Architecture Planning and Preservation Suburbs and Suburbanization
Susan Nowicki
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0004


The suburb is defined as a residential area situated on the outskirts of a city or urban district. Suburbs are an outgrowth of many influences and ideas stemming from a desire for individual home and land ownership, population decentralization, enthusiasm for dwellings located a greater distance from industrialization, and finally an eagerness for community building and a sense of belonging—an opportunity to forge new social contracts literally and geographically. Suburbs, characterized initially as clusters of remote country estates or picturesque villages, have been in existence since before the time of Pompeii. They became most widespread in the latter half of the 19th century as byproduct of the Industrial Revolution and grew increasingly popular with the advent of commuter rail travel. Today, the suburb and suburbanization persist as a double-edged sword—as housing alternatives spawned to relieve urban density and as options for affordable residential growth, yet more often than not suburban development has occurred in a heedless manner. Most frequently, suburbs have been built lacking the collaborative input of planners, government officials, and architects and thus are identified as responsible for the course of unchecked housing growth, problematic social assimilation, and strident class divisiveness. The course of suburbanization has led to the unfolding of a complicated and complex housing type spurring analysis from every possible angle. The genesis of the suburb and suburbanization has been examined from the perspectives of various academic disciplines. The scholarship is vast and comprehensive. Herein lies the basis of where to begin such research.

General Overviews

Scholarly analysis on the suburb and suburbanization is wide in scope and comprehensive in detail. The foundation of traditional research on the subject originated with Warner 1978. He traced the genesis of the suburb from the late 19th century and as tied ultimately to the decline of cities in the mid-20th. Warner outlined the path to suburban growth and indicated how such interest led to class and race isolation as individuals were forced to live according to their economic means—not everyone could afford to leave a declining urban core. Jackson 1985 revisited Warner’s initial theory on the relationship between suburb and city and expanded its range to a consideration of suburban development across the United States. In Crabgrass Frontier, Jackson argued a holistic examination of living patterns serves to indicate fundamentally how we behave and function as human beings, culturally, socially and politically. As with Warner, Jackson framed the American suburb in its historical context and then observed how its development influenced metropolitan growth adversely. These texts do not exist as champions for fringe growth but more as testaments to the state of US urban decline and the rise of suburbs as behind such declension. Stilgoe 1988 examined the American suburb from the vantage of landscape history and explored how the postwar suburb evolved and or devolved from the picturesque suburban idylls conceived in the late 19th century by the likes of architects and landscape architects Alexander Jackson Davis and Frederick Law Olmsted. How did romantic cottages nestled in bucolic settings transform into tract housing lacking in architectural originality? Archer 2005 examined suburbia from the realm of domestic architecture via a study of the typology of the house beginning in England and the United States in the late 17th century and throughout the 20th century. Archer observed that dwellings provide shelter but serve, as well, to influence our emotions and social standing. They are safe havens and advertisements of the self—selves framed by the politics, culture, and greater world in which we live. Finally Hayden 2003 mapped out the development of metropolitan/suburban landscapes in the United States over the course of the last two hundred years. She examined suburbanization from the multiple perspectives of design, culture, and economics and championed America’s older suburbs as more in concert with their surrounding environments.

  • Archer, John. Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690—2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

    An examination of suburbia alongside the domestic architecture of England and the United States, beginning in the late 17th century through the 20th century. Archer observes we not only build the houses in which we live but go on to construct our characters as well. Domestic architecture shapes our social selves. Archer is a prolific scholar on domestic architecture and suburbanization.

  • Binford, Henry C. The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on the Boston Periphery, 1815–1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

    Binford argues Boston’s antebellum suburban development was not a byproduct of urban expansion but really more a deliberate and self-conscious settlement pattern. The communities were distinct; they benefited from providing products or services for Boston’s core but were by no means beholden to it. These suburbs were the exception as to how future US suburbanization would unfold but their unique existence inspired developers like Olmsted and Davis.

  • Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.

    Maps out the development of the American suburban landscape over the course of the last two hundred years and examines from the viewpoints of design, culture, and economics. Hayden is a proponent for the greening of America, the feminine voice and the nation’s suburban past. She cites the contemporary real estate market, developers, and US government as instigators of bad suburb design and urges today’s progressivists to challenge these forces.

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

    Classic text that strives to unearth the root cause of urban decline in America’s cities via an analysis of the genesis and history of concomitant suburbanization. The historian examines the US suburb from the multiple perspectives of architecture, transportation, public policy, and urbanism all within the framework of the American experience.

  • Nicolaides, Becky M., and Andrew Wiese, eds. The Suburb Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Comprehensive examination of suburbanization. Takes into real account the fact that as of the 2000 US Census, 50 percent of Americans live in suburbs. Considers the enormity of this statistic from all angles—geography, race, politics, class, gender. The book is divided into three chronological sections starting from 1750 to the present. It includes primary documents and excerpts by experts in the field. Must-have text for every teaching institution. Foreword by Kenneth T. Jackson.

  • Stilgoe, John R. Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820–1939. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

    Composed from the lens of landscape historian, Stilgoe’s work examines the transformation of “older” and “greener” American suburbs of the 19th century to those built to more generic and tract-like specifics in the 1950s. His overwhelming research interest: what accounts for the enthusiasm for the suburbs in the US psyche? Stilgoe’s method is through an analysis of visual things solely: the “theater” of the suburbs.

  • Warner, Sam Bass. Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870–1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

    An examination of the suburban housing push in the United States and its effect on reinforcing already established patterns of social divisiveness. Warner’s study focuses on the growth of streetcar suburbs—their ensuing zoning regulations and transfer of resources leading to increased disenfranchisement of the urban poor. His study does not disparage the suburbs per se but observes how America’s housing policies continue to deny any semblance of national community still.

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