middle class and other minorities ran into social barriers in this resettlement movement, spawned by racism.

By the late twentieth century the United States had fully transitioned from the urbanization of a century earlier to a suburbanized nation. By the 1960s urban factories, office complexes, and shopping centers had followed the population. Telecommunications developments in the 1980s further stimulated suburban growth. Businesses enjoyed more flexibility, locating in desirable settings as suburban business complexes increasingly linked to international economic markets. Suburbs developed their own economic bases independent of the earlier central-city business districts. Suburban "downtowns," known as edge cities, developed on the fringes of metropolitan areas by the mid-1980s. New regional shopping malls replaced city center retail areas and neighborhood shopping centers. By the mid-1980s more Americans lived in suburbs than in central cities.

With the original inner cities in continuing socioeconomic crisis, efforts by cities to annex suburbs were normally resisted by suburban residents wishing to maintain their governmental independence. Planners also explored options of consolidating regional metropolitan tax bases and redistributing suburban revenues. Regional governments advocated "fair share" policies in proposing to locate industrial areas and low-income housing in suburban areas, rather than concentrating them in inner cities.

Suburban sprawl became a key issue with the proliferation and growth of suburbs. New suburbs ringed earlier ones. The rise of suburbia lead to the formation of metropolitan areas with the central city at their core. By the late 1980s about 75 percent of the U.S. population lived in metropolitan areas. Planners predicted the coming of the megalopolis representing the consolidation of multiple metropolitan areas spatially merging together.

As sprawl continued in the 1990s, the inner suburbs faced the same socioeconomic problems as the cities, including declining property values. In an endless cycle, lower values prompted higher property taxes, which forced more movement out to newer suburbs. With suburban residents frustrated over traffic congestion and sprawling commercial development, the growth of suburban populations began to slow in the 1980s. Rising gasoline prices and urban renewal attracted some back to the city. Urbanization of the suburbs was occurring, and urban renewal was becoming suburban renewal. Ever-expanding suburbs faced the same issues encountered earlier by cities. Revenue to provide water, sewer lines, fire protection, road maintenance, police, and new schools for the fast growing suburbs became issues as the cost of government services proved to be higher for low-density tract development.

Through the later decades of the twentieth century, areas of land development increased substantially faster than population growth. Regional governments in some areas adopted urban growth boundaries in an attempt to control the rapid loss of surrounding rural lands. Many attributed metropolitan air pollution problems to urban sprawl, low density housing patterns, and greater dependency on automobiles. The number of automobiles had grown several times faster during this time period than had the actual population. In total, the rise of suburbs in the late twentieth century was one of the more profound socioeconomic transformations in U.S. history.

See also: Industrialization, Urban Renewal, Urbanization


Angotti, Thomas. Metropolis 2000: Planning, Poverty, and Politics. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Dobriner, William M., ed. The Suburban Community. New York: Putnam, 1958.

Orfield, Myron. Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1996.

Rusk, David. Cities Without Suburbs. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Whitehand, J.W.R. The Making of the Urban Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992.

Everyday Life: Suburbs

views updated May 09 2018

Everyday Life: Suburbs


Growth of Suburbs. During the first part of the nineteenth century Americans thought of a suburban home as an isolated country house to which a wealthy family retired. As railroads began to extend farther from cities, as the cable car was put into use in the 1870s, and as the electric streetcar was developed in the 1880s, however, more and more city dwellers were able to move outside the city limits to more rural areas. Such changes permanently refashioned the image of suburbia in the United States as more and more suburbs grew up along rail lines. These streetcar or railroad suburbs placed suburban living within the reach of middle-class Americans. Suburbs fulfilled the desire of many late-nineteenth-century Americans for the beauty and serenity of the country without the isolation of truly rural areas. Convenient and affordable, suburbs offered many a compelling reason to commute.

City Services for the Suburbs. Throughout the 1880s many early suburbs tried to provide residents urban-style amenitiesincluding parks, schools, and cultural associationsand services such as running water and sewer connections. These additions took time and money. Community associations and real-estate developers met some of these needs, but residents also turned to local governments. By the 1890s the best suburban communities advertised their paved streets, schools, good transportation, and other services formerly available only in cities. As suburbs grew, rural life also changed. In many regions agricultural villages became suburbs.

Industrial Suburbs. By the turn of the century factory owners took advantage of the services suburban homeowners had obtained from their local governments.

Drawn away from urban areas by less expensive lands, industrialists build large suburban factories supported by good roads, mass transportation, sewerage, and water services. The first to take advantage of business opportunities in the suburbs was George Pullman, who built his Pullman car works and the model town Pullman in a southern suburb of Chicago in 1882. Such an arrangement, where workers lived in a single-industry suburb, provided them access to good services but left them vulnerable to the dictates of their employer and landlord.


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973);

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


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1. Residential areas the style of which evolved from C19 ideals associated with the Arts-and-Crafts and Aesthetic Movements, and with the Domestic Revival and Garden Suburb (e.g. Bedford Park, Chiswick, London (from 1877) and Hampstead Garden Suburb, London (from 1906) ), though very often as a travesty, based more on commerce than aesthetics. These low-rise developments on the fringes of towns were supposed to be attempts to combine rural and urban advantages, but those benefits were often so diluted they became meaningless. The suburb, with its detached and semi-detached houses set in individual gardens, offered a style of living to which many aspired, and became ubiquitous first through the development of railways and tramways, and then through the widespread use of the private motor car. Suburbia generally lacked shops, public-houses, etc., which to some was a blessing. Suburbia must not be confused with satellite towns or Garden Cities.

2. Pejorative term associated with philistinism, conformity, and dullness, and used by Modernists to promote high-rise urban developments: despite all the blandishments, however, the demand for suburban houses (with gardens ever smaller, spaces between buildings ever narrower, and architectural content wholly evaporated) seems insatiable, despite ever-growing problems of pollution caused by car ownership and over-stretched infrastructures.


H. Barrett & and T. Phillips (1987);
Fishman (1987);
P. Oliver et al. (1981);
J. Richards (1973);
F. Thompson (ed.) (1981)


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sub·ur·ban / səˈbərbən/ • adj. of or characteristic of a suburb: suburban life. ∎  contemptibly dull and ordinary: Elizabeth despised Ann's house-proudness as deeply suburban.DERIVATIVES: sub·ur·ban·ite n.sub·ur·ban·i·za·tion / səˌbərbənəˈzāshən/ n.sub·ur·ban·ize v.


views updated May 29 2018

subUrbia ★★ 1996 (R)

Ensemble piece featuring three aimless post-high school friends, Jeff (Ribisi), Buff (Zahn), and Tim (Katt) who spend their time hanging out in the parking lot of a convenience store. What's different about this night is that they're joined by Jeff's girlfriend Sooze (Carey) and her friend Bee-Bee (Spybey), and they actually have a purpose for waiting around. The guys are expecting a visit from their old buddy Pony (Bartok), a rock musician just finding success. But when Pony does appear, the fact that he has done something to get out and succeed turns the meeting hostile. Based on the play by Eric Bogosian. 118m/ C VHS . Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Nicky Katt, Jayce Bartok, Amie Carey, Dina Spybey, Parker Posey, Ajay Naidu, Samia Shoaib; D: Richard Linklater; W: Eric Bogosian; C: Lee Daniel.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Suburbia ★ The Wild Side 1983 (R)

When a group of punk rockers move into a condemned suburban development, they become the targets of a vigilante group. Low budget, needless violent remake of anyone of many '50s rebellion flicks that tries to have a “message.” 99m/C VHS, DVD . Chris Pederson, Bill Coyne, Jennifer Clay, Timothy Eric O'Brien, Andrew Pece, Don Allen; D: Penelope Spheeris; W: Penelope Spheeris; C: Tim Suhrstedt; M: Alex Gibson.


views updated May 21 2018

sub·ur·bi·a / səˈbərbēə/ • n. the suburbs or their inhabitants viewed collectively.


views updated May 29 2018

sub·urb / ˈsəbərb/ • n. an outlying district of a city, esp. a residential one.