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Suburbs are inhabited districts located outside the official limits of a city, or the outer elements of a conurbation[?]. (The form of the word may tempt one to think that "suburb" was originally a shortened form of the adjective "sub-urban," but the very thorough histories of English words found in the Oxford English Dictionary appear to indicate otherwise. That dictionary quotes a book published in 1433 thus: "Not ferre out of the toun In a subarbe callyd Rysbygate.") The presence of certain elements (whose definition varies amongst urbanists[?], but usually refers to some basic services and to the territorial continuity) identifies a suburb as a peripheral populated area with a certain autonomy, where the density of habitation is usually lower than in an inner city area, but state or municipal house-building will often cause departures from that organic gradation.

Legend has it that Australians invented the archetypal modern suburbia: certainly an abundance of flat land, new settlements with minimal traditions of citizens clustering together for defence behind fortified city walls, and the adoption of railway and tramway systems fostered the growth of suburban Melbourne in the 19th century.

In the US, 1970 was the first year that more people lived in suburbs than elsewhere. (1)

In the U.S.A., suburbs traditionally were residential areas with single-family homes located near to shopping areas and schools. Now, partly due to increased populations in many greater metropolitan areas, suburbs can be densely populated and contain apartment buildings, town homes, in addition to office complexes and light manufacturing facilities.

The growth of U.S. suburbs was initially facilitated by the development of zoning laws and better transportation systems. In the older cities of the northeast U.S., suburbs originally developed along train or trolley lines that could shuttle workers into and out of city centers where the jobs were located. This practice gave rise to the term "bedroom community" or dormitory, meaning that most daytime business activity took place in the city, with the working population leaving the city at night for the purpose of going home to sleep. The growth in the use of automobiles and highway construction increased the ease with which workers could have a job in the city while commuting in from the suburbs. In the United Kingdom railways stimulated the first mass exodus to the suburbs, which were described as "Metroland" around London, and were mostly characterised by semi-detached houses. As car ownership rose and wider roads were built, the commuting trend accelerated as in North America. This trend towards living away from towns and cities has been termed the urban exodus[?].

Zoning laws also contributed to the location of residential areas outside of the city center by creating wide areas or "zones" where only residential buildings were permitted. Manufacturing and commerical buildings were segregated in other areas of the city.

Increasingly, due to the congestion and pollution experienced in many city centers (accentuated by the commuters' vehicles), more people moved out to the suburbs. Along with the population, many companies also located their offices and other facilities in the outer areas of the cities. This has resulted in increased density in older suburbs and, often, the growth of lower density suburbs even further from city centers. An alternative strategy is the deliberate design of "new towns" and the protection of green belts around cities. Some social reformers attempted to combine the best of both concepts in the Garden City movement.

A socio-political movement called "New Urbanism[?]" or "Smart Growth" is currently in vogue in the U.S.A., Canada and northern Europe. This movement among city planners, builders, and architects holds that denser, more city-like communities with less rigid zoning laws and mixed-use buildings are desirable. Such communities ease traffic since people do not need to commute as far and may foster a better sense of community among residents. Some of these communities seek to reduce car-dependency (and thus the use of personal automobiles) wherever possible. This movement has resulted in both the construction of new developments that embody these principles, and renovation of areas in existing city centers for new residential and commercial activities. Whether any society succeeds in reducing the average distance travelled by each citizen by means of such planning strategies remains to be seen.

In many parts of the globe, however, suburbs are economically poor areas, inhabited by people sometimes in real misery, that keep at the limit of the city borders for economic or social reasons like the impossibility of affording the (usually higher) costs of life in the town. This causes these slum areas to be often irregularly built or managed, with individualistic, unregulated building and other forms of social or legal disorder. It has been said that this would be sometimes a case of spontaneous or physiological apartheid. In some cases inhabitants just live off the waste materials produced by the city (like, increasingly, around new African towns) and usually in such situations suburbs and houses are roughly built, often not even in the traditional building materials, as seen for example in the bidonvilles[?]. Often nomads settle their camps in suburbs. The occupiers of more industrialised or longer-lasting homes may refer to such suburbs as "shanty-towns".

In the illustrative case of Rome, Italy, in the 1920s and 1930s, suburbs were intentionally created ex novo in order to give lower classes a destination, in consideration of the actual and foreseen massive arrival of poor people from other areas of the country. Many critics have seen in this development pattern (that was circularly distributed quite in every direction) also a quick solution to a problem of public order[?] (keeping the unwelcome poorest classes - together with criminals, in this way better controlled - comfortably remote from the elegant "official" town). On the other hand, the expected huge expansion of the town soon effectively covered the distance from the central town, and now those suburbs are completely engulfed by the main territory of the town, and other newer suburbs were created at a little distance from them.

The suburbs and more distinct settlements around a town or city may look towards the urban area for goods, services and employment opportunities. That wider area may be called the hinterland[?] of the town or a "city region". In the era before motorised travel, the radius of the hinterland roughly coincided with the distance that livestock could be herded to and from a market during daylight hours. In lowland areas without severe geographic barriers to movement a spacing of towns between 15 and 20 miles is therefore quite common. The more salubrious suburbs are often found upwind of those parts of a town or city where heavy industry was first established. Naturally the suburbs suffering air pollution more frequently tended to be cheaper and hence available to a broader cross-section of the population.

See also: demographic history of the United States, political science

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