28 June 2012


Definition: A suburb is a section of a metropolitan area primarily devoted to residential use, in which single household dwellings having attached yards predominate, and where transpiration is provided mainly by the automobile.  Suburbs originate on the outskirts of a city, but over time, may be engulfed by similar developments or by commercial and light industrial districts. 

Examples: The original America suburbs were such areas as Millburn, NJ or Oak Park, Illinois.  These developments were intended to have broad, contiguous lawns giving the individual households a sense of being part of a single park. 

Figure 1. Suburban sprawl in Blue Ash, metropolitan Cincinnatti, OH.  From: Queencitydiscovery.blogspot.com

Figure 2. The prewar city of Dayton, Ohio, compared to postwar suburban sprawl.  From daytonology.blogspot.com.

Why important: Although the early suburbs of the 19th century were sometimes serviced by streetcars or trolley lines, they quickly evolved into bastions of the passenger automobile, with sweeping curved streets and cul de sacs.  After World War II in the United States, the suburb took on its iconic form, and sprawled well beyond the borders of central cities.  Such sprawl consumed, and continues to consume, active agricultural land, agricultural land that is no longer profitable or worked, forest, desert, and chaparral shrubland.  Some suburban development leapfrogs over non-urban land to form distant exurbs which interdigitate with wild or production lands, but which themselves house residents whose sensibilities and economic attachments are urban rather than rural or land-based.  The suburb is now the center of demographic and economic gravity in most American metropolitan areas.  American style suburbanization is increasingly found in other countries.  The structure and segregated functions of suburban areas have many environmental and social costs, as well as serving residents with personal open space, proximity to green infrastructure, and a high degree of household control of their immediate surroundings.  Currently, some suburbs are valued for the high quality of their schools, availability of light industrial and commercial activity and employment, and ease of access to consumer culture.  Suburbs in many cases, stand in contrast in terms of density, transportation, investment, infrastructure, demographics and ethnicity to urban areas in the strict sense.  Suburban environments with sufficient green space can contribute to ecosystem services in urban systems; however they also contribute inefficiencies of energy and transportation.

For more information:
Hayden, D. 2003. Building suburbia: green fields and suburban growth 1820-2000. Pantheon, New York.
Garreau, J. 1991. Edge city: life on the new frontier. Doubleday, New York.
Groffman, P.M., N.L. Law, K.T. Belt, L.E. Band, and G.T. Fisher. 2004. Nitrogen fluxes and retention in urban watershed ecosystems. Ecosystems 7:393-403.

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