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The evolution of suburbia as a distinct, and now predominant, terrain of American life and culture is tied to broad shifts throughout American and global culture in the 20th century, particularly in transportation, economics, building technology, ideology of family and home, and leisure. Already by the middle of the 19th century mechanized transport facilitated daily commuting between home and work in major cities. Steam ferries had connected New York to suburban Brooklyn and Staten Island as early as the 1810s, and by mid-century trains extended to New Jersey suburbs such as Llewellyn Park. By the 1870s distinct lines of railroad suburbs extended outward from such cities as New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. From the opening of the 20th century expanding trolley services filled in a nexus of “streetcar suburbs” surrounding most major cities. Predominantly residential, the typology of rail and streetcar suburbs varied from gated, exclusive tracts of single-family houses on plots of several acres, to “three-decker” and other sorts of multiple-family dwellings, depending on such factors as proximity to the city and the developer’s means.

The distinguishing shift in the 20th century was the proliferation of the private automobile, especially from the 1920s onward, and the freedom it afforded for the dispersal of dwellings at distances and densities that previously had been uneconomic. Catering to the growing professional-managerial and other segments of the middle classes, most developers responded with suburban layouts that only repeated low-density 19th-century patterns based on horse and carriage transport, while higher-density multiple-family units such as Sunnyside Gardens (Queens, New York) could take advantage of urban subway connections. But the introduction of faster, limited-access highways and parkways in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the New York and Los Angeles areas, also forced changes in the scale of suburbia, changes that were only accelerated with the establishment of the interstate highway system in 1956.

Shifts in economic relations were equally crucial. Suburbia primarily evolved at the hands of small-scale speculators, subdivi ders, and builders who developed tracts ranging from a few houses to several acres at a time, most frequently on a piecemeal basis, quite often according to street plans predetermined by prior subdivision or municipal authorities. With the enormous increase in demand for housing following World War II, as well as the availability of Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgages, extensive government infrastructure programs, and standardized subdivision patterns such as those provided by the FHA Land Planning Division, individual large-scale developers now could consolidate in one enterprise the tasks of assembling land parcels, subdividing them into house lots, providing infrastructure and landscaping, providing sites for shopping centers and schools, and in some cases even building all the homes.

Federal government intervention transformed the economics of real estate, with century-long consequences, beginning with establishment of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933 and then the FHA (1934). Endorsing the single family house above all other types, the FHA eventually made it cheaper to own than to rent; and by establishing minimum standards for housing and development, favoring homogeneous tracts of detached, single-family, automobile-dependent dwellings, the FHA contributed substantially to the postwar transformation and standardization of suburbs across the nation. Even during World War II the urgent need to house defense workers had begun to set the pattern for large-scale suburban expansion.

Valley west of London, suburban planning and design have been substantially informed by ideologies of individualism, privacy, and the nuclear family. These basic interests underlie the predisposition of American suburban design toward private lots, singlefamily houses, distinct front and back yards and, by the mid 20th century, a driveway and garage for one or more cars. While individuality could be reinforced by encouraging economic and environmental homogeneity among large lot owners in 19th-century elite suburbs efforts to maintain individuality in 20th-century middle-class suburbs have produced quite the opposite effect. Uniformity to the point of anonymity, and conformity to the point of oppressive monotony, are exemplified in many subdivisions, especially following World War II, when new production techniques facilitated mass replication of houses of a single type, size, and plan in vast tracts seemingly stamped out in “cookiecutter” fashion (e.g., in the 1950s in Panorama City, California, or Park Forest, Illinois).

Already in 1931 President Herbert Hoover had proclaimed the private dwelling to be deeply embedded in Americans’ consciousness: “I am confident that the sentiment for home ownership is so embedded in the American heart that millions of people who dwell in tenements, apartments, and rented rooms… have the aspiration for wider opportunity in ownership of their own homes” . This confidence in the private individual as the principal constituent element of American society, and in the private house as the archetypal American dwelling, both of which notions long predate Hoover, have continued to inform shifts and innovations in planning during the last third of the century. Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), gated communities, and similar homogeneous and exclusive subdivision types frequently are marketed explicitly as effective means for articulating the individual residents’ status, privilege, and position. Such exclusive enclaves, along with architectural shifts that increasingly have emphasized withdrawal to indoor spaces, have served to intensify the character of suburbia as a space of consumption, privacy, and the culture of the nuclear family.

Suburban planning also reflects the importance of leisure, evidenced in the visual paradigm to which much of suburbia continues to adhere, a quasi-pastoral setting of lawns, trees, and meandering streets, explicitly differentiated by means of landscaping and zoning from proximate nexuses of commerce, transportation, and labor. Within residential areas, both planning and architecture have accommodated the growing penchant for personal, family, and community leisure activities, commonly through such amenities as community sports fields and recreation centers, backyard barbecues, and household recreation rooms, fitness areas, and entertainment centers.

The progressive theme that informed much of early 20th century planning originated in Ebenezer Howard’s To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), soon revised as Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902). An English manifesto for social reform that took aim at the evils of the “teeming metropolis,” Howard’s tract was an effort to tame the evils of capitalism by promoting a new approach to community organization that he termed “social individualism.” Critical to this process would be a new form of community design, the garden city, which offered an attractive, almost romantic, vision of housing at far lower density than the industrial city, and in far greater visual and ecological harmony with the surrounding countryside, a design that with multiple replications he expected could effect broadscale social, economic, and political change.

In America as in England, however, the city was not to be economically outmoded or abandoned. Still, in designs for suburban adjuncts to America’s growing cities, American designers did look to such figures as Howard and Sir Raymond Unwin, whose Town Planning in Practice: An Introduction to the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs (1909) offered practical examples. What American designers took was a disposition toward medium density, low rise, well landscaped, multiple family dwellings, together with a conviction that such types of design could effect certain social reformist goals. John Nolen based his design for Mariemont (1921), east of Cincinnati, explicitly on English Garden City models, incorporating detached, semidetached, and row houses. His plan combined a formal town center, framed by baroque radiating avenues, with outlying residential areas consisting of curving avenues circumscribing tracts of house plots and parklands. Consistent with the ideals of Howard and Unwin, Mariemont’s design incorporated a philanthropic goal of establishing an affordable and healthy working-class community; but unlike the ideal Garden City, Mariemont remained a commuter adjunct to, not a replacement for, the industrial city. Palos Verdes, California, initially developed in the 1920s according to a plan prepared by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., was a more ambitious effort at social engineering, incorporating a mix of large and small singlefamily dwellings along with some multiple family units, grouped into discrete neighborhoods, each with an elementary school and adjacent shopping areas. Olmsted argued that his design, along with the originally isolated location of this development, would make it among the most stable and permanent of communities in an otherwise changing and troublesome era.

The Regional Planning Association of America, founded in 1923, initiated an activist approach to social reform through housing. In 1924–1928 two members of the group, architects Henry Wright and Clarence Stein, working under the auspices of the limiteddividend City Housing Corporation, laid out a section of already grid-platted Queens, New York, within commuting distance of the central city, in an innovative pattern, with low-rise terraces surrounding open interior courtyards. Abandoning the custom of detached dwellings on individual house plots in favor of common interior greenswards this development, called Sunnyside Gardens, was intended to improve both housing and community for working-class people. Wright and Stein’s next project afforded comparable innovation for white-collar families with automobiles. Radburn, New Jersey, begun in 1929, was organized as a series of row-house terraces fronting on lawns and walkways, with automobile access diverted to cul-de-sacs at the rear of the terraces. Vehicular traffic thus was separated and screened from pedestrian walkways. Promoted as “A Town for the Motor Age” and “A Town for Children,” it remains a well articulated example of a planning type that ultimately succumbed to American predilections for privacy, autonomy, and the trappings of automobile culture. Nevertheless some of the strategies first articulated in Radburn continued to be elaborated in the 1930s New Deal Greenbelt towns (Greenbelt, Maryland, Greendale, Wisconsin, and Greenhills, Ohio), and enjoyed a revival in the 1960s and 1970s in developments such as Columbia, Maryland, and Jonathan, Minnesota.

Apart from the garden city, the other principal paradigm for early 20th century suburbia was the private enclave of singlefamily dwellings, generally inhabited by members of elite and near-elite social classes. Nineteenth-century exemplars of this type, such as Tuxedo Park, New York (1886), in effect defined themselves as communities of exclusion, often reinforced through gated perimeters. Indeed residence sometimes was limited to those who could pass a social test, such as personal approval by the community’s founder, or ability to gain membership in a private association such as the community’s country club. While not all subsequent suburbs could even approach the elite tenor of Tuxedo Park, the protection of social homogeneity remained paramount in numerous developments well into the 1920s, notable examples being the Country Club District developed by J.C.Nichols in Kansas City (1922) and the comparable Country Club District in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis (1924), both of which were explicitly promoted as implements of an exclusive social milieu and lifestyle—amenities that would be conserved through such devices as minimum lot sizes and racial exclusions. Even in subdivisions targeted to a broader economic range of residents, such as Shaker Heights outside of Cleveland (1911 ff.), developers used restrictions against two-family houses, apartments, front porches, and other design and use characteristics to pointed effect in marketing the suburb as a place where “standards” brought status and restrictions safe-guarded a lifestyle.

The reformist and privatist-individualist trends in American suburban planning converged, to an extent, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s series of designs for a paradigmatic American community that he termed Broadacre City (1913–16). Renewing a longstanding American ideological aversion to the city, Wright’s design foresaw wholesale replacement of all cities with uniformly low-density, single-family, automobiledependent dwellings.

Government too played a role in the shift toward the single-family suburban landscape, first in zoning initiatives concurrent with municipal reform movements of the 1920s, and then especially in housing programs that were among early efforts to address the Depression. Empowered by a Supreme Court decision enabling a proliferation of zoning codes in the 1920s, local zoning boards intent on refining suburbs’ residential character commonly banned or restricted commerce and manufacturing, legislated minimum lot sizes, and otherwise favored single-family dwellings. By establishing both locational and design standards for affordable government-backed loans in the 1930s and 1940s, the HOLC and FHA assured that the bulk of new housing in America would be single-family dwellings located in neighborhoods that were preferentially newer, lower density and, well into the 1950s, racially white.

Small-scale builders and developers continued to produce a considerable portion of post-World War II suburbia, but the demands of the acute postwar housing shortage and the stimulus provided by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (or GI Bill) set the stage for the use of mass-production processes, and production on a larger scale than ever before. The most prominent figure in this transformation was the firm of Levitt and Sons, who prior to 1945 had rapidly mass-produced thousands of homes for the war effort. Their postwar showpiece was the community of Levittown, in the Town of Hempstead on Long Island, where by 1947 they had completed, ready for occupancy, the first of some 17,447 houses. Like many other postwar subdivisions, Levittown was exclusively white; yet there were also a number of African-American subdivisions, mostly in the South, such as Hamilton Park, a suburb of Dallas, and Bunche Park and Richmond Heights, suburbs of Miami.

As developed tracts soon backed up against each other, however, lack of community and region-wide planning often left little opportunity to alleviate the monotony of the homogeneous domestic environment. Efforts to articulate some sort of community focus often were limited to building shopping centers. As early as the 1920s it was recognized that an elegant, convenient, high-quality retail center could enhance the desirability of a subdivision, as demonstrated by the opening in 1923 of the nation’s first automobileoriented shopping center, Country Club Plaza, as a much-vaunted amenity of J.C.Nichols’ subdivision in Kansas City. The need remained, however, to address the lack of civic focus and activity in areas of vast subdivisions. One effort to remedy this was the country’s first fully enclosed shopping mall, Southdale Shopping Center (designed by Victor Gruen, 1956) in Edina, Minnesota.

Occasional attempts of a different order in the 1960s and 1970s to restore the full breadth of civic and community life to suburban subdivisions are perhaps epitomized in Reston, Virginia, developed beginning in 1962 by Robert E.Simon. Considerably indebted to examples of contemporary governmentfunded new town planning in Europe, Simon’s private-sector effort envisioned a town with a comparable range of housing opportunities, civic and educational institutions, and possibilities for employment and recreation, all to be kept in harmonious relation with the landscape. Despite major changes of ownership and direction in the 1960s through 1980s, Reston fulfilled much of that vision, becoming a town of seven village clusters plus a town center, and a wide range of recreational facilities, as well as a corporate business center employing over a third of the town’s residents, all laid out on a well-landscaped, hierarchized system of major through roads, looping residential streets, and separated pedestrian pathways, serving a mixture of detached houses, townhouses, and apartments.

Reston was part of a shift, beginning in the 1960s, toward suburban planning that aimed to afford a greater sense of identity, community, and security through consistency of design and centralized, long-term management. Some of these efforts were on a deliberately limited scale, as with Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), which in many cases incorporated considerable sensitivity to landscape, community, and design quality, often trading an increase in housing density for more continuous open space between and around the houses. In many of these developments, however, as with larger-scale Master Planned Communities (MPCs), standards of design and rules for land use were appropriated to a central authority, either the developer or a community board empowered to maintain the developer’s original restrictions. One of the largest MPCs is the Irvine Ranch, a tract of over 50,000 acres southeast of Los Angeles, originally planned in 1960 by William Pereira as a collection of village clusters centered around a university campus, along with adjacent industrial, commerical, and agricultural tracts. In 1970 Pereira’s plan was superseded by the SWA Group, who began by laying out Woodbridge, one of Irvine’s earliest villages, in a highly controlled yet picturesque fashion that incorporates a complex combination of mixed housing types and public and private spaces. A recent and controversial example is Celebration, near Orlando, where the Disney Corporation has both imposed rigid design restrictions and retained considerable authority over municipal government and influence in the school system. But perhaps the ascendant form of development at the end of the century is the gated community. Harking back to such smaller-scale prototypes as Llewellyn Park or Tuxedo Park, these enclosed tracts emphasize privacy, security, and in many cases status; but as Blakely and Snyder (1997) have shown they also have the pernicious effect of decoupling residence and community from the civic realm.

However closely planned and managed some communities may be, the predominant mode of suburban development is thoroughly piecemeal, producing the wasteful and chaotic consumption of land known as sprawl. Seeking to reverse this trend on both local and regional bases, the nationwide Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has sought since its establishment in 1993 to restructure design, policy, and planning practices in ways that reconcentrate existing communities and incorporate new communities with compact centers, public spaces, coherent plans, and a diverse mix of facilities and activities. Architects working in this vein include the firm of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Calthorpe Associates. Parallel efforts, undertaking development in conjunction with explicitly ecological and conservationist objectives, are found in communities such as Prairie Crossing (Grayslake, Illinois), opened in 1994. Here development has been limited to approximately one fourth of a 2500-acre nature preserve, concentrated in ways that safeguard the natural landscape, protect native vegetation and wildlife, conserve energy, and afford long views of open space, while maintaining a sense of place and sustainable community.


Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z).  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.

  1942–1944, Aluminum City Terrace housing project, New Kensington, USA, WALTER GROPIUS 


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Girling, Cynthia L., Skinny Streets and Green Neighborhoods: Design for Environment and Community, 2005

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Longstreth, Richard, The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914–1941, Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1999.

McKenzie, Evan, Privatopia: Homeoumer Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.








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