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Encyclopedia > Suburbs
Illustration of the backyards of a surburban neighbourhood

Suburbs are inhabited districts located either on the outer rim of a city or outside the official limits of a city (the term varies from country to country), or the outer elements of a conurbation.

(The form of the word may tempt one to think that "suburb" was originally a shortened form of the adjective "sub-urban," but the very thorough histories of English words found in the Oxford English Dictionary appear to indicate otherwise. That dictionary quotes a book published in 1433 thus: "Not ferre out of the toun In a subarbe callyd Rysbygate.")

The presence of certain elements (whose definition varies amongst urbanists, but usually refers to some basic services and to the territorial continuity) identifies a suburb as a peripheral populated area with a certain autonomy, where the density of habitation is usually lower than in an inner city area, but state or municipal house building will often cause departures from that organic gradation. Suburbs have typically grown in areas with abundance of flat land near a large urban zone, usually have minimal traditions of citizens clustering together for defence behind fortified city walls and with transportation systems which allow the commuting into more heavily populated areas with higher levels of commerce.

Many characteristics of suburbia were found in Australia as early as the 19th century. With huge expanses of land needing to be populated, lack of need for defense as well as the popularization of railroads contributed to sprawling urbanism somewhat resembling suburbia, however the key commerce element (commuting to work) was not really there. The term suburb as used in Australia reflects this and thus has a slightly ambiguous meaning. Suburbs there are official postal and addressing subdivisions of a city. Inner suburbs are subdivisions within the denser urban areas of the cities, and correspond to what would be called neigbourhoods in North American cities. For instance, Ultimo, postcode 2007, is an inner suburb of Sydney, even though it lies within the boundaries of the City of Sydney. Locals will refer to Ultimo as a suburb even though it is a densely urban neigbourhood. Outer suburbs are the postal divisions found in the outer rings of the metropolitan areas, and usually lie within the boundaries of a separate city, such as the City of Parramatta.

Many people equate suburbs with early planned cities such as Levittown, NY and Rohnert Park, CA. Rohnert Park a suburb of Santa Rosa, CA and San Francisco, CA was originally marketed marketed in the late 50's as, "A Country Club for the middle class."

In the US, 1970 was the first year that more people lived in suburbs than elsewhere. (1)

In the U.S.A., suburbs traditionally were residential areas with single-family homes located near to shopping areas, schools and with good access to Trains, Freeways or other transportation systems. Now, partly due to increased populations in many greater metropolitan areas, suburbs can be densely populated and contain apartment buildings, town homes, in addition to office complexes and light manufacturing facilities. It is not unusual for suburbs to house several hundred thousand people. In fact, many American suburbs are now larger than other urban population centers. For example, Mesa, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona), is larger than St. Louis, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Salt Lake City, Utah, and grew at a much faster rate than even Phoenix between 1990 and 2000. The largest suburbs in the United States, in order, based on Census 2000, are Mesa, Arizona; Virginia Beach, Virginia; Arlington, Texas; Santa Ana, California; and Anaheim, California.

In one metropolitan area, the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, the largest city is actually a suburb, namely Virginia Beach, which is the largest city in all of Virginia. The urban core of the area lies in Norfolk, which will soon become the third-largest city in the region; Chesapeake is growing at a rate that will probably see it also surpass Norfolk in population well before the 2010 Census.



Many Sociologists see suburbs as a post urban area which develops in response to worsening conditions withen a city with a communication and transportation system which allows citizens to live outside the city while doing business inside.

The growth of suburbs was initially facilitated by the development of zoning laws and more effective and accessible means of transportation. In the older cities of the northeast U.S., suburbs originally developed along train or trolley lines that could shuttle workers into and out of city centers where the jobs were located. This practice gave rise to the term bedroom community or dormitory, meaning that most daytime business activity took place in the city, with the working population leaving the city at night for the purpose of going home to sleep. The growth in the use of trains, and later automobiles and highway construction, increased the ease with which workers could have a job in the city while commuting in from the suburbs. In the United Kingdom railways stimulated the first mass exodus to the suburbs, which were described as "Metroland" around London, and were mostly characterised by semi-detached houses. As car ownership rose and wider roads were built, the commuting trend accelerated as in North America. This trend towards living away from towns and cities has been termed the urban exodus.

Zoning laws also contributed to the location of residential areas outside of the city center by creating wide areas or "zones" where only residential buildings were permitted. Manufacturing and commercial buildings were segregated in other areas of the city.

Increasingly, due to the congestion and pollution experienced in many city centers (accentuated by the commuters' vehicles), more people moved out to the suburbs. Along with the population, many companies also located their offices and other facilities in the outer areas of the cities. This has resulted in increased density in older suburbs and, often, the growth of lower density suburbs even further from city centers. An alternative strategy is the deliberate design of "new towns" and the protection of green belts around cities. Some social reformers attempted to combine the best of both concepts in the Garden City movement.

The development of the sky-scraper and the sharp inflation of downtown real estate prices also led to downtowns being more fully dedicated to businesses pushing residents outside the city centre. By 1980 this was often perceived as undesirable, extending travel times and adding to people's sense of isolation and fear in central areas outside trading hours.

While suburbs had originated far earlier, the suburban population in North America exploded after World War II. Returning veterans wishing to start a settled life moved en masse to the suburbs. Between 1950 and 1956 the resident population of all US suburbs increased by 46%. During the same period of time, African-Americans were rapidly moving north for better jobs and educational opportunities than they could get in the segregated South, and their arrival in Northern cities en masse further stimulated white suburban migration.

Suburbs today

A socio-political movement called "New Urbanism" or "Smart Growth" is currently in vogue in the U.S.A., Canada and northern Europe. This movement among city planners, builders, and architects holds that denser, more city-like communities with less rigid zoning laws and mixed-use buildings are desirable. Such communities ease traffic since people do not need to commute as far and may foster a better sense of community among residents. Some of these communities seek to reduce car-dependency (and thus the use of personal automobiles) wherever possible. This movement has resulted in both the construction of new developments that embody these principles, and renovation of areas in existing city centers for new residential and commercial activities.

In the UK, the government is (2003) seeking to impose minimum densities on newly approved housing schemes in parts of southeast England. Whether any society succeeds in reducing the average distance travelled by each citizen by means of such planning strategies remains to be seen. The new catchphrase is 'building sustainable communities' rather than housing estates. In England this is displacing the now discredited notion of 'urban villages' but the credibility of both ideas is challenged by the increasing involvement of commercial interests in developing new hospitals, secondary schools and public transport services. Commercial concerns tend to retard the opening of services until a large number of residents have occupied the new neighbourhood.

In many parts of the globe, however, suburbs are economically poor areas, inhabited by people sometimes in real misery, that keep at the limit of the city borders for economic or social reasons like the impossibility of affording the (usually higher) costs of life in the town. This causes these slum areas to be often irregularly built or managed, with individualistic, unregulated building and other forms of social or legal disorder. It has been said that this would be sometimes a case of spontaneous or physiological apartheid. In some cases inhabitants just live off the waste materials produced by the city (like, increasingly, around new African towns) and usually in such situations suburbs and houses are roughly built, often not even in the traditional building materials, as seen for example in the bidonvilles. Often nomads settle their camps in suburbs. The occupiers of more industrialised or longer-lasting homes may refer to such suburbs as "shanty-towns".

In the illustrative case of Rome, Italy, in the 1920s and 1930s, suburbs were intentionally created ex novo in order to give lower classes a destination, in consideration of the actual and foreseen massive arrival of poor people from other areas of the country. Many critics have seen in this development pattern (that was circularly distributed quite in every direction) also a quick solution to a problem of public order (keeping the unwelcome poorest classes - together with criminals, in this way better controlled - comfortably remote from the elegant "official" town). On the other hand, the expected huge expansion of the town soon effectively covered the distance from the central town, and now those suburbs are completely engulfed by the main territory of the town, and other newer suburbs were created at a little distance from them.

The suburbs and more distinct settlements around a town or city may look towards the urban area for goods, services and employment opportunities. That wider area may be called the hinterland of the town or a "city region". In the era before motorised travel, the radius of the hinterland roughly coincided with the distance that livestock could be herded to and from a market during daylight hours. In lowland areas without severe geographic barriers to movement a spacing of towns between 15 and 20 miles is therefore quite common. Suburbs with a healthier environment are often found upwind of those parts of a town or city where heavy industry was first established. Naturally the suburbs suffering air pollution more frequently tended to be cheaper and hence tend to be occupied by those with lower incomes.

Affluent suburban life is portrayed in the ABC television series Desperate Housewives.


  • Albert C. Smith and Kendra Schank, "A Grotesque Measure for Marietta", Journal of Urban Design, October 1999, Vol. 4, Issue 3. (A cultural and architectural critique of the physical ugliness and spiritual emptiness of unrestrained suburban growth in Marietta, Georgia)

See also

External links and references

  • Managing Urban America by Robert E. England and David R. Morgan 1979
  • http://www.ideal-homes.org.uk/why-suburbs-happen-01.htm on the suburban growth of London, England.
  • http://www.hgs.org.uk/mystreet/index.html provides images of a mature north London suburb illustrating a wide range of domestic architecture.

  Results from FactBites:
Suburb Living: Real Estate, Schools, Neighborhoods Nationwide (190 words)
Settling down in a suburb community is a popular way to retreat from the hustle and bustle of city dwelling.
These residential areas are often times filled with nice, quiet neighborhoods located near shopping malls and schools, park and recreational spaces, and provide access to trains, freeways or other transport systems, commuting you to the nearby city if need be.
You will also find helpful resources and direct contact information for a real estate agent who specializes in placing clients in a suburb community that best suits their personal and financial needs.
suburb. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05 (1119 words)
Suburbs have existed in various forms since antiquity, when cities typically were walled and the villages outside them were inferior in size and status.
However, the modern notion of the quiet, unspoiled outskirts as a retreat for the wealthy urbanite is in evidence as early as the 6th cent.
Migration from the central city to the suburbs was encouraged by a succession of technological advances in transportation throughout the 19th and well into the 20th cent.
  More results at FactBites »



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