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The Life and Death of Great American Suburbs

Political and Social Consequences of fifty years of Sub-Urbanisation

Essay 2002 12 Seiten

Soziologie - Wohnen, Stadtsoziologie




The creation of the American suburb

“The new deal”


The political and social consequences

The “New Urbanism” and the question of identity

The ex-urban and post-public period



“Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from the noise and dust”.

Written in cuneiform on a clay tablet, this letter to the King of Persia in 539 B.C. represents the first extant expression of the suburban ideal. (K. T. Jackson 1985)

2600 years later in the United States things have slightly changed; our property might still appears as the most beautiful in the world but we do not have to go to the city anymore to benefit from all the advantages of this. The “advantages” instead have moved themselves outside the city centres to constitute what Peter G. Rowe calls the “middle landscape”, a heterogeneous entity that lies between the city and the countryside.

What are the social and political consequences of the “middle landscape” today?

The creation of the American suburb

Suburbia for K.T. Jackson has become the quintessential physical achievement of the United States. “Suburbia symbolises the fullest, most unadulterated embodiment of contemporary culture; it is a manifestation of such fundamental characteristics of American society as conspicuous consumption, reliance upon the private automobile, upward mobility, the separation of the family into nuclear units, the widening division between work and leisure, and a tendency toward racial and economic exclusiveness”[1].

But were American people really free in their choice for suburbia?

There are definitely strong cultural influences that have favoured a return of people to the countryside. Intellectuals as Beecher, Downing and Vaux were part of an Anglo-American culture that had never placed a high value on city life; they have always talked about home rather than community (K. T. Jackson 1985).

“Around 1850 many suburban neighbourhoods were developed in the Unites States. They were places for the upper class like the one designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, Riverside in the outskirt of Chicago and linked to it by a commuter railway. Everything was planned, the water supply, drainage, schools and recreational facilities and set aside seven hundred acres for public use.”[2]

With the extension of the wealth to a broader amount of people, the phenomenon of sub-urbanisation became more visible. It became not just important to move outside the city but to your own land and house, to fulfil that ideal of perfect combination between country and city that was already expressed in the ancient Babylon.

The single-family dwelling became the paragon of middle-class housing, the most visible symbol of having arrived at a fixed place in society, the goal to which every decent family aspired. (K. T. Jackson 1985)

The technological development then made possible to cover broader distances on a daily base. As K. T. Jackson explains between 1815 and 1875, America’s largest cities underwent a dramatic spatial change. The introduction of the steam ferry, the omnibus, the commuter railroad, the horse car, the elevated railroad, and the cable car inaugurate a new pattern of suburban affluence.

At the turn of the 19th century, the electric streetcar represented a revolutionary advance in transportation technology. Radiating outward from the central business districts, the tracks opened up a vast suburban ring that grew in tandem with the extension of the public transportation.

A “new city” segregated by class and economic functions and encompassing an area triple the territory of the older walking city, had clearly emerged as the centre of the American urban society. (K. T. Jackson 1985)

After World War I, suburban growth was shaped by automobiles, which became the second icon of the suburban life: cars provided and unprecedented level of mobility, freeing people to determine their own travel patterns, and strengthened the suburbs’ middle class nature by excluding those who could not afford it.

By that time everybody was fascinated by these modern miracles, nobody raised the question of what would have been their social and political consequences.

“Happiness was often equated with the satisfaction of material needs, and technocratic know-how was seen to be omnipotent, quickly overcoming mundane problems of contemporary life, such as urban blight and traffic congestion” (Akin 1977, Corn 1986)

Still by that time Americans were able to choose where they would have fancied living. The great shift happened around the 1930s.

“The new deal”

As K.T. Jackson and Andrew Ross affirm the post war formula for mass sub-urbanisation emerged from the pressure of a powerful coalition of real estate, finance, and transportation interests. It also included the oil, asphalt, and rubber industries, tire manufactures and dealers, motorbus operators, parts suppliers, road builders, state highway administrators, service-station owners, and many other groups that pursued their common interests as the America Road Builders Association (ARBA).

In 1943 the ARBA with General Motors as the largest contributor, formed a lobby second only to the munitions industry.

After the war, the vested interests of these groups meshed with the federal need to create jobs and provide affordable shelter for over 16 million returning vets.

When the Federal Housing Administration FHA guaranteed bankers’ loans to builders, and Veteran Administration VA offered low interest mortgages as part of the GI Bill of Rights, vets could virtually borrow the entire value of a home without a down payment. Soon buying a house become cheaper than renting one, thanks to long-term, low-interest mortgage. The result, if not the intent of Washington programs have been to encourage decentralisation .


[1] Jackson, Kenneth T., Crabgrass Frontier, Oxford University press, 1985

[2] Jackson, Kenneth T., Crabgrass Frontier, Oxford University press, 1985


ISBN (Buch)
440 KB
life death great american suburbs political social consequences sub-urbanisation



Titel: The Life and Death of Great American Suburbs