Atlantic Cities

A Brief History of Suburbia's Rise and Fall

A Brief History of Suburbia's Rise and Fall
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The suburb has a claim to being one of the most successful and least loved inventions of the modern era. Many intellectuals, being city people at heart, find the suburb a hard place to love.

So writes city historian Graeme Davison of Monash University, in Australia, in a recent issue of the Journal of Urban History. Davison goes on to chronicle a brief though rather complete rise and fall of the suburban lifestyle. Concentrating on England, but drawing support from the United States and Australia, Davison tracks suburbia from its ideological roots in the Victorian era to its harsh detractors in the present.

"Like a hardy hybrid, the suburban idea has flourished even in environments remote from its origins, and outlived most of the criticisms hurled against it," he writes.

Davison begins with the birth of modern suburb in the early-to-mid 19th century. By the 1830s, he writes, cities like London and new industrial towns like Manchester were beginning to expand outward, stretching the boundaries of the original cores. One observer in 1843 noted that unlike Paris (which was wilderness outside the city center) and Rome (which was desert), London was made of concentric sub-communities "like onions fifty on a rope."

The numbers alone told the story in the latter half of the 19th century. Davison writes that London in 1850 had 6 times the population of Vienna but 20 times the area. The same pattern was emerging in America and Australia. By the closing decade of the 19th century, Chicago and Melbourne each had smaller populations than London but covered as much territory (in the latter case) or more (in the former).

Davison argues that it wasn't just "sheer pressure of population" that encouraged this early form of sprawl. Many factors played a role in the change, including improved rail transit that facilitated movement inside and outside town centers. Davison also points to four major ideologies—one each in the realms of religion, science, the arts, and social life—as critical sources of the shift:

  • Evangelicalism. The purity of home was a central construct in the Evangelical revival. So while cities were viewed as places of corruption, while retreating into the countryside was seen as a moral refuge.
  • Sanitarianism. In keeping with Evangelical tastes, cleanliness was seen as godliness. Cities, meanwhile, were rotten places with garbage, manure, and in many cases soot everywhere—breeding grounds of disease and misconduct. The suburbs were seen as a hygienic alternative: "literally clean-aired," Davison writes.
  • Romanticism. This aesthetic movement promoted feeling over reason, nature over artifice, solitude over sociality, nostalgia over ambition. As a result, detached residences and private gardens were considered far more beautiful and desirable than the cramped shared quarters of the city.
  • Class Segregation. As cities and towns became manufacturing centers filled with industrial workers, suburban areas were seen as exclusive retreats for the moneyed classes. "When the well-to-do fled to the suburbs, they sought to place a protective cordon between themselves and a class on whose labor they relied but increasingly sought to avoid," writes Davison.

All told, these movements resulted in behaviors of avoidance ("the determination to escape the vice, disease, ugliness, and violence of the city") and attraction ("the desire to embrace the virtue, health, beauty, and seclusion of the countryside") that combined to form suburban culture.

With the rise of suburbia came the rise of its enemies. Libertarians rejected Evangelical morality. Socialists rejected class segregation. Artistic realism led to a rejection of Romanticism. Improvements in medicine assuaged many health fears. Suburbia became an emblem of social snobbery in the hands of Thackery and Dickens: a place full of wealth but devoid of taste.

"The suburb was simply too spacious, too clean, too safe, too conventionally virtuous, too sanctimonious," writes Davison.

This pushback grew in the 20th century as urban planners recognized sprawl as wasteful and generally unsustainable—a form of environmental disease. At the height of America's flight from cities, in the 1950s and '60s, social critic (and one-time suburban sympathizer) Lewis Mumford berated suburban life as "an asylum for the preservation of illusion." Mumford felt that suburban residents were not only withdrawing from the city, they were shrinking from civic responsibility writ large.

Meanwhile, the original aims of suburbia — exclusivity and relative seclusion — were compromised by its newfound affordability and popularity. The promise of individuality was turned into a prescription for conformity. Simply put, the rise of suburbia became a Pyrrhic Victory: nothing so universal could ever maintain the quality of being unique. Today, writes Davison, it exists more as a marketing strategy than a genuine ideal.

"After two centuries of hegemony, the tide has turned against the suburban idea," he concludes. "Its day is not yet over, but its heyday has passed."

Top image: karamysh /Shutterstock

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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