The word “suburb” refers to the intermediate areas between the city and countryside. Nowadays the word is associated with modern residential lifestyles, and all the positive and negative opinions surrounding those modes of living, but in the past the word has meant different things to different people. In Paris in the 19th century, for example, the rich lived as close to the center of the city as possible, and the suburbs were the homes of poor and migrant workers. The Parisian suburbs were (and in many ways still are) associated with violence and political upheaval.
The traditional understanding of the relationship between city and countryside is that farmers would grow their crops on the farm, and then bring the goods to market in town. In this traditional economy, the suburbs referred to the fringe areas of town where undesirable and polluting trades like leatherworking were performed.
Since the industrial revolution and the rise of the automobile, however, the situation has become more complicated. In developed countries, very few people work on farms or even in factories. The majority of jobs and residences can now be located anywhere we choose. For example, many people prefer to live in an urban area where they can walk to local amenities, but commute by car to an office park or factory in the suburbs.
In this post-industrial economy, the idea of the suburbs no longer refers to a certain economic function, but a certain choice of lifestyle. The 21st century suburb is conceived as a place where the car is the primary means of transportation, and there is a lot of room for big houses, spacious lawns and wide roads. When people talk about “the suburbs” nowadays, they’re often talking about the pros and cons of these lifestyle choices. Environmentalists, for example, protest the gasoline dependency of cars and the land-intensive “sprawl” that limits space for wildlife. Other critics feel that the suburbs are simply boring, that it’s hard to create a sense of community when people live so far apart and can’t easily walk around the neighborhood.
However, the suburbs remain a popular place to live and work, particularly for families with children. Many people still see the suburbs as representing a peaceful and prosperous way of living. Some commentators debate the future of the suburbs: will the next generation still want to live in sprawling, auto-dependent bedroom communities like their parents did, or will they move back to the city? Whatever their future, the suburbs remain a focal point for a wide range of debates about the choices we face today.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What do you think are the defining features of a suburb? How big and close together do the buildings have to be before you’d call an area urban, and how spread out do they have to be before you’d call it rural?
What are the distinctive features of life in the suburbs? Do you think the suburbs deserve their reputation as uninspired places, or are other forms of suburban life possible?
Do you think the suburbs are in decline? In another generation or two, do you think fewer people will live in the suburbs?
There are many ways of defining what a suburb can be, but in recent decades, particularly in the United States, the suburbs represent our concerns about how we organize our residential communities.