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"Suburban" redirects here. For the sport utility vehicle (SUV), see Chevrolet Suburban.
It has been suggested that Suburbia be merged into this article or section. (Discuss)
Housing division near Union, Kentucky, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Housing division near Union, Kentucky, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Suburbs are inhabited districts located either on the outer rim of a city or outside the official limits of a city (the term varies from country to country), or the outer elements of a conurbation.

The presence of certain elements (whose definition varies amongst urbanists, but usually refers to some basic services and to the territorial continuity) identifies a suburb as a peripheral populated area with a certain autonomy, where the density of habitation is usually lower than in an inner city area, though state or municipal house building will often cause departures from that organic gradation. Suburbs have typically grown in areas with an abundance of flat land near a large urban zone, usually with minimal traditions of citizens clustering together for defence behind fortified city walls, and with transport systems which allow commuting into more densely populated areas with higher levels of commerce.



The word "suburb" is derived from the Old French "sub(b)urbe" and ultimately from the Latin "suburbium," formed from "sub," meaning "under," and "urbs," meaning "city." (Note that urbs was pronounced oorps.) The first recorded usage according to the Oxford English Dictionary comes from Wyclife, in 1380, where the form "subarbis" is used.

In American English, the word "suburb" usually refers to a separate municipality or an unincorporated area outside of a central city. This definition is evident, for example, in the title of David Rusk's book Cities Without Suburbs, which promotes metropolitan government. Colloquial usage sometimes shortens the term to "'burb" (with or without the apostrophe), and "The Burbs" first appeared as a term for the suburbs of Chicagoland.

In Great Britain and Australia, "suburbs" are merely residential neighbourhoods outside of the city centre. For example, Clifton is considered a suburb of Bristol, England.

Many characteristics of suburbia were found in Australia as early as the 19th century. With huge expanses of land needing to be populated, lack of need for defense as well as the popularity of railroads (which grew at at a swift rate) contributed to sprawling urbanism somewhat resembling suburbia. However, the key commercial element - commuting to work - was not really there, although it would appear during the 20th century.

The term suburb as used in Australia reflects this, and thus has a slightly ambiguous meaning to non-Australians. Suburbs there are official postal and addressing subdivisions of a city. Inner suburbs are subdivisions within the denser urban areas of the cities, and correspond to what would be called neigbourhoods in North American cities. For instance, Ultimo, postcode 2007, is an inner suburb of Sydney, even though it lies within the boundaries of the City of Sydney. Locals will refer to Ultimo as a suburb even though it is a densely urban neigbourhood. Outer suburbs are the postal divisions found in the outer rings of the metropolitan areas, and usually lie within the boundaries of a separate municipality, such as the City of Parramatta.


Many sociologists see suburbs as a post-urban area which develops in response to worsening conditions within a city with a communication and transport system which allows citizens to live outside the city while doing business inside.

The suburbs and more distinct settlements around a town or city may look towards the urban area for goods, services and employment opportunities. That wider area may be called the hinterland of the town or a "city region". In the era before motorised travel, the radius of the hinterland roughly coincided with the distance that livestock could be herded to and from a market during daylight hours. In lowland areas, without severe geographic barriers to movement, a spacing of towns between 15 and 20 miles is therefore quite common. Suburbs with a healthier environment are often found upwind of those parts of a town or city where heavy industry was first established. Naturally, the suburbs suffering air pollution tended to be cheaper and hence tend to be occupied by those with lower incomes.

The growth of suburbs was initially facilitated by the development of zoning laws and more effective and accessible means of transport. In the older cities of the northeast U.S., 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 or dormitory, 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, which were described as "Metroland" around London, and were mostly characterised by semi-detached houses. 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 center 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, Illinois is usually 125 feet deep, while the width can vary from 14 feet wide for a row house to 45 feet wide for a large standalone house. In the suburbs, where standalone houses are the rule, lots may be 85 feet wide by 115 feet deep, as in Naperville. Manufacturing and commercial buildings were segregated in other areas of the city.

Increasingly, due to the congestion and pollution experienced in many city centers (accentuated by the commuters' vehicles), more people moved out to the suburbs. 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.

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. Between 1950 and 1956 the resident population of all US suburbs increased by 46%. During the same period of time, African-Americans were rapidly moving north for better jobs and educational opportunities than they could get in the segregated South, and their arrival in Northern cities en masse further stimulated white suburban migration.

Many people equate suburbs with early planned cities such as Levittown, New York and Rohnert Park, California. Rohnert Park, a suburb of Santa Rosa, California and San Francisco, California was originally marketed in the late 50's as "A Country Club for the middle class."

In the US, 1970 was the first year that more people lived in suburbs than elsewhere. (1)

The development of the sky-scraper 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 centre. By 1980 this was often perceived as undesirable, extending travel times and adding to people's sense of isolation and fear in central areas outside trading hours.

A US suburban neighbourhood.
A US suburban neighbourhood.

Suburbs today

In North America, suburbs traditionally were residential areas with single-family homes located near shopping areas and schools, with good access to trains, freeways or other transport systems. Now, partly due to increased populations in many greater metropolitan areas, suburbs can be densely populated and contain apartment buildings and townhouses, as well as office complexes, light manufacturing facilities, and shopping centers or malls. It is not unusual for suburbs to house several hundred thousand people. In fact, many American and Canadian suburbs are now larger than other urban population centers. For example, Mesa, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona), is larger than St. Louis, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Salt Lake City, Utah, and grew at a much faster rate than even Phoenix between 1990 and 2000! Another example is Mississauga, Ontario, Canada (a suburb of Toronto, Ontario), Mississauga is the largest suburban municipality in all of North America, with a population of 636,801 and a population density of 2125.1/km². Mississauga is larger than the U.S. cities of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Boston, Massachusetts; Washington DC; Nashville, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; New Orleans, Louisiana; Las Vegas, Nevada; Cleveland, Ohio; Atlanta, Georgia; Sacramento, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Miami, Florida etc. Mississauga also has a higher population than the Canadian city of Vancouver, British Columbia. The five largest suburbs in North America, in order, are Mississauga, Ontario; Mesa, Arizona; Virginia Beach, Virginia; Surrey, British Columbia; and Laval, Quebec.

In one metropolitan area, the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, the largest city is actually a suburb, namely Virginia Beach. Although the United States Census Bureau officially calls the area the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News Metropolitan Statistical Area, in keeping with its normal practice of putting the most populous city in a metropolitan area in the lead position of its name, the naming does not reflect the actual character of the area. Despite recent efforts by city leaders in Virginia Beach to create a more urban environment, the urban core of the area lies in Norfolk, which will soon become the third-largest city in the region. Chesapeake, which is not part of the area name but has already surpassed Newport News in population, is growing at a rate that will probably see it also surpass Norfolk in population well before the 2010 Census.

A socio-political movement called "New Urbanism" or "Smart Growth" is currently in vogue in the U.S.A., Canada and northern Europe, in response to the perceived threat of "urban sprawl". This movement among city planners, builders, and architects holds that denser, more city-like communities with less rigid zoning laws and mixed-use buildings are desirable. Such communities ease traffic, since people do not need to commute as far, and may foster a better sense of community among residents. Some of these communities seek to reduce car-dependency (and thus the use of personal automobiles) wherever possible. This movement has resulted in both the construction of new developments that embody these principles, and renovation of areas in existing city centers for new residential and commercial activities.

In the UK, the government is (2003) seeking to impose minimum densities on newly approved housing schemes in parts of southeast England. Whether any society succeeds in reducing the average distance travelled by each citizen by means of such planning strategies remains to be seen. The new catchphrase is 'building sustainable communities' rather than housing estates. In England this is displacing the now discredited notion of 'urban villages', but the credibility of both ideas is challenged by the increasing involvement of commercial interests in developing new hospitals, secondary schools and public transport services. Commercial concerns tend to retard the opening of services until a large number of residents have occupied the new neighbourhood.

In many parts of the globe, however, suburbs are economically poor areas, inhabited by people sometimes in real misery, that keep 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, which are comparable to the inner cities of the UK and US. In the Third World, such slum areas are often irregularly built or managed, with individualistic, unregulated building and other forms of social or legal disorder. It has been said that this would be sometimes a case of spontaneous or psychological apartheid. In some cases inhabitants just live off the waste materials produced by the city (like, increasingly, around new African towns) and usually in such situations suburbs and houses are roughly built, often not even in the traditional building materials, as seen for example in the bidonvilles. Often nomads settle their camps in suburbs. The occupiers of more industrialised or longer-lasting homes may refer to such suburbs as "shanty towns". The favelas of Rio de Janeiro may also be considered an example of this type of suburb.

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 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, and other newer suburbs were created at a further distance from them.

Suburbs in pop culture

Suburbs on TV

Hot Choice Channel's Original Movie, Suburbian Sex Addict, 2004.

Neighbours has been on television in Australia since 1985 and the United Kingdom from the following year. It is set in Ramsay Street in suburban Erinsborough.

Knots Landing was perhaps the longest-running show to depict suburban life. It was set in the fictional town of Knots Landing, California, and followed the lives of several families who lived on the suburban cul-de-sac Seaview Circle.

The Australian show Kath & Kim pillories the nouveau white trash of subdivisions with exaggerated provincial accents and below-average intelligence.

Suburban life through the eyes of stay-at-home wives and mothers is portrayed in the ABC television series Desperate Housewives.

Many U.S. sit-coms are set in the suburbs, including the animated Family Guy and The Simpsons.

Suburbs in pop songs


  • Rybczynski, Witold (Nov. 7, 2005). "Suburban Despair". Slate.
  • Smith, Albert C. & Schank, Kendra (1999). "A Grotesque Measure for Marietta". Journal of Urban Design 4 (3).

See also

External links and references

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