Contemplation of Suburbs

I grew up in one of the many tract houses of suburban San Jose. As a child in the eighties and early nineties I still remember the orchards, our local neighborhood convenience store and my family’s many outings to local parks. As I grew older many things changed. The orchards were gone, McMansion neighborhoods covered the East Hills and mega grocery stores ruled the strip shopping centers.

As a child of the suburbs I had many fun times playing with neighborhood children, bike riding around the block, and hanging out in my backyard. But as I grew older the suburbs felt very isolating. I was far from any engaging culture or sense of community.

My feelings towards suburbs as culturally devoid, disconnected places (in terms of both sense of community and transportation as cars are ultimately needed to navigate the suburbs), led me to ponder the beginning of suburbs. Were they always this way? How were they created and how did communities first experience them? I happened to pick up City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World, by Witold Rybczynski, that provided just what I was searching for. Our suburban present is a manifestation of colonial idealism and individualism of the past. Thus the past informs our present (and ultimately future). When colonial  cities were built in the 17th and 18th centuries the British influence played a very strong role.  According to Rybczynski the domestic ideal of houses “had its origin not in the New World but in the Old. The establishment of Annapolis, Williamsburg, Philadelphia, and Savannah corresponds roughly to the period when the cult of the house became an established part of British – and hence Anglo-American – culture”. He further expands that the French, Italian, and Spanish were more likely to live in multi-family apartments with private courtyards. So we see two models, one dense and containing fabric of community and the other spread out and private. We could have very easily followed another form of development if another country had more of an influence on early Americans. Instead this British ideal transported itself to the New World and became easily obtainable due to the vast, seemingly never ending supply of land and resources. Thus began the building of the first suburbs.

There appears to be several trends that simultaneously occurred to influence the cities we know today. Firstly, the previously mentioned influence of British culture and the desire for home ownership. Secondly, during the 1800s “new towns had to deal with furious growth, and simple subdivision planning systems was imperative”. Thirdly, the individualistic nature of the colonialists preferred the private comfort of home as noted by Tocqueville, a Frenchman who was studying democracy in America during the 1800s. He stated from his observations that “individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself”.  Fourthly, the urbanization of rural and small town living embraced the spread of urban culture through consumerism. Consumer goods including ideas, were readily available. Thus people were no longer reliant on cities as places of ideas, culture and customs. This ultimately meant that early Americans did not require the city for an urbanized life. Fifthly, the advent of modern transportation in the form of trolleys and trains and later automobiles, allowed for greater mobility.

The next phase of development takes us to 19th century Chicago, the birthplace of steel framed buildings. The first outer ring neighborhoods of cities were characterized by owner occupied detached houses, no mix of use and country like settings. These outer rings transformed throughout the years as they were “no longer rural, but not quite urban either, they presaged the suburban communities that would grow in the early 1900s on the edges of all large cities”. In the 1920s suburbs were growing faster than cities with “one out of six Americans liv[ing] in the suburbs. This number was increasing rapidly: of the six million new homes built between 1922 and 1929, more than half were single-family houses, and most of these were in the suburbs”.  According to Rybczynski this is the era of garden suburbs that “were clearly intended to offer a green alternative to the city, but their developers understood that town planning was an important tool in achieving their aims”. Garden suburbs “were carefully planned hierarchies of avenues and streets interspersed with parks and squares”, contained a variety of housing types,  service lanes were used instead of garages, roads were narrow, and houses were set close to streets in smaller lots creating compact neighborhoods.

This leads us to the suburbs that we know today, at least here in the West, are a result of the construction boom of post World War II America. These suburbs consisted of houses built to standardization in subdivisions divided to handle car traffic. According to Rybczynski, “the post war suburbs were marketed chiefly on the basis of low prices. The selling price of houses was kept affordable by reducing overhead costs. Developers quickly realized they could dispense with the niceties of architectural design and urban planning without harming sales”. These developments did not include a public center, instead schools, shopping and other facilities were scattered throughout and surrounded by large parking lots. This post war boom has created the cities that we know today. Limited city centers with vast surrounding suburbs. Shopping is done at strip shopping centers and malls instead of downtown or in the same neighborhood as your home and cars rule the land.

Learning the history has been extremely eye opening and I believe that I now better understand the nature of American cities as well as the nature of Americans. While the Bay Area is debating sprawl versus density, I understand where each side is coming from. People who choose to live in tract suburbs are just like the early Americans, individualistic, idealistic and carry a deep seated desire for privacy and home ownership. These are not bad traits, they are just different and unfortunately they are at odds with the current quest to create higher density living to contend with climate change and the Green House Gas emissions from too many car trips. With this bit of historical knowledge I can be better informed in the debate and as Rybczynski said, “once we accept that our cities will not be like cities of the past, it will become possible to see what they might become”.

A bit about Witold Rybczynski: He is the author of many books, articles and papers on housing, architecture and technology. He is currently the Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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