The realms of urban, suburban, and rural are often discussed as wholly distinct typologies of human settlement. This conception of settlement type is reminiscent of early scientific efforts to neatly categorize the world. In the century since the establishment of the first inner-ring suburbs in the U.S., these typologies have blurred. North American suburbs have experienced tremendous growth and cities have expanded territorial boundaries without the commensurate urban form. For example, the Toronto suburb of Mississauga has a population of 713,443 and an impressive downtown skyline with buildings reaching 56 stories. On the other hand, municipal annexation of former suburbs and townships in some cities have included areas that offer little urban quality and add vast square mileage to cities. Of the 50 most populous cities in the U.S., there are 16 with more than 300 square miles of land area—one of which has a population density of just 956/sq mi. (people per square mile).
The lines between city and suburb are becoming even less distinct as suburbs strive to retain and attract residents by altering the built environment to resemble traditionally urban forms. Suburbs in major metropolitan areas of the U.S. have been becoming more urban for decades. Transit-oriented development in the Washington, D.C. region and sustainable development pressure in the Pacific Northwest have encouraged denser suburban environments. Served by the DC Metro system, Arlington County, VA has an impressive population density of 8,814/sq mi. High density suburban environments also exist in areas without rail transit— such as in Rockville, MD and Kirkland, WA where population densities are 4,530/sq mi. and 4,521/sq mi. respectively.
Categorizing places as distinctly urban or suburban can be challenging. Yet, as Kiril Stanilov (Stanilov, 2004, p. 46) states: “Classifying metropolitan regions in terms of the generic categories of ‘city’ and ‘suburb’ – each with a range of defining characteristics – appears to be an important way in which people make sense of the complexity of landscape and urban form.” With a goal of making the world easier to understand, the work of bringing clarity to the urban-suburban distinction is important. As Sarah Ferber clarifies in her book on Australian suburbs: “In everyday language, the distinctive meanings of the terms suburb and suburban communicate the notion—‘suburb’ refers to actual places, while ‘suburbia’ refers to a state of mind…In some ways, suburbia does not possess a geographical location” (1994, pp. xiv, xvii).
So what then does ‘suburbia’ mean? In the reminder of this chapter, I outline the meaning of what I refer to as suburban by examining the literature related to the physical or built environment dimensions as well as the socio-cultural attributes, recognizing that suburban, in a sense, is not tied to any specific spatial location. I focus first on the built environment dimensions.
Physical Characteristics of the Suburban
The scholarly literature has identified a number of physical attributes of the suburban. They include density, homogeneity, single-family housing, and automobile-oriented infrastructure. I discuss these attributes in more detail here.
Density, Homogeneity and Single-Family Homeownership
As early as 1925, Douglas (1925, p. 6) called suburbs “a belt of near-by but less crowed communities which have ‘close connections’ with the city, made possible by physical arrangements for the rapid transfer of people and goods between the two.” The key insight is that suburbs are close to the city but less densely populated. In a sense, as you move further out to the edge of the city, there is less density. According to Jindrich (2012, p. 153), “population density is an effective method of dividing the area inside the city limits into regions reflecting their degree of urbanization.” Jindrich (2012, p. 8) further asserted the notion that “communities within the total metropolitan area which have a suburban density of population…are suburban.”
To have a “suburban density of population,” is typically noted by a mid-century development pattern of a large-lot subdivision with strictly single-family homes. The large portion of land devoted to single-family housing is recognized by Fava (1956, p. 35) when she differentiates suburbs from the city by recognizing “…certain physical qualities of residential suburbs, namely the predominance of private homes, low population density, and availability of open space.” One of the twentieth century’s most prominent social commentators, Mumford (1961, p. 486) eschewed the suburban community as “a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste.” His description fits a common stereotype of suburbs as physically monotonous, also assigning negative value to the suburban built form. In contrast, Mumford (1961, p. 493) elevates the city, which he calls “by its nature…a multi-form non-segregated environment.” This austere portrayal of suburbia—which Mumford’s critiques helped create—is both acknowledged and challenged by contemporary scholars. Those who agree often cite the problem of low-density development and uniformity in their critiques of suburban sprawl (e.g. Kunstler, 1994).
Peter Larkham (2004, p. 242), writing in the context of the United Kingdom, states that, “the suburban landscape is often regarded as one of design mediocrity, blandness, and uniformity...The uniformity usually comes from national guidelines on design and highway standards which, one critic argues, are inappropriate and unthinkingly applied to all suburban design concepts.” Larkham’s analysis suggests a characterization of suburban environments as plain and uninspiring—a sentiment which often is translated to suburban inhabitants as well. Certainly, suburbs were historically planned communities with predictable separation of land uses, different to the more haphazard development of the city. Gans (1968) reminds us that Boston’s North End was ethnically and architecturally homogeneous, but displayed admirable urban vitality. His elevation of the North End exception fails to mention the harsh reality of ethnic enclaves in the early twentieth century and the public health hazards of living conditions at the time. Overcrowding, unsanitary waste disposal, and an environment conducive to the spread of disease was the experience for thousands of Italian immigrants in the North End around the turn of the century. What may have appeared as a thriving urban
environment—replete with shops, residences, employment, and community gathering spaces like social clubs and churches—was also a hotbed for tuberculosis, meningitis, typhoid fever, and other communicable diseases (Puleo, 1994). This realization serves not as a condemnation of population density or ethnic enclaves, but an acknowledgement of public health and social ills resulting from unsafe living quarters. These negative conditions motivated those with means to construct new, more palatable circumstances elsewhere. Indeed, the haphazard development and hazardous living conditions of early industrial cities stand in stark contrast to the highly-regulated environments of early suburbs. Early planned communities like Radburn and Riverside left nothing to chance. Despite this, some early suburbs were denser than the center cities, even in the United States; worldwide there are several such examples (Forsyth, 2012). This suggests that a primary characteristic of suburbs was control, an important aspect of suburban life today, as the built environment is highly regulated to produce development considered desirable.
In fact, there has been a mixing together of the physical attributes of the suburbs with, in particular, a middle-class way of life inextricably tied to homeownership and notions of the American Dream. The home construction boom following the Second World War, in conjunction with federal subsidies for mortgages and highway building, created opportunities for homeownership for working and middle-class families. Suburbs have been called the “landscape of the American Dream,” (Ames, 1999, p. 222) a persistent ideal which mirrors the common trope of the white-picket-fence. This American Dream landscape is composed of—according to Ames (2003, p. 222)—a “single-family house on its own lot sited within the large-scale, self-contained subdivision with a curvilinear street pattern” In Crabgrass Frontier, Jackson argues that homeownership is almost the defining characteristic of the American suburb (1985, pp. 7, 11).
Others have also ascribed a dream-like status to the physical qualities of suburbs. In a piece about American suburbs from 1900 to 1950, Richard Harris (1999, p. 95) wrote: “Home ownership and lower-density living were recognizable, and indeed central, aspects of the suburban dream in the United States.” The dominance of single-family residential land use as inherently suburban was also addressed by eminent sociologist Herbert Gans (1968, p. 41) when he identified suburbs as “built up with single-family rather than multifamily structures and … less dense.” He (1968, p. 43) also recognized that in “the outer districts of most American cities homeownership is also extremely high,” another acknowledgement that the built environment within municipal boundaries vary greatly and cannot be definitively distinguished. Homeownership, while associated as suburban, does of course occur in cities.
Gans, in his essays, explores the connection between the physical environment and human behavioral traits, but was careful not to overemphasize the role of built form. He (1968, p. 28) criticized notable urbanist Jane Jacobs for what he called the physical fallacy: a perspective that “ignore[s] the social, cultural, and economic factors that contribute to vitality or dullness.” Despite his cautious approach to the influence of the physical environment on human behavior, Gans (1968, p. 153) wrote that “physical distance between neighbors is important. So is the relationship of the dwellings—especially their front and rear doors—and the circulation system. For example, if doors of adjacent houses face each other or if residents must share driveways, visual contact is inevitable.” The ways in which houses are positioned can encourage more interaction.
In response to a glowing account of the vitality and energy of Boston’s former ethic enclave the North End, Gans (1968, p. 28) claimed the area was “not diverse, but quite homogeneous in population as well as in building type. The street life … stems not so much from their physical character as from the working-class culture of their inhabitants. In this culture, the home is reserved for the family, so that much social life takes place outdoors.” His argument is complex. Social homogeneity in this case has led to increased vitality; structural similarity has led to aesthetic consistency and density. Gans separated culture and built form by attributing urban behavior to traits of the subgroup class status, not to the built environment. Where Jane Jacobs may have credited the height and setback of buildings in a historic neighborhood for pedestrianism and walkability, Gans sees people forced into the streets by low incomes and different lifestyles.
The relationship between humans and the built environment is core to the discipline of planning, and to this research. The extent to which our homes, streets, neighborhoods, towns, and cities represent our values is an area of rich complexity. McCann (1999, p. 137) writes that our cultural values shape the design, architecture, and demographic composition in suburban areas. It is also true that our values, behaviors, and culture are shaped to a certain extend by the existing built environment. Scholars have already looked into cultural features that are commonly associated with suburbs—a relationship that is termed “suburbanism.” To view suburbanism as a concept allows the theorist to remove it from its placement in a specific geographic context.
Autocentric Development and Design
Yet another key component of the suburban built environment is a reliance on and development almost exclusively for automobiles. To some, “A single-family, detached house was like a car: ‘a crucial element in the new economy of mass consumption,’ (Baxandall and Ewen quoted in Beauregard, 2006) a viewpoint which ascribes parallel value to both single- family homes and automobiles in the suburban project.
Following the strain of suburbs as propagating consumerist values, Mace (2013) quotes Harvey (2010, p. 77) “…the suburbs and the car both represent essential areas for capital accumulation based on the availability of cheap oil. The suburbs turned wants into needs through the provisioning of an environment favourable to mass consumption.” To Harvey, the suburbs and auto-centric culture go hand-in-hand, supporting each other to create a society that necessitates increased consumption.
The relationship between suburbs and automobiles precedes the characterization of the two as partners in a scheme to perpetuate capitalist consumption, however. In 1961, Mumford characterized the relationship as oxymoronic while also predicting the rise of autonomous vehicles:
All that is left of the original impulse toward autonomy and initiative is the driving of the private motor car; but this itself is a compulsory and inescapable condition of suburban existence; and clever engineers already threaten to remove the individual control by a system of automation.” (Mumford, 1961, pp. 492-493)
To Mumford, the cultural association of automobiles as liberating is problematic, considering the built environment of most suburbs requires residents to purchase automobiles, depriving residents of multiple options they have in urban areas.
Gans (1968, p. 41) also touched on this when he defined suburbs as “designed for the automobile rather than for pedestrian and mass-transit forms of movement.” Here Gans is contrasting suburban auto-centricity with urban pedestrianism and transit orientation. The city, he writes, is better suited to walking and communal transportation options over individual motor vehicles. This sentiment is also supported by Caulfield (1994, p. 23) in his study of gentrification in Toronto. “Traditional urban fabric, built before the hegemony of the car,” he writes, “is hostile to efficient motoring; ergo, refashion the city to mimic the suburbs, a landscape made in the auto’s image.” In order to make the city palatable for newcomers or outsiders, Caulfield argues, the preferences of auto-centric culture needed to be addressed through civil engineering. He asserts that the city’s organic, original built environment is inherently antagonistic to the automobile.
Socio-cultural Attributes of the Suburban
In 1925, sociologist Harlan Douglass (1925, p. 165) asked if suburbs should be defined “not primarily in terms of their physical separateness from the city, or of their spacial [sic] contrasts, but in terms of distinctive organization and consciousness.” The association of suburbs with a unique consciousness is an early insight suggesting peripheral communities were more than just locations, but that their residents display, as Douglass (1925, p. v) suggests “a sort of social philosophy” that drives them to migrate to these new places. Suburbanism construed as a culture and lifestyle has been referenced in numerous publications spanning disciplines and decades. The literature presents common themes: middle-class lifestyle and an expression of consumerism, particularly rootedness in homeownership, and shared values, homogenous demographic and a desire for privatism.
Homogeneity of Class and Culture
Duncan and Grey (1978, p. 5) state: “[B]y 1817…..with the onset of the industrial revolution and the later development of new methods of transportation, the meaning of ‘suburban’ appears to have evolved towards its current use and connotation of middle-class lifestyles.” This is an idea touched on by many more scholars. In 1956, Sylvia Fava described suburbs as “contain[ing] more than their proportionate share of young married couples and … made up largely of families of middle-class status” (1956, p. 34). A similar assignment to a middle- class demographic was cited by Walker (1981, p. 392) who equated suburbanization with, “creating a certain form of middle-class lifestyle” and, more negatively by Mattingley (1997, 39 as quoted in Larkam 2004, p. 241), through the value-laden term “oppressively middle- class.” Gans (1968, p. 45) takes a slightly varied interpretation of the specific class status of what he terms the “new suburbia,” which he writes is “nothing more than a highly visible showcase for the ways of life of young, upper-working-class and lower-middle-class people.”
Gans’ commentary hints at another strain of suburban characterization: suburb as mass consumption. He refers to the suburbs as a “showcase for…ways of life,” an assertion that speaks to the mid-century mindset of consumerism. A more negative take on this strain is offered by Mumford (1961, p. 486), who chides suburbia as “inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods.” Decades later, Larkham (2004, pp. 15-16) notes that suburbs are “increasingly associated with mass consumption” and Ferber (1994, p.127) even argues that “suburban culture is packaged for consumption.” One of the strongest statements comes from McCann (1999, p. 137), who believes that “[s]uburbs are the vivid expression of our culture of consumerism.”
If suburbs are an expression of conspicuous consumption, then housing is the primary good. While the single-family home on a dedicated parcel is the physical manifestation of homeownership, the social function of homeownership is a separate component. McCann (1999, p. 137), again, recognizes the importance of owning a house in some communities: “Houses are amongst the most revealing items of cultural expression. Their external face usually projects material tastes and wealth; their interior spaces express attitudes of family structure and privacy” The concept of the home as an extension of one’s identity and financial value is offered by Ferber (1994, p. 149) when she considers the home as having “an exchange-value and being the site of display of social identity.” Undoubtedly, suburban homes are intimately connected with occupants’ participation in a capitalist economy and help to display a specific external image of the occupant to the world. This is not to say that urban homes cannot serve the same purpose, but the built form of the suburbs more prominently isolates the private home as a spectacle, whereas a more urban fabric would harmonize and integrate structures along the streetscape.
Homeownership also impacts the outlook of residents because of the financial ties to property. In his discussion of capitalism and urban space, Richard Walker (1981, p. 391) asserts that “homeowners must take a conservative view of land values and change in their neighborhood, and exclude all who might diminish it” and claims that “the culture of American homes calls for a certain show of public display, with open facades and yards presenting the household to the world. Under such circumstances one becomes highly concerned with neighborhood effects which reflect badly on oneself and hence with keeping out those who might lower the appearance of the neighborhood.” The impact of this self- interest on the social dynamics of neighborhoods cannot be ignored. Again, homeownership in urban areas also produces self-interested property owners, but the higher diversity of land use in cities dampens the effect.
Privatism and Shared Values
Perhaps it is the mutual self-interest in property values that contributes to social cohesion in suburbia. The common values shared by many suburban communities are acknowledged by scholars. Douglass (1925, p. 36) recognized that suburbs were “largely composed of like- minded people to whom cooperation should not be difficult.” Not only are suburban populations like-minded, but they are statistically alike as well. Gans (1968, p. 41) calls the populations of suburbs “more homogenous,” and Fava (1956, p. 37) concludes that “suburban residents are a selected social-psychological type, oriented toward neighboring and other rural values and practices.” The extent to which suburban residents feel socially connected also led Gans (1968, p. 137) to declare that suburbs are “much like the small town,” which is a sense that many suburban communities today strive to project.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some have characterized modern technological suburbs, called ‘technoburbs,’ as a “nonplace” due to evidence of “aspatial social networks” (Vaughn, 2009). As social networks move online, the rootedness in physical community space may decrease. Consequently, some twenty-first century suburbs may not prioritize investment in community space. What’s more, the historic center of the social life in the suburb has been the home. Gans provides perspective that “social activities take place inside the home” in middle-class neighborhoods, and that the home is the “vital center of suburban life (Gans, 1968, p. 136). Given the focus on private space in suburban life, the opportunities for social interaction may be—in today’s world—routed to aspatial networks.
The importance of private space is not limited to the suburbs, but some scholars contend that the increasing privatization of public space in urban areas is related to cultural suburbanization. Smith and Cowen argue that New York is becoming “more private, more predictable, and more homogenized” (Hammett & Hammett, 2007, p. 20), without hallmarks of urbanity like “diversity, spontaneity, and unpredictability.” This relates back to Wirth’s (1938) assertion that heterogeneity is a defining characteristic of the urban experience. Smith and Cowen (2007) present the concepts of spontaneity and unpredictability as inherently urban, which positions suburban life as planned and predictable. In their view, Manhattan is being re-shaped in a more suburban image, with the aesthetic result being influenced by cultural and social values imported from suburbs.
As the privatization of public space is linked to the suburban, so are suburbs linked to ideological conservatism. This does not necessarily equate to the current dominant partisan binary in the United States, rather it references conservatism in the sense of a traditionalist and conventional frame of mind. Douglas (1925, p. 225-226) discusses the perspective of the typical suburban dweller:
Indeed a suburbanite is a man who is following a minority opinion. He is a separatist who believes that he is wiser than the majority. He may be more of an individualist or perhaps more of an adventurer. It is, however, an essentially conservative manner of life for which he is striving. He believes that the way to live in an urban situation is to preserve town forms, the small community, single-family dwelling, and as much as possible of family privacy.
Nearly a century ago, to be suburban meant to be more individualist and separate from the waves of society. This was before post-war mass suburbanization, when building a suburban home would have incurred a significant cost burden and might have meant a longer commute for basic services. Douglas’ primary concern is that seeking a suburban lifestyle illustrates a desire for a private, family-focused life rather than a life experiencing the shared public spaces and innumerable human interactions of urban settings.
Conservatism in suburban residents can also be attributed to a variety of self-preservation, in that a owner-occupied home is not just a dwelling, but an investment that buyers want to see increase in value Walker (1981, p. 393) writes that homeownership converts people into “mini-property speculators…to preserve and enhance their investment, homeowners must take a conservative view of land values and change in their neighborhood, and exclude all who might diminish it.” Walker connects the financial arrangement of living in a single- family dwelling with an ideology of conservatism, one that is resistant to change and protective of the status quo.
Dovey (1994, p. 146) builds on this conservatism as a product of single-family homeownership:
The image of the owner-occupied detached house is a powerful symbol of status and identity which embodies an entrenched opposition to medium-density housing. It is used by conservative political forces to signify ‘family’ and ‘stability,’ conceptually opposed to a ‘flat’ or ‘unit’ where only the young, the elderly and the lower classes live. The primacy of the detached house image in the semiotics of status is a serious hindrance to the development of alternative forms and types of housing with a better relationship to the reality of household type and structure.
Dovey associates the detached home with conservative forces, tying together symbologies of family life with the archetype of suburban homeownership. Suburbs are seen as family- oriented while other types of housing are reserved for non-nuclear social groups. In this way, the suburbs are seen as the domain of conventional family life, a place for those who ascribe to traditional norms and dominant culture.
Concluding Remarks about Suburban Attributes of Focus
This review of this literature demonstrates that the concept of suburban can be readily understood as having physical and socio-cultural attributes. Suburbia is undoubtedly both culture and built environment, as Archer and colleagues (2015, p. xv) state in the recent anthology Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America: “…suburbia is produced and propagated via discourse, concretized in built environments, performed with objects, and embedded in topographies. Instead of defining suburbanites in terms of the conditions under which they live (e.g., municipal boundaries, mass-produced houses, demographic profiles, tastes, automobile lifestyles), this approach demands close attention to local conditions, individual choices, specific discourses, daily activities, and particular places.”
In the case of this thesis, the place is German Village. I examine the ways in which German Village has embraced the suburban, both in terms of the physical attributes associated with the suburbs as well as the in the way of life of German Village residents. As the literature illustrates, American suburbanism is a powerful socio-cultural and physical phenomenon that is in the initial stages of deterritorizliation—or an ideological separation from its original peri-urban geographic context. Table 1 provides a summary of the most important characteristics and the authors who describe them as such. As demonstrated by this review, American suburbs have become negatively associated with monotonous housing stock, automobile dependency, social segregation and homogeneity, and rigid separation of land uses. Suburban proponents, on the other hand, would argue that suburbs have fostered safe and quiet environments for child-rearing, high-quality educational opportunities, and ample green space.