U.S. Suburbanization

Suburbanization describes a process by which U.S. city dwellers moved from central cities into residential areas characterized by single-family homes with lawn space. It is generally associated with the period directly following World War II, but suburbanization is a much older process.

The term "suburb" has been in use since 1800. Although it originally applied to a pastoral existence, connected to but outside the central city, it is now associated with the basic ideals of U.S. family life.

The form of the U.S. city has been changing since the development of the steam engine. As the railroad replaced the stagecoach as a means of transportation, it became possible to live farther from the center of the city while still working in the central business district.

The streetcar accelerated this outward movement, and automobiles accelerated it even more, creating "bedroom communities" with access to commuter trains, buses and ferries, and parking lots. By 1940 only 20 percent of U.S. citizens lived in the suburbs, which were regarded as communities for the upper class.

A shortage of housing in cities with significant concentrations of war-related industries led to the building of suburban communities to house workers during World War II, but the diversion of resources for the war effort created a national housing shortage for returning servicemen. Ninety-seven percent of all new single-family dwellings built between 1946 and 1956 were surrounded by their own plots.

The period saw the cottage industry of single-family home construction transformed into a major manufacturing process. The most famous example of this is Levittown, which is named after the family who built it.

In 1946 Levittown was 4,000 acres of potato fields in Long Island, New York; by 1950 it was a town with 17,400 separate houses. Similarly the developers of Lakewood, in Los Angeles County, California, purchased 3,500 acres in 1949 and had built and sold 17,500 houses by 1953.

The new suburbs were characterized by low density, architectural monotony, and economic and racial homogeneity. Soon businesses, especially retailers, opened branch stores in the suburbs, creating shopping malls to reach consumers who had moved there. The suburbs continue to grow as the urban/suburban relationship in the nation’s metropolitan areas evolves.

This is evident in the explosive growth of suburbia in the formerly rural hinterlands of cities in the southern and southwestern United States, now known as the Sun Belt, which attract homeowners with promises of fine weather, large acreages, and air-conditioning.