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What is a Suburb?

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  • Written By: Gregory Hanson
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2016
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A suburb is an urban area, adjacent to and economically interconnected with a larger metropolitan area. Suburbs are typically residential communities, and a large percentage of a suburb’s population is apt to commute to the metropolitan core community. Suburbs typically have a lower population density than central cities with a greater degree of urban sprawl. Life in a suburb, particularly in an American suburb, generally requires access to an automobile.

Suburbs first emerged in Europe and America as a response to the development of commuter rail systems in the latter part of the 19th century. These rail networks allowed the middle classes to work in downtown areas but live away from the crowded and dirty city centers. The emergence of the automobile and highway systems further encouraged the growth of suburban communities. Suburbs are often associated with the United States, and the archetypical American suburb was Levittown, located on Long Island and designed to provide homes for middle-class Americans looking to move out of New York.

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Levittown, a product of the boom years following World War II, was the first of many American suburbs to feature single-family homes, distributed retail, and extensive road networks designed to facilitate the inflow and outflow of commuters rather than steady traffic. Suburbs grew quickly around the world during the postwar years, although not always in the American model. Moscow acquired suburbs of its own, defined not by endless miles of roads but by rank after rank of identical towering apartment complexes and mass transit connections to the city center.

The history of the suburb in America is associated with several controversial social trends. Suburbs, especially during the 20th century, tended to be much whiter than urban areas. Urban whites often took advantage of their greater mobility to leave behind racially-mixed urban neighborhoods. This tended to produce white suburbs and black inner cities, a pattern that dominated the American suburban landscape for much of the 20th century, although one that began to break down thereafter. This racial segregation accompanied financial segregation, with suburbs being more prosperous than older urban areas throughout the 20th century.

Urban sprawl is typically seen as a legacy of the growth of the suburb in America. In cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, each new suburb required the development of vast tracts of land, often fertile farmland. Critics argued that the low-density housing typical of American suburbs was a very poor model for land use, and that smaller, denser urban areas were a better alternative, so long as they were well-designed and maintained.

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