Get Used To It

Suburbia's Not Going Away, No Matter What Critics Say or Do
January 1, 2005 |
The humanization of suburbia is critical work, and is doing much to define what modern cities will look like throughout the advanced countries of the world.
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For the better part of the last half century, urbanists, planners, and environmentalists have railed against suburbia, and the dreaded trend of cities to "sprawl" outward from the old city core. Yet despite many attempts to discourage such growth, the pattern continues -- not only in America but in nearly all modern countries. The battle against sprawl is over. Sprawl won.

Since 1950, over 90 percent of metropolitan growth in America has taken place in the suburbs. The biggest reason for this triumph is not the "conspiracy" of big oil companies and freeway builders oft cited by enviro-activists. The powerful impulse at the root of suburbanization is the simple desire of ordinary people everywhere to own a piece of land, however humble, where they and their families may live in relative comfort and peace.

The traditional urban core has not been eliminated by this new dispersed geography, but its importance has been greatly circumscribed. Some traditional cities like New York and Chicago retain considerable vibrancy and economic importance. Most others have either collapsed into mere shells of their former selves -- St. Louis, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit come to mind -- or else reinvented themselves as largely ephemeral cities, places like San Francisco and Boston that live on entertainment, tourism, and concourse, serving a largely elite, non-economic constituency.

Yet the modern city is not dead. It lives on in a new form: a horizontal conglomeration of single-family homes, shopping malls, and office parks. This is the urban America that is still growing rapidly, and creating brand new metropolises in such places as Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. These new urban configurations are not always pretty, or even entirely functional, and they are sneered at viciously by the environmental and planning fraternity. But they represent the new urban America, and are now our major locales of fresh growth, wealth, and aspiration. The heavily suburbanized city is the face of the future, and nearly every day, people living in such places pioneer new ways of functioning in our local communities and nation.

Throughout history, the most dynamic cities generally responded to a burgeoning population by building upwards and cramming ever more residents into the central space. The industrial revolution accelerated the rate of urban growth, placing unprecedented pressure on the geography of cities. By 1800, European cities had become at least twice as dense as their Medieval antecedents. Some American cities, notably New York, were even more crowded. Once havens from a lawless countryside, the inner city also became increasingly crime-ridden.

Early in the industrial era, it was the poor who lived on the urban periphery, in effect exchanging longer commutes for lower rents. "Even the word suburb," historian Kenneth Jackson notes, "suggested inferior manners, narrowness of view, and physical squalor." Suburbs were often the abode of all manner of rejects from the city.

One way of managing the growth of cities was to reorganize the urban center, as occurred in mid-nineteenth century Paris. Britain, the world's most urbanized country, chose a dramatically different direction (one that would ultimately find its most complete expression in distant places like Los Angeles). London's problems were of a different order than Paris's. By 1910, London was the world's most populous city, with three times the residents of the French capital. Even to affluent Londoners in the nineteenth century, the city felt hopelessly clogged.

In their search for a "better city," Londoners couldn't just knock down and rebuild their inner core, as the Parisians did. Instead the British allowed a gradual, inexorable expansion of the urban space -- something that had been occurring naturally anyway. It started initially with the most affluent residents, but as the nineteenth century progressed, the prosperous middle and successful working classes joined the exodus to the countryside. If a nice apartment in the heart of the city was the dream of the upwardly mobile Parisian, the typical Londoner's aspiration fixed upon something very different: a cottage, detached or semi-detached, somewhere out on the peaceful periphery. London, one observer noted in 1843, "surrounds itself, suburb dinging to suburb, like onions fifty to a rope."

Other British cities evolved in a similar manner. In the great industrial regions everyone from the factory owners to the clerks sought to move away from the belching smoke stacks and congested streets. "The townsman," noted one observer of Manchester and Liverpool in the 1860s, "does everything in his power to cease being a townsman, and tries to fit a country house and a bit of country into a corner of the town."

Many Britons saw this pattern of dispersion as the logical solution to Britain's longstanding urban ills. H.G. Wells predicted that improvements in communication and transportation, especially commuter rail lines, would eliminate the need to concentrate people and activity in the central core. Instead of "massing" people in urban centers, Wells foresaw the "centrifugal possibilities" of a dispersing population. He predicted that eventually all of southern England would become the domain of London, while the vast landscape between Albany and Washington, D.C. would provide the geographic base for New York and Philadelphia.

This new urban vision was widely embraced by those who were horrified by the ill-effects of industrial urbanism. Friedrich Engels predicted that an overthrow of capitalism would bring the end of the megacity, and dispersal of the industrial proletariat into the countryside. The dispersed city-dwellers would both live better themselves and "deliver the rural population from isolation and stupor," finally improving the persistently poor quality of life of the working class.

Suburbanization also appealed to more conservative thinkers. Thomas Carlyle believed the growth of the industrial city had undermined the traditional ties between workers, their families, communities, and churches. Moving the working and middle classes to "villages" in the outlying regions of major cities could "turn back the clock" to a more wholesome and intimate environment. In the small town or extra-urban village, he hoped, women and children could be protected from the injurious influences of the city, with its bawdy houses, taverns, and pleasure gardens.

British planner Ebenezer Howard emerged as perhaps the most influential advocate for dispersing the urban masses. Horrified by the disorder, disease and crime of the contemporary industrial metropolis, he advocated the creation of "garden cities" on the suburban periphery. These self contained towns, with populations of roughly 30,000, would have their own employment base, neighborhoods of pleasant cottages, and be surrounded by rural areas. "Town and country must be married," Howard preached, "and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization."

Determined to turn his theories into reality, Howard was the driving force behind two of England's first planned towns, Letchworth in 1903 and Welwyn in 1912. His "garden city" model of development influenced planners in America, Germany, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere.

Even before the first "garden cities" were developed in Britain, America also embraced the notion of urban deconcentration. By the 1870s, prominent Philadelphia families already were escaping the crowded streets of William Penn's old city for the leafier west side, and toward Germantown to the north. The ensuing development of suburban railroads carried much of the city's business and professional establishment away from the central Rittenhouse Square area to residences in Chestnut Hill and other "Mainline" communities.

The shift to the suburbs was particularly robust in America's far West and across the industrial Midwest. Land was generally less expensive and urban culture far less developed. The reasons for moving to the periphery seemed self-evident to working-class people, like one Chicago meat-cutter who in the 1920s expressed his delight in exchanging "a four bedroom house on the second floor of an apartment house" for "a six room house with a big yard" in Meadowdale, in the city's far western suburbs.

As automobile registrations soared in the 1920s, suburbanization picked up speed across the rest of the country. Suburbs were now growing at twice the rate of cities. Cities, noted National Geographic in 1923, were "spreading out." The Great Depression temporarily slowed the outward migration, but it didn't change the yearnings of Americans. At the nadir of national fortune in 1931, President Herbert Hoover noted:

To possess one's home is the hope and ambition of almost every individual in this country... The immortal ball ads "Home Sweet Home," "My Old Kentucky Home," and the "Little Gray Home in the West" were not written about tenements or apartments.

Following the Second World War, the pace of suburbanization in America again accelerated, with suburbs accounting for a remarkable 84 percent of the nation's population increase during the 1950s. Home ownership became an integral aspect of middle- and even working-class life. By the mid 1980s, America enjoyed a rate of homeownership -- roughly two thirds of all families -- double that of such prosperous countries as Germany, Switzerland, France, Great Britain, and Norway. Nearly three quarters of AFL-CIO members, and the vast majority of intact families, owned their own homes.

Once a nation of farms and cities, America was being transformed into a primarily suburban country. No longer confined to old towns or "street car suburbs" near the urban core, suburbanites lived in ever more spread out developments like Levittown, which arose out on the Long Island flatlands in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. New York planning czar Robert Moses understood the enormous appeal of these new communities:

The little identical suburban boxes of average people, which differ only in color and planting, represent a measure of success unheard of by hundreds of millions on other continents. Small plots reflect not merely the rapacity of developers but the caution of owners, who do not want too much grass to cut and snow to shovel -- details too intimate for historians.

The suburbs, noted historian Jon Teaford, provided more than an endless procession of lawns and carports, but also "a mixture of escapism and reality." They offered welcome respite from both crowded urban neighborhoods and old ethnic ties. In suburbs, one could make new friendships and associations without worrying about old social conventions and strictures and separations. And with their ample yards, new schools, and parks, these places seemed to offer what novelist Ralph Martin called "a paradise for children."

Clearly the preference of millions, suburbs nonetheless won few admirers among sophisticated social critics. The new peripheral communities were decried for everything from scarring the landscape to being cultural wastelands. Over the last half of the twentieth century suburbs were held responsible for travesties like "splintering" the nation's identity and expanding Americans' waistlines. "Sunk and stupefied," 1950s poet Richard Wilbur wrote, "the suburbs deepen in their sleep of death."

As new communities stretched out from old, established districts, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, they often undermined longstanding economies and patterns of life. One observer decried the fact that an old Connecticut mill, once the center of the local economy, now sat mute and shut down, "intimidated by the headlights of commuters as they race up and down the valley, dreary from the city and hungry for home."

The harshest critics tended to be impassioned city-dwellers. Lewis Mumford identified the suburbs as "the anti-city" sucking the essence out of the old urban areas. As more residents and businesses headed for the periphery, he argued, the suburbs were turning cities from creative centers into discarded parcels of "a disordered and disintegrating urban mass."

Perhaps the most telling criticism of suburban migration focused on an expanding racial divide between heavily white suburbs and increasingly black inner cities. Clearly some new suburbanites, and the developers catering to them, shared a deep-seated racism. In 1970, nearly 95 percent of suburbanites were white. Meanwhile, African Americans, long concentrated in the rural South, now dominated the populations of many large cities, particularly in the North and Midwest. By the 1960s, more than 51 percent of African Americans lived in inner cities, compared with only 30 percent of whites.

The social crisis caused by the growing gap between cities and suburbs threatened to tear the nation apart -- and devastate the urban cores. In 1968 Mumford could write convincingly about the "progressive dissolution" of American cities. At the time, many cities seemed consumed with social pathologies like illegitimacy, crime, and drug addiction. "Social disorder," the New York Times complained in 1968, "is rampant in New York." By 1990, even New Yorkers seem to have lost their faith in the cult of urban grandiosity -- roughly six in ten residents of Gotham told surveyors they would like somewhere else if they could. The suburbs, in contrast, appeared to many Americans as a welcome refuge from the anti-social trends sweeping the inner city.

These were hardly trends specific to America. By the year 2000, for every two of the world's major cities that were adding population, three more were losing people. The greatest declines took place in the old industrial cities -- Manchester, Leipzig, St. Louis. Not only did inner cores hollow out, and surrounding neighborhoods decline, but the very sense of identity eroded beyond recognition in some cities.

Although their suburbs often remained healthy, cities like Newark, Cleveland, St. Louis, or Detroit no longer constituted major urban centers. This drift reflected a worldwide phenomenon. In Japan, manufacturing cities such as Osaka and Nagoya lost their most talented citizens. Other once world-leading industrial powerhouses like Manchester fell to relative insignificance. Continental European cities like Turin and Dusseldorf stagnated and declined.

Perhaps most devastating, many cities -- particularly those most historically identified with industrial growth -- failed to attract the burgeoning new science and information-based industries. Untethered by the need for iron, coal, large rivers, ports, and even proximity to large markets, these industries operated on principals utterly different from those of the traditional manufacturing sectors.

Following their work forces to the suburbs, firms now placed their plants on the periphery, often close to airports and highway interchanges rather than near port facilities and train lines. This outward dispersion was particularly marked in the high technology industries, which, unlike financial services and traditional manufacturing, possess no historic ties to the inner city. They went to the suburbs for many reasons, including the building of large campus-like office parks, less crime, lower taxes and, most critically, the access to educated workers. Fast growing areas such as the San Fernando Valley (where the population quintupled between 1944 and 1960), California's Santa Clara Valley, north-eastern New Jersey, and the suburban ring around Boston all provided ideal locations for burgeoning aerospace, computer, and information industries.

In the 1980s, and ‘90s, the technology economy expanded, spreading to highly suburbanized cities such as Atlanta, Orlando, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. In these areas, the historic downtowns often were only marginally important. In metropolitan Atlanta, for example, barely one in ten residents lived within the city limits; between 1960 and 1995 the city lost 20 percent of its population, while surrounding suburbs grew by 400 percent.

By 2000, roughly two out of every three Americans in a large metropolitan area lived in the suburbs. With the migration of both people and jobs, the pattern of commuting shifted: More than twice as many people in the United States now commuted from suburb to suburb, where the job growth was concentrated, than commuted into the city.

Suburbia's emergence as an employment center fundamentally altered the periphery's relation to the urban core. No longer merely bedroom communities subservient to cities, many suburbs had become what writer Joel Garreau called "edge cities," which supplied not only jobs but also shopping and entertainment to residents.

Triumphant in the world's leading economy, suburbanization also swept every other part of the advanced industrial world. Most human beings seemed to define their personal "better city" as something more spacious and private and green than life in closely packed apartment blocks allowed. As Italian-born Edgardo Contini wrote, "The suburban house is the idealization of every immigrant's Dream -- the vassal's dream of his own castle. Europeans who come here are delighted by our suburbs. Not to live in an apartment! It is a universal aspiration to own your own home."

This "universal aspiration" emerged early on in young countries like Argentina and Australia. Urbanities in these land-rich countries were quick to shift to peripheral locations. By 1904, Buenos Aires had spread out so far that, as one Spanish observer commented, it was "not a city, but a combination of adjoining cities." Much the same occurred in Australia. As the rural population dropped precipitously after 1930, the suburbs around Melbourne and Sydney grew as rapidly as those around U.S. cities. Like their American counterparts, Australian intellectuals generally despised the suburbanizing trend. But the man on the street flocked to these places, which catered to "the Australian's concentration on his home and family."

Following the devastation of the Second World War, British planners consciously sought to move both industry and population out of the crowded core of London. The Abercrombie Plan, first unveiled in 1943, placed great emphasis on the development of "new towns" that would expand the capital's periphery. The plan was only partially implemented, but in ensuing decades the increased use of automobiles, as elsewhere, accelerated the shift to the suburbs. Between 1980 and 2000 the built-up area of Britain more than doubled, even though the rate of population growth was slight.

Perhaps more revealing, some 70 percent of Britons still dwelling in urban centers in 2000 told pollsters they'd prefer living somewhere else. London's outer rings offered many middle-and working – class residents what was impossible to achieve in the core -- the opportunity to own a house. More than 60 percent of outer London residents were property owners, over twice the percentage for those living closer in.

Similar patterns emerged in Western Europe's other cities, despite powerful regulatory biases against suburban growth, and low rates of population growth. In the 1980s, populations in cities from Madrid to Frankfurt fell, even as their outer reaches expanded dramatically. Germany, the largest economy in Europe, displayed this trend in convincing fashion, despite countervailing pressure from German planners favoring "urbanity." The home in suburbia was not so much a rejection of the metropolis, noted one German scholar, but a move "forward to a happy life."

Even in land-sparse Japan, there was a marked shift of residents, and some businesses, to urban peripheries as the economy recovered from World War II. Osaka, for instance, the nation's second largest city, actually started losing population in the 1970s, while exurban communities grew rapidly. More heavily industrialized cities suffered far more rapid loss, paralleling the experience of their European and North American counterparts.

Tokyo, the advanced world's largest metropolis, also expanded outward in dramatic fashion. The first step was construction of new subcenters such as Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro. These mega developments followed the decentralist precepts of Ishikawa Hideaki.

Eventually these subcenters evolved into vibrant parts of the metropolis, housing many of Japan's tallest buildings, including the Sunshine Tower and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. This outward movement was fueled by escalating land costs in the Tokyo core. By the 1970s, middle-class Tokyo residents could not even dream of being able to afford a home, even the smallest one – bedroom apartment, in the inner city. Forced to the periphery, almost 10 million Japanese settled in the suburban regions of the Kanto plain just between 1970 and 1995.

Even Paris -- long the symbol of centralized urbanity -- has experienced a pronounced outward movement. Contrary to the assumption that Parisians are "addicted" to dense city living, many are now as anxious as Americans for a suburban lifestyle. In recent decades, middle-class French families and, increasingly, employment have headed for the grand couronne far outside the capital, skipping over the poorer, heavily immigrant suburbs closer to the center. If it can happen there, it will happen anywhere.

To many urbanists, the rise of suburbia represents the death knell of the city. Yet if the traditional city has lost its once overpowering relevance, it still has much to teach the suburbs. Sprawl has provided individuals and families with a successful strategy to adapt to urban dysfunction -- anti-business governments, unworkable schools, crime, lack of personal green space -- but it has not always addressed the need for community, the quest for local identity, people's hunger for "sacred space," and the common desire for a closer relation between workplace and living space.

Suburbia is maturing and evolving, and our future is now being constructed in scores of places across America. There are bubbling sprawl cities like Naperville, Illinois, and brash new "suburban villages" popping up in places such as Houston's Fort Bend County or Southern California's Santa Clarita Valley. There are glistering new arts centers and concert halls in Gwinett County, Georgia. Almost everywhere there are new churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples springing to life along our vast exurban periphery.

This humanization of suburbia is critical work, and is doing much to define what modern cities will look like throughout the advanced countries of the world. These are great projects, worthy of the energies and creative input of our best architects, environmentalists, planners and visionaries -- not their contempt and condemnation.

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