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SUBURBANIZATION describes the general trend of city dwellers to move from the city into residential areas in ever-growing concentric circles away from the city's core. The trend began briefly in the nineteenth century and then exploded after World War II (1939–1945). Suburbs

developed their own shopping and service districts and bred their own distinct lifestyles.

Historians and sociologists have long had difficulty defining the start of suburbanization. Researchers have noted that even before the American Revolution (1775– 1783), land speculators were offering land outside of cities like Boston and New York for development as residential areas. The term "suburban" was in use by 1800.

Crowded Urban Centers

Large American cities at that time were heterogeneous. They contained no distinct boundaries for commerce centers, artisan shops, stores, or residences. All existed side by side, often with one building performing several different functions. Indeed, contiguousness was one of the hallmarks of presuburban American cities. Kenneth T. Jackson, author of the classic Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1985), has termed these areas "walking cities." Jackson notes that walking cities were very congested. Lots were small, usually no more than twenty feet wide; streets were narrow; buildings were crowded together and tended to grow up rather than out. Any visitor to modern Wall Street—one of lower Manhattan's earliest developed streets—will quickly note the narrow, choked character of the street. People added to the congestion. While early American city population densities would be something less, average European densities ranged from 35,000 to 75,000 people per square mile. Because of the congestion, but also because foot-and horse-travel were the only transportation options for city denizens, inhabitants lived close to their work. Indeed, many lived in apartments above or behind their shops.

City elites tended to congregate near the centers of power, which included governmental buildings and dockside entry points. In the preindustrial days, those were the true seats of commerce. The first areas termed "suburb," in fact, were not pleasant escape destinations for city lead-ers, but rather odious peripheral sites where city law relegated such malodorous businesses as tanneries, slaughterhouses, and soap-making shops. On the periphery, houses of prostitution, vagrant camps, and, later, homes for urban slaves also grew. When the elite did begin moving away from the bustle of commerce centers, it was usually because commercial real estate developers offered them lucrative sums for their homes, or perhaps they wanted to enjoy a country life more fitting a moneyed, genteel society. However, it was important that their homes remained within easy walking or carriage distance of commerce.

Transportation Advances

Transportation advances were the key to modern suburbanization. One of the first was the adoption from Europe of omnibus lines. An omnibus was a large, horse-pulled carriage capable of carrying many passengers. Omnibus lines typically ran to and from city centers, dropping off and taking on paying passengers at different established depots along their line.

After the advent of steam power in the early nineteenth century, it was but a short time before steamer ferries offered easy and practical escape from city congestion. In 1810, using technology perfected by Scottish inventor James Watt, Robert Fulton demonstrated the effectiveness of steam power for river travel. By 1814, steamer ferries connected Manhattan with Brooklyn across the East River. Brooklyn, then isolated and rural, offered a pastoral setting away from the bustling docks and Wall Street for New York's new wealthier class.

Steam-powered railroads, another English invention but one that Americans would exploit to magnificent effect, also helped drive early suburbs. New York City had railroad commuter service by 1832; Boston had it by 1834. Railroads helped transform suburbs into higher-class areas because only the wealthier citizens of a city could afford the rail fare.

Industrial Growth and Immigration

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the United States in the 1830s and continued into the 1880s, had a major impact on the creation of suburbs. Industries, located at first near ocean or river ports, situated themselves near established cities. They drew workers from rural areas, adding to the urban congestion. As more people crowded in, a percentage of people left for the suburbs.

Foreign immigration also fed the urban flight. Revolutions across Europe in 1848, the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, and nationalist unification movements in Italy and Germany in the 1860s all created a class of European émigrés seeking relief in the United States. Immigrants arrived in the United States full of hope, but frequently found those hopes dashed when they discovered it difficult to escape urban areas. Ward heelers working for city municipal "boss systems" or "machines" often met immigrants at their point of entry, gave them a grub-stake of money, and offered them jobs and residences—both in the crowded urban core—in return for perpetual political support. To scared new arrivals, the offers sounded good, but they trapped many in cities, compounding the congestion and grime.

Suburban Growth

As urban cores grew, suburbs grew by a parallel rate. For example, New York City continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. By the 1890 census, it held more than 2.5 million people. Suburban Brooklyn's population always remained less than half that of New York City's. By the 1890 census, Brooklyn had slightly more than 800,000 people. Philadelphia and Boston experienced similar urban/suburban growth rates.

As Jackson points out, the movement of middle and upper classes to suburbs was "not inevitable." Indeed, such had not necessarily occurred in the great cities of Europe. But Americans carried with them certain emotional, romantic baggage leftover from the early days of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers had vigorously connected republican virtue with agrarian (or at least rural) lifestyles. Reformers during and after the Second Great Awakening (c. 1825–1840) equated rural lifestyles with health. Periodic smallpox, yellow fever, and dysentery outbreaks in crowded cities tended to prove them correct. But the cities could not be erased: by 1870, cities and agricultural areas existed in a state of mutual support, and too many urbanites made their living off the commercial centers.

People with enough money to achieve mobility, however, could enjoy the benefits, both healthful and aesthetic, of the country by moving to the suburbs. In sub-urban homes they would not have to rely on subsistence gardens for food, as rail transportation ensured adequate produce from the countryside. Rather, they could turn their grounds into romantic garden areas, replete with manicured lawns, shrubs, and relaxing fountains.

The Automobile Age

The twentieth century saw the rise of the machine that would cause the explosion of modern suburbia—the automobile. Like so much other technology, autos came to the United States from Europe. But it took American entrepreneur Henry Ford to make them accessible to average Americans. Using the assembly line system to speed and cheapen the production of cars, then enabling Americans to buy them on credit, Ford revolutionized not only the auto industry, but American roadways and city growth as well.

After World War I (1914–1918), when the United States experienced an economic boom that lasted until 1929, modern suburbia began to take shape. The Ford Model T, long the staple of American auto consumers, was quite durable and could, in fact, negotiate dirt roads and ditches, but paved roads became the preference of the driving public. Macadamized roads led into the suburbs, creating a freeway system that fed both metropolitan area sprawl and urban deterioration. As historian Lewis Munford criticized in his book City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (1961), city planners began to subjugate every other consideration to the car. Still, suburban growth was slow. Only 17 percent of the nation's population lived in suburbia in 1920. As with everything else, the Great Depression retarded growth. By 1940 only 20 percent of the population was classified as suburban.

The great suburban explosion, however, came after World War II (1939–1945). In 1945 and 1946, millions of servicemen returned home, all entitled to education benefits under the G.I. Bill and housing benefits under the Veterans Administration (VA) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The subsequent issuance of thousands of new bachelors' degrees created a new professional class in the United States, and those veterans who chose vocational education beefed up the service sector. Both classes began having the children that would become the baby boomers, and they needed low-cost housing. Despite the federal backing of home loans, a postwar housing shortage proved an obstacle. The suburbs provided a resolution.

Suburbs, in fact, were an ideal solution to the problem, for transportation was no longer an obstacle. New car sales slowed during the war for obvious reasons: first, men—the primary buyers of cars then—were out of the country by the millions; second, gasoline rationing impeded travel during the war; third, American auto manufacturers produced no new models after the 1942 model year, their plants turned over to military production until the end of the war.

But after Japan surrendered in September 1945, Americans began buying cars once again. They bought a staggering 70,000 cars in the last few months of 1945; that number jumped to more than 2 million in 1946, and more than 5 million in 1949. Many American families, with men drawing army pay and women working in war industry plants, emerged from the war with tidy nest eggs. That gave them plenty for a down payment on a house, and it enabled many to buy their first car or perhaps buy a second car. The advent of two-car families eased any commute for the breadwinner from suburbia: he could take one car while his wife had a second vehicle at home for shuttling children to school and running errands.


Nevertheless, with Americans eager to buy, the housing shortage remained. It took enterprising real estate speculators to break the logjam. None became more famous than builders William and Alfred Levitt. William, a salesman, and Alfred, an architect, wanted to apply mass production techniques to housing. They bought land in Hempstead, Long Island, New York, some thirty miles from New York City, then put together teams of non-union builders who erected simple two-bedroom, one-bathroom homes on sixty-foot by one hundred-foot lots. There the Levitts built 17,000 homes that would ultimately house more than 80,000 people. They integrated parks and swimming pools, and buildings for schools and churches, into their neighborhoods. The first "Levittown" was born, offering mass-produced homes and prepackaged neighborhoods.

When the first Levittown houses went on sale, New Yorkers stood in line to get them. The average price for a two-story, Cape Cod–style home was $7,900. Down payments were about $90; monthly payments averaged $58; that at a time when the average family income was about $3,000 a year. The Levitts followed up their Long Island success with Levittowns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Other speculators and developers followed suit, so that more "Levittowns" sprang up outside other American urban areas. Between 1947 and 1960, the population in suburbs grew by 50 to 100 percent. By 1960, one-third of the nation's population lived in suburban areas. In fact, by 1960, a new phenomenon had occurred—that of "strip cities": one, two, or perhaps more urban areas connected by almost continuous suburbs and suburban shopping areas. The U.S. census counted thirteen of those areas by 1960, obviously including Boston to New York to Washington, D.C., but also Albany to Erie, New York; Cleveland to Pittsburgh; Detroit to Muskegon, Michigan; Toledo to Cincinnati; Atlanta to Raleigh; Miami to Jacksonville, Chicago to Milwaukee, St. Louis to Peoria; Kansas City to Sioux Falls; Dallas–Fort Worth to San Antonio–Houston; San Francisco to San Diego; and Seattle to Eugene.

The Levitts became famous. In 1950, William's likeness appeared on the cover of Time magazine. But they also became the subject of criticism from architects, sociologists, and city planners. Some said Levittowns were undermining vital urban sectors. In truth, the automobile had been doing that for three decades. Other critics, like Lewis Mumford, decried the homogeneity—the same-ness—of the Cape Cod homes in Levittowns.

But of course, one man's cookie-cutter, prefab house is another man's castle. The people moving into Levittowns were not architectural designers or enlightened romanticists. Rather, they were working people desiring, like their suburban forebears, a chance to get out of the congestion, grime, and, with thousands of cars on the streets, pollution of the cities.

Levittowners tended to love their new homes. They had spacious closets and ample cooking room in the kitchens; the Levitts even supplied television sets with each new home! On weekends, homeowners could putter in their new lawns, planting shrubs and trees. Children could safely bicycle up and down the wide streets of their neighborhoods. Adults, accustomed to the dark, cloistered, often lonely existence of the city, suddenly found themselves sharing backyards with neighbors and actually taking time to visit with them. Neighborhood coffee or bridge clubs sprang up, giving mothers a weekly break from housewifely duties. (Routinely in the 1940s and 1950s, it was the man who made the daily commute from suburbia to the city.) The backyard barbecue became a symbol of suburban freedom, and many a couple struck enduring friendships over the grill. Many suburbanites recall the thrill and pride of moving from a crowded city apartment into their own homes; of having the chance to create a new neighborhood as they had never done before. In that, suburbia reflected the great American optimism of the immediate postwar years.

The Downside of Suburbia

But Levittowns and other suburbs were not all "beds of roses." The togetherness and friendships that suburbs offered

could often become double-edged swords. Proximity and the fact that neighborhoods, especially front yards, were open—hence many a suburbanite's activities were open to neighborly review and criticism—gave rise to an intense competition often called "keeping up with the Joneses." The second car (especially a Cadillac, Lincoln, or perhaps a sports model), a boat parked out front, the grass in the front yard, even the barbecue grill could all become competitive status symbols. The comings and goings of teenagers was hard to hide, and sometimes harder to explain. The Tuesday afternoon coffee club was both a time for women to get together and an invitation to engage in intense, often cutting, criticism. If a woman's floor was not clean enough or her cups and saucers not spotless, the news was soon all over the neighborhood. The flight to the suburbs also frequently cut families off from traditional support groups such as parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. With those connections harder to maintain, many a young woman found herself home alone with nothing but diapers to wash and floors to clean, and, in fact, doubting her abilities to do that properly. Suburban living played no little part in the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

An element of racism also crept into the suburbs. The rise of suburbia did indicate a "white flight" from the urban core, and critics charged the Levitts and other suburban developers with racism. Levittowns and other neighborhoods had restrictive covenants barring African Americans from buying homes there. The covenants also extended to renting. William Levitt, a Jew who had seen what horrors racial prejudice had wrought in Nazi Germany, chafed under the accusations, and he countered that he was only selling the type of neighborhoods that buying suburbanites wanted. In that Levitt had hit the root of the sociological phenomenon of suburbs: most homebuyers were white, and they wanted to settle in homogenous neighborhoods.

Civil rights advocates also charged in the early 1970s that largely white suburban schools were in violation of the desegregation mandate the Supreme Court handed down in the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case. In Milliken v. Bradley, a 1974 case that attempted to desegregate urban and suburban Detroit schools, the Court maintained that no constitutional violation existed, as the suburban schools were not created with overt intent to segregate. The Detroit area school system remained the same.

Urban businessmen also griped about the loss of business to the suburbs. All suburban areas, given their distance from cities, generated their own support services and businesses—grocery stores, five-and-dime stores, gas stations, restaurants, laundries, doctors' offices, movie houses. Businesses left in downtown areas not only suffered from an undermining of their customer pool, but the customers who were left tended to be of a lower class with less disposable income.

Simultaneously, by 1960, New York, Chicago, and other large cities had ceased to grow; soon their population would start to decline as more people fled to the suburbs. Consequently, the urban tax base also dwindled, cutting into revenues for capital improvements. Inner cities started a period of decline and decay. Tenements remained overcrowded; gangs began offering inner-city youth some type of affiliation and made robbery the order of the day; murders increased as police became over-worked and were unable to maintain an authoritarian presence; graffiti defaced public transportation and buildings. By the late 1960s and 1970s, inner cities had become synonymous with—if not stereotypical of—crime, violence, and filth. Public-housing projects (often notoriously known simply as "the projects") sprang up in cities as alternatives to run-down tenements, but they often quickly deteriorated into new centers of crime.

Not until the 1990s did cities effectively get control over, and in fact revitalize, run-down urban areas. Cities as vastly different in size and culture as Boston and Oklahoma City funded projects to clean up downtown areas, attract businesses back to the city, and pull customers back into the city by cleaning up streets, lighting them, ridding them of crime, and building public attractions like parks, river-walks, and sports facilities. By 2000, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York was being praised for drastically lowering the crime and homicide rates there.

While the flight to suburbia has by no means abated, an interesting phenomenon occurred in the early 1990s. Researchers recognized that some professionals were in fact moving out of the suburbs and back into cities. They could spend less time commuting; commutes in some areas, including mileage and traffic tie-ups, might eat up three hours a day, seriously eroding sleep and family time.

Nevertheless, suburban areas continue to grow. The new millennium, however, has seen downtown urban areas strive to create a more beneficially symbiotic relation-ship with suburbs.


Dobriner, William M. Class in Suburbia. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Norquist, John O. The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1998.

Patterson, James T. Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945– 1974. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

R. StevenJones

See alsoCity Planning ; Urbanization .

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"Suburbanization." Dictionary of American History. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

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suburbanization Suburbanization denotes the process by which cities expand peripherally, initially by out-migration of population and economic activity from dense urban cores, to less dense contiguous settlements. Developments in transport technology—such as railways, tramways, and improved roads—have aided suburbanization.

There are several partially competing explanations of the process. Economists and geographers stress the importance of competition in urban land markets, driving out activities which can no longer afford to locate centrally, and of market developments which make suburban business location desirable. Sociological studies have shown how individuals are motivated to relocate in suburbs to improve their quality of life. Marxists and others have traced the links between suburbanization and capital accumulation. Each account has some relevance to understanding this complex social and geographical phenomenon. See also COLLECTIVE CONSUMPTION; CONCENTRIC ZONE THEORY; SUBURBANISM; URBAN SOCIOLOGY.

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