The History and Evolution of Suburbs

Suburb of Los Angeles
New houses line the street in the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. The high cost of housing in the Los Angeles area has many Angelinos opting for lower priced new homes in the counties to the east. David McNew/Getty Images

Suburbs are generally spread out over greater distances than other types of living environments. For instance, people may live in the suburb in order to avoid the density and untidiness of the city. Since people have to get around these vast stretches of land automobiles are common sights in suburbs. Transportation (including, to a limited extent, trains and buses) plays an important role in the life of a suburban resident who generally commutes to work.

People also like to decide for themselves how to live and what rules to live by. Suburbs offer them this independence. Local governance is common here in the form of community councils, forums, and elected officials. A good example of this is a Home Owners Association, a group common to many suburban neighborhoods that determines specific rules for the type, appearance, and size of homes in a community.

People living in the same suburb usually share similar backgrounds with regard to race, socioeconomic status, and age. Often, the houses that make up the area are similar in appearance, size, and blueprint, a layout design referred to as tract housing, or cookie-cutter housing.

History of Suburbs

Suburbs are not a modern concept, as this 539 BCE clay tablet letter from an early suburbanite to the king of Persia makes clear:

"Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we stay away from all the noise and dust."

Other early examples of suburbs include areas created for lower class citizens outside of Rome, Italy during the 1920s, streetcar suburbs in Montreal, Canada created during the late 1800s, and the picturesque Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, created in 1853.

Henry Ford was a big reason why suburbs caught on the way they did. His innovative ideas for making cars cut manufacturing costs, reducing the retail price for customers. Now that an average family could afford a car, more people could go to and from home and work everyday. Additionally, the development of the Interstate Highway System further encouraged suburban growth.

The government was another player that encouraged movement out of the city. Federal legislation made it cheaper for someone to construct a new home outside of the city than to improve upon a preexisting structure in the city. Loans and subsidies were also provided to those willing to move to new planned suburbs (usually wealthier white families).

In 1934 the United States Congress created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), an organization intended to provide programs to insure mortgages. Poverty struck everyone's life during the Great Depression (beginning in 1929) and organizations like the FHA helped to ease the burden and stimulate growth.

Rapid growth of suburbia characterized the post-World War II era for three chief reasons:

  • The economic boom following World War II
  • The need for housing returning veterans and baby boomers relatively cheaply
  • Whites fleeing the desegregation of urban cities brought on by the civil rights movement (the "White Flight")

Some of the first and most famous suburbs in the post-war era were the Levittown developments in the Megalopolis.

Current Trends

In other parts of the world suburbs do not resemble the affluence of their American counterparts. Due to extreme poverty, crime, and lack of infrastructure suburbs in developing parts of the world are characterized by higher density and lower standards of living.

One issue arising from suburban growth is the disorganized, reckless manner in which neighborhoods are built, called sprawl. Because of the desire for larger plots of land and the rural feel of the countryside, new developments are infringing upon more and more of the natural, uninhabited land. The unprecedented growth of population in the past century will continue to fuel the expansion of suburbs in the coming years.