Smaller Residential Communities Lying Immediately Outside a City

Tract housing and culs-de-sac are hallmarks of suburban planning. A suburban development in San Jose, California.Suburbs are commonly defined as smaller residential communities lying immediately outside a city. In the United States, suburbs have a prevalence of usually detached single-family homes. Some suburbs have a degree of political autonomy, and most have lower population density than inner city neighborhoods. Modern suburbs grew in the 20th century as a result of improved road and rail transport and an increase in commuting. Suburbs tend to proliferate around cities which ideally have an abundance of adjacent flat land. Any particular suburban area is referred to as a suburb, while suburban areas on the whole are referred to as the suburbs or suburbia, with the demonym being a suburbanite.

Etymology and usage

The word is derived from the Old French subburbe and ultimately from the Latin suburbium, formed from sub, meaning "under", and urbs, meaning "city". In Rome, important people tended to live within the city wall on one of the seven roman hills, while the lower classes often lived outside of the walls and at the foot of the hills. "Under" in later usage sometimes referred variously to lesser wealth, political power, population, or population density. The first recorded usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from Wycliffe in 1380, where the form subarbis is used.

Suburb has a different meanings in different parts of the world.

In the United States, Canada, suburb usually refers to a separate municipality, borough, or unincorporated area outside a town or city. This definition is evident in the title of David Rusk's book Cities Without Suburbs (ISBN 0-943875-73-0 ), which promotes metropolitan government. U.S. colloquial usage sometimes shortens the term to 'burb, and "the Burbs" first appeared as a term for the suburbs of Chicago.

In Ireland and the United Kingdom, suburb merely refers to residential areas outside the city centre, regardless of administrative boundaries. Suburbs in this sense are not separated by open countryside to the city centre. In large cities such as London, suburbs include formerly separate towns and villages which have been gradually absorbed during a city's growth and expansion.

In Australia and New Zealand, suburbs have become formalized as geographic subdivisions of a city and are used by postal services in addressing. In rural areas of Australia their equivalent are called localities (see suburbs and localities). In Australia, the terms inner suburb and outer suburb are used to differentiate between the higher-density suburbs with close proximity to the city center, and the lower-density suburbs on the outskirts of the urban area. Inner suburbs, such as Te Aro in Wellington, Prahran in Melbourne and Ultimo in Sydney, are usually characterized by higher density apartment housing and greater integration between commercial and residential areas.


Prior to the 19th century, suburb often correlated with the outlying areas of cities where work was most inaccessible; implicitly, where the poorest people had to live. Charles Dickens used the word this way, albeit not exclusively, in his descriptions of contemporary London. The modern American usage of the term came about during the course of the 19th century, as improvements in transportation and sanitation made it possible for wealthy developments to exist on the outskirts of cities. The Australian and New Zealand usage came about as outer areas were quickly surrounded in fast-growing cities, but retained the appellation suburb; the term was eventually applied to the original core as well.

The growth of suburbs was facilitated by the development of zoning laws, redlining and various innovations in transport. After World War II availability of FHA loans stimulated a housing boom in American suburbs. In the older cities of the northeast U.S., streetcar 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, 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 highways, 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. The Metropolitan Railway, for example, was active in building and promoting its own housing estates in the north-west of London, consisting mostly of detached houses on large plots, which it then marketed as "Metro-land". 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 centre by creating wide areas or "zones" where only residential buildings were permitted. These suburban residences are built on larger lots of land than in the urban city. For example, the lot size for a residence in Chicago is usually 125 feet (38 m) deep, while the width can vary from 14 feet (4.3 m) wide for a row house to 45 feet (14 m) wide for a large standalone house. In the suburbs, where standalone houses are the rule, lots may be 85 feet (26 m) wide by 115 feet (35 m) deep, as in the Chicago suburb of Naperville. Manufacturing and commercial buildings were segregated in other areas of the city.

Increasingly, more people moved out to the suburbs, known as suburbanization. Moving 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.

View of housing development near farm in Richfield, Minnesota
In the United States, since the 18th century urban areas have often grown faster than city boundaries. Until the 1900s, new neighborhoods usually sought or accepted annexation to the central city to obtain city services. In the 20th century, however, many suburban areas began to see independence from the central city as an asset. In some cases, White suburbanites saw self-government as a means to keep out people who could not afford the added suburban property maintenance costs not needed in city living. Federal subsidies for suburban development accelerated this process as did the practice of redlining by banks and other lending institutions. Cleveland, Ohio is typical of many American central cities; its municipal borders have changed little since 1922, even though the Cleveland urbanized area has grown many times over. Several layers of suburban municipalities now surround cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco, Stockton, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.

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. Levittown developed as a major prototype of mass-produced housing. At the same time, African Americans were rapidly moving north for better jobs and educational opportunities than were available to them in the segregated South. Their arrival in Northern cities en masse – in addition to race riots in several large cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia – further stimulated white suburban migration.

In the U.S., 1950 was the first year that more people lived in suburbs than elsewhere. In the U.S, the development of the skyscraper and the sharp inflation of downtown real estate prices also led to downtowns being more fully dedicated to businesses, thus pushing residents outside the city center.

Suburbia worldwide


Suburban development in Maple, Ontario

Canadian suburban sprawl in Markham, Ontario, north of Toronto

Urban development in Canada has largely paralleled development in the United States. After World War II, large bedroom communities of single-family homes and shopping centers sprouted on the outskirts of Canadian cities.

However, Canada has far fewer suburban municipalities than the U.S. Many large cities, such as Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa, extend all the way to, and even include the countryside. However, the fact that literal boundaries of suburbs are not present in Canada does not eliminate suburbs, per se. The boundaries of Canadian cities are under the jurisdiction of the provinces, which have imposed city-suburb mergers. Vancouver and Montreal regions still have suburban municipalities, although their suburban areas are generally grouped into fewer cities than is typical in the United States. British Columbia created a "metropolitan" government for the Vancouver area in 1954, but the urbanized area has since grown well beyond it.

Today, Toronto has some of the largest suburban municipalities in North America, and the two largest suburbs in Canada are in this metro area. Mississauga (668,549) and Brampton (433,806) together claim 1.1 million inhabitants, and would be the third largest city in Canada if merged. Many Toronto suburbs have significantly improved on the suburban philosophy, adding a downtown to many suburban centers, notably Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan and Markham. In 1998 the governmental structure was reorganized to include many of these formerly independent suburbs into the Greater Toronto Area (see Greater Toronto Area).

Vancouver has several large suburbs, with more than three quarters of a million people living in Surrey (the third largest suburb in Canada), Richmond, and Burnaby. Montreal has its two largest suburbs, Laval and Longueuil, as well as a suburban group of smaller municipalities neighbouring Montreal known as the West Island.

United States

Many post-World War II American suburbs are characterized by:
  • Lower densities than central cities, dominated by single-family homes on small plots of land, surrounded at close quarters by very similar dwellings.
  • Zoning patterns that separate residential and commercial development, as well as different intensities and densities of development. Daily needs are not within walking distance of most homes.
  • Subdivisions carved from previously rural land into multiple-home developments built by a single real estate company. These subdivisions are often segregated by minute differences in home value, creating entire communities where family incomes and demographics are almost completely homogeneous, although suburban developments have become and are becoming more diverse.
  • Shopping malls and strip malls behind large parking lots instead of a classic downtown shopping district.
  • A road network designed to conform to a hierarchy, including culs-de-sac, leading to larger residential streets, in turn leading to large collector roads, in place of the grid pattern common to most central cities and pre-World War II suburbs.
  • A greater percentage of one-story administrative buildings than in urban areas.
  • Originally, a greater percentage of Caucasians and less percentage of citizens of other ethnic groups than in urban areas, although this recently changed dramatically as the suburbs have grown more diverse.
  • To different from rural areas, suburbs are usually have higher standard of living, more complex road systems, and less wildlife.

Other countries

In many parts of the developed world, suburbs are different from the American suburb, both in terms of population and in terms of what they represent. In some cases suburbs of cities outside of North America are economically distressed areas, inhabited by higher proportions of recent immigrants, with higher delinquency rates and social problems. Sometimes the notion of suburb may even refer to people in real misery, who are kept at the limit of the city borders for economic, social and where applicable some argue ethnic reasons. An example in the developed world would be the banlieues of France, or the concrete suburbs of Sweden. In most ways, the suburbs of most of the developed world are comparable to several inner cities of the U.S. and Canada.

In the UK, the government is seeking to impose minimum densities on newly approved housing schemes in parts of southeast England. The new catch phrase is 'building sustainable communities' rather than housing estates. However, commercial concerns tend to retard the opening of services until a large number of residents have occupied the new neighborhood.

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 in every direction) also a quick solution to a problem of public order (keeping the unwelcome poorest classes together with the 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. Other newer suburbs were created at a further distance from them.

Bangsar, a suburb outside of downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Slums in Soweto, suburb of Johanesburg, South Africa.
In China, the term suburb is new, although suburbs are already being constructed rapidly. Many new suburban homes are similar to their equivalents in the United States, primarily outside Beijing and Shanghai, which also mimic Spanish and Italian architecture. In Hong Kong, however, suburbs are mostly government-planned new towns containing numerous public housing estates. New Towns such as Tin Shui Wai may gain a notorious reputation as a slum. However, other new towns also contain private housing estates and low density developments for the upper middle and upper classes.

In Malaysia, suburbs are common, especially in areas surrounding the Klang Valley, which is the largest conurbation in the country. These suburbs also serve as major housing areas and commuter towns. Terraced houses, semi-detached houses and shophouses are common concepts in suburbs. In certain areas such as Klang, Subang Jaya and Petaling Jaya, suburbs form the core of these places. The latter one has been turned into a satellite city of Kuala Lumpur. Suburbs are also evident in other smaller conurbations including Ipoh, Johor Bahru, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching and Penang.

Traffic flows

Suburbs typically have more traffic congestion and longer travel times than traditional neighborhoods. Only the traffic within the short streets themselves is less. This is due to three factors: almost-mandatory automobile ownership due to poor suburban bus systems, longer travel distances and the hierarchy system, which is less efficient at distributing traffic than the traditional grid of streets.

In the suburban system, most trips from one component to another component requires that cars enter a collector road, no matter how short or long the distance is. This is compounded by the hierarchy of streets, where entire neighborhoods and subdivisions are dependent on one or two collector roads. Because all traffic is forced onto these roads, they are often heavy with traffic all day. If a traffic accident occurs on a collector road, or if road construction inhibits the flow, then the entire road system may be rendered useless until the blockage is cleared. The traditional "grown" grid, in turn, allows for a larger number of choices and alternate routes.

Suburban systems of the sprawl type are also quite inefficient for cyclists or pedestrians, as the direct route is usually not available for them either. This encourages car trips even for distances as low as several hundreds of miles (which may have become up to several miles due to the road network). Improved sprawl systems, though retaining the car detours, possess cycle paths and footpath connecting across the arms of the sprawl system, allowing a more direct route while still keeping the cars out of the residential and side streets.

Cultural depictions

  • The 1960s television series The Dick Van Dyke Show starring Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore was set in New Rochelle, New York, an affluent Westchester County suburb of New York City. New Rochelle is a first-suburb and one of the original "bedroom communities".

  • The 1962 song "Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds lampoons the development of suburbia and what many consider its bourgeois conformist values. It is best known through Pete Seeger's performance of the song. A book about the town of Daly City, California (a suburb of San Francisco), Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb, is named for the song. The song is currently being used as the theme song of the American television show Weeds, which also frequently makes fun of suburbs.

  • The television series The Wonder Years, which was set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, took place in an undisclosed suburb. In the first episode, the series' narrator comments on the seeming sameness of suburbia, in the ending narration noting that despite the rows of identical houses and cAirports, within each one are people with unique stories and individual lives.

  • Ben Folds's 2001 song "Rockin' the Suburbs" satirizes the teenage angst of "male, middle class, and white" suburban residents.

  • The concept of "suburbia" came to envelop this and other, sometimes endearing, idiosyncrasies of suburban life — for example, backyard barbecues on Independence Day and Labor Day, and neighborhood trick or treating on Halloween.

  • Popular culture largely recognized this concept during the 1980s and early 1990s. In Britain, television series such as The Good Life, Butterflies and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin depicted suburbia as well-manicured but relentlessly boring, and its residents as either conforming their behaviour to this situation or going stir crazy through its regimented blandness. In America, similar but more violent themes could be found in the works of David Lynch, most notably Blue Velvet, which establishes a view of idealistic suburbia and then showcases a dark, depraved underworld. A distinctive depiction of American suburbs is Joe Dante's comedy film The 'Burbs from 1989, starring Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher, in which the people living in the suburbs are portrayed as paranoiacs looking for adventure, which ends up in the explosion of one of their neighbors' houses in which they presume a huge number of dead bodies. The Oscar-winning 1999 film American Beauty centers on the life of two suburban families and their eventual downfalls. Todd Field's Oscar-nominated film Little Children portrays the suburbs as a place full of paranoid and sometimes hypocritical and judgmental security moms and dads, and bored and unhappy wives and husbands driven to adultery.

  • In 1994, playwright Eric Bogosian wrote and directed the play subUrbia, which focused on suburban twentysomethings with no real life goals or direction reacting to the return of a high school friend who had become famous. The play was made into a low-budget, independent film in 1997, with Richard Linklater directing and featuring actors Steve Zahn, Parker Posey, Ajay Naidu, and Giovanni Ribisi in lead roles.

  • The Showtime series Weeds centers on a suburban housewife selling drugs in a stereotypical suburban neighborhood. Its depictions of the people and situations surrounding them can be seen as a negative critique of the suburban lifestyle.

  • Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash depicts a future in which suburban gated communities are mass-produced by franchising systems and operate as sovereign city-states known as "burbclaves."

  • The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream is a 2004 documentary film concerning peak oil and its implications for the suburban lifestyle.

  • The Television series Desperate Housewives centers on lives of a group of suburban housewives seen through the eyes of their dead neighbor, as they work through domestic struggles and family life, while facing the secrets, crimes and mysteries hidden behind the doors of their—at the surface—beautiful and seemingly perfect suburban neighborhood.

See also

  • Boomburbs
  • Commuter town
  • Developed Environments
    • Rural
    • Exurban
    • Urban
  • Edge city
  • Exurb
  • Faubourg
  • Inner suburbs
  • List of largest suburbs by population
  • Microdistrict
  • Penurbia
  • Settlement types
    • Hamlet
    • Village
    • Town
    • City
    • Megalopolis
  • Streetcar suburb
  • Urban rural fringe
  • Urban sprawl
  • London commuter belt (Stockbroker belt)

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