AskDefine | Define suburbs

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  1. Plural of suburb

Extensive Definition

Suburbs are commonly defined as residential areas on the outskirts of a city or large town. Most modern suburbs are commuter towns with many single-family homes. Many suburbs have some degree of political autonomy and most have lower population density than inner city neighborhoods. Mechanical transport, including automobiles and high speed trains, enabled the 20th century growth of suburbs, which tend to proliferate near cities with an abundance of adjacent flat land.

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". Important people tended to live on hills near centers of commercial and political activity, while the lower classes often lived in marginal areas. "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.
In the United States, Canada, and most of Western Europe the word suburb usually refers to a separate municipality, borough, or unincorporated area outside a central 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.
This division is not as prevalent in Ireland, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, where suburb merely refers to residential neighborhoods outside of the city centre whether they lie in a separate municipality or not. 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 characterised by higher density apartment housing and greater integration between commercial and residential areas.


In much modern suburban development, planning principles have operated to keep different land uses apart, so that certain distinct components may be identified.
  • Housing subdivisions, also known as clusters or pods. They usually consist of at least single family homes placed on small plots of land, or large compounds of apartment buildings with residual parking lots in between them. Many subdivisions are surrounded by walls on all sides, creating barriers from other subdivisions and from retail or offices. Some are gated communities with their own security forces and gatehouses to prevent non-residents from entering. Most subdivisions are surrounded on all sides by large volume, high-speed collector roads, to handle to concentration of traffic due to the lack of through streets inside the subdivision itself.
  • Retail, including strip malls, shopping malls, big-box stores, chain restaurants, retail parks, and power centres. These areas are exclusively for retail space and automobile parking. They usually consist of clusters of boxy, unadorned buildings of various sizes behind a parking lot. Where setbacks are wide, signs that identify the stores in the strip are usually large, illuminated, and nearer to the road than to the store.
  • Office parks, also known as business parks or corporate campuses. Derived from the modernist architectural vision of the building standing free in a parklike setting, these areas usually contain 4-12-story buildings surrounded by parking lots or parking structures. They differ from many traditional-style office spaces in containing only offices or factories and no retail space or residences. Office parks are usually located near off ramps of major freeways.
  • Roadways. Miles of pavement connect the aforementioned components together. Since a single piece of suburbia only serves one type of activity, roadways are very important, as they are the only way of getting to the various things a person needs in a given day. Suburban roadways are typically much wider than in towns, with multiple lanes and few, if any, sidewalks. Roads in this type of environment are usually designed to serve only automobiles, not pedestrians or cyclists.


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. Our modern 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 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 deep, while the width can vary from wide for a row house to wide for a large standalone house. In the suburbs, where standalone houses are the rule, lots may be wide by 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.
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, 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

In Canada

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 centres sprouted on the outskirts of Canadian cities.
However, Canada has far fewer suburban municipalities than the U.S. does. Many large cities, such as Winnipeg, Calgary 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 in any way eliminate suburbs per se. The boundaries of Canadian cities are under the jurisdiction of the Provinces and the Provinces have imposed city-suburb mergers. The Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary areas 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.

In the United States

Typically, many post-World War II American suburbs have been 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 homogenous.
  • 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.
  • Sometimes (most of the time) a lower crime rate than a comparable urban neighborhoods

In other countries

In many parts of the globe, however, suburbs are economically poor areas, inhabited by people sometimes in real misery, keeping them at the limit of the city borders for economic or social reasons like the impossibility of affording the (usually higher) costs of life in the town. An example in the developed world would be the banlieues of France, or the concrete suburbs of Sweden which are comparable to the inner cities of the U.S.
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 neighbourhood.
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.
In China, the term suburb is new. Chinese suburbs are very similar to that of the United States, in that many of its inhabitants are mainly Upper-class, or Middle-class people. Many of the new homes, being built with pools, two car garages and extra rooms are replicas of the U.S. However, most of the suburbs are fenced, and generally guarded because of the extraordinary crime rate.

Traffic flows/flaws

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 meters (which may have become up to several kilometres due to the road network). Improved sprawl systems, though retaining the car detours, possess cycle paths and foot path 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 term suburbia is frequently used to encapsulate the concept of suburbs as slices of tract-home nuclear family.
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 a Daly City, California, suburb Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb, is named for the song.
The popular TV show The Wonder Years, which was set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, took place in an undisclosed suburb. In the very first episode, the show's narrator comments on the seeming sameness of suburbia, in the ending narration noting that despite the rows of identical houses and carports, within each one are people with unique stories and individual lives.
The concept of "suburbia" came to envelop this and other, sometimes endearing, idiosyncrasies of suburban life — for example, backyard barbecues on Independence 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 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 judgemental 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.
Etymology: According to dialogue in the 1984 movie Suburbia (no relation to the Bogosian version), "subtopia" is a neologism made by combining suburb and utopia.

See also



  • Baumgartner, M. P. The Moral Order of a Suburb. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Baxandall, Rosalyn and Elizabeth Ewen. Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
  • Blakely, Edward J. and Mary Gail Snyder. Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1997.
  • Bruegmann, Robert. Sprawl: A Compact History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Duany, Andrés and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press, 2000.
  • England, Robert E. and David R. Morgan. Managing Urban America, 1979.
  • Fava, Sylvia Fleis. "Suburbanism as a Way of Life." American Sociological Review 21 no. 1 (February 1956): 34-37.
  • Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopia: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.
  • Fogelson, Robert M. Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-193. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Gans, Herbert J. The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community. New York: Pantheon, 1967.
  • Gruenberg, Sidonie Matsner. "The Challenge of the New Suburbs." Marriage and Family Living 17 no. 2 (May 1955): 133-137.
  • Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1920-2000. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.
  • Hope, Andrew. "Evaluation the Significance of San Lorenzo Village, A Mid-20th Century Suburban Community." CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 2 (Summer 2005): 50-61.
  • Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Katz, Peter, ed. The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.
  • Kelly, Barbara. Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown. Albany, NY: State University of Albany Press, 1993.
  • Kruse, Kevin M, and Thomas J. Sugrue, editors. The New Suburban History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
  • Lewis, Robert (2001) "Manufacturing Montreal: The Making of an Industrial Landscape, 1850 to 1930" Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • McKenzie, Evan. Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.
  • Morton, Marian. "The Suburban Ideal and Suburban Realities: Cleveland heights, Othio, 1860-2001." Journal of Urban History 28 no. 5 (September 2002) 671-698,
  • Muller, Peter O. Contemporary Suburban America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981.
  • Mumford, Louis. The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1938.
  • Oliver, J. Eric. "Democracy in Suburbia." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Putman, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
  • Rybczynski, Witold. "How to Build a Suburb." The Wilson Quarterly 19 no. 3 (Summer 2005): 114-126.
  • Rybczynski, Witold (November 7, 2005). "Suburban Despair". Slate.
  • Smith, Albert C. & Schank, Kendra (1999). "A Grotesque Measure for Marietta". Journal of Urban Design 4 (3).
  • Vicino, Thomas J. Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  • Warner, Sam Bass. Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1890. Cambridge. Mass., 1962.
  • Winkler, Robert. Going Wild: Adventures with Birds in the Suburban Wilderness. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2003.
  • __________. "All the World's a Mall: Reflections on the Social and Economic Consequences of the American Shopping Center." The American Historical Review 101 no. 4 (October 1996): 1111-1121.
suburbs in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Underburg
suburbs in Bulgarian: Предградие
suburbs in Danish: Forstad
suburbs in German: Vorort
suburbs in Spanish: Suburbio
suburbs in French: Banlieue
suburbs in Korean: 교외
suburbs in Italian: Suburbio
suburbs in Hebrew: פרוור
suburbs in Dutch: Buitenwijk
suburbs in Japanese: 郊外
suburbs in Norwegian Nynorsk: Forstad
suburbs in Portuguese: Subúrbio
suburbs in Finnish: Lähiö
suburbs in Swedish: Förort
suburbs in Chinese: 郊區

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Bowery, Chinatown, East End, East Side, Little Hungary, Little Italy, West End, West Side, alentours, ambience, ambit, barrio, black ghetto, blighted area, borderlands, business district, central city, circle, circuit, circumambiencies, circumjacencies, circumstances, city center, compass, context, core, downtown, entourage, environing circumstances, environment, environs, fringes, gestalt, ghetto, greenbelt, habitat, inner city, midtown, milieu, neighborhood, outposts, outskirts, perimeter, periphery, precincts, purlieus, red-light district, residential district, run-down neighborhood, shopping center, situation, skid road, skid row, slum, slums, suburbia, surroundings, tenderloin, tenement district, total environment, uptown, urban blight, vicinage, vicinity
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