Suburbs Research Paper

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“Every true suburb is the outcome of two opposing forces, an attraction toward the opportunities of the great city and a simultaneous repulsion against urban life” (Fishman 1987, p. 26). Though suburbs are defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as any territory within a metropolitan area yet outside of the central city, the formation of suburbs is not simply based on geographic location. Suburbs are largely the product of people’s desire for separation based on social factors. These factors vary between instances of suburb formation, but frequently include separation of class, religious, cultural, ethnic, or racial groups. The traditional pattern of white populations and wealth found in U.S. suburbs is not mirrored internationally, although the common feature of suburbs around the world is separation of populations. For instance, the suburbs of Mumbai, India, house many of the city’s poor, while in Paris the suburbs are ethnically stratified, with suburban ethnic minority populations suffering from high rates of unemployment and other forms of discrimination.

The early suburbs of London, as well as several in the United States, were built around the separation of different economic classes. During the eighteenth century, wealthy business owners in London began to use landholdings around Westminster as a way to avoid the lower classes within urban areas. A century later, the same happened in the United States around the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Suburbs such as these, based on class separation, can best be described as bourgeois enclaves. Here the wealthy could establish communities that reflected their own values and beliefs (Fishman 1987).

The formation of middle-class suburbs in the United States beginning in the early twentieth century and expanding rapidly after World War II (1939-1945) is the result of a number of factors. A strong economy at the beginning of the century made the suburban lifestyle more accessible to many Americans. The development of lower-cost homogenized housing, such as the Sears Catalog home, made purchasing a house a realistic prospect for the middle class. In the 1920s, U.S. suburban growth surpassed urban growth for the first time (Weeks 1981). Economic factors during the Great Depression caused the growth of suburbs to decline drastically. In the late 1940s and 1950s, however, suburban growth rates resurged and reached their highest levels (Rothblatt and Garr 1986). This resurgence is frequently attributed to strong economic growth and social programs like the GI Bill that provided opportunities to service members after the war.

In 1947 construction began on Levittown on Long Island, New York, a project considered the start of the middle-class suburban revolution in America. The rapid expansion of the freeway system during the early 1950s made possible the development of many similar communities, as is evident in the expansion of freeways and homes in the Los Angeles area (Fishman 1987; Weeks 1981). Levittown has since become a term used to describe various social problems accompanying the formation of suburbs, including white flight, cultural wasteland, and separate spheres of family and economic life (Keller 1998).

Home ownership, achieved through the development of suburbs, is the most important factor of wealth accumulation in American society. While economic factors played a significant role in the formation of suburbs, they do not explain why middle-class Americans felt the need to escape urban areas that had previously been acceptable to them. In fact, economic factors have helped constrain suburban growth that has been driven by other factors, such as race. Prior to the twentieth century, there had been a relatively small African American population in U.S. cities. However, the migration of African Americans from rural areas in the early twentieth century brought significant white resistance and a push for racially segregated housing areas (Massey and Denton 1998). White flight, the mass migration of whites out of the cities, was hindered by economic factors during the Great Depression. Following World War II, however, the movement of whites to the peripheral areas around cities, coupled with social and institutional policies of racially restrictive housing, resulted in high degrees of racial segregation. White flight became a major factor in school desegregation policy; in the mid-1970s a debate arose over whether busing for the purpose of school desegregation would lead to increases in white flight.

School desegregation has had numerous effects on the formation and structure of America’s suburbs. In the midst of the period of white flight, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) led to the integration of many schools in neighborhoods that had previously been white enclaves. A number of measures were taken by white communities and conservative local and state governments to resist school integration. School busing during the 1960s and 1970s became a strongly debated issue, and residents of suburbs found they could maintain racial segregation of schools more effectively than had been possible in inner-city areas. Due to the effectiveness of suburbs as residential enclaves, white residents could gerrymander school districts in order to halt integration (James 1989). By the late 1970s, school busing had become a less pressing issue (Woodard 1998). While affirmative action policies remained in effect, opposition to such policies rose during the 1980s with the idea that the United States had transcended racial issues. As a result, there has been an increase in school segregation in suburban areas since 1989 (Reardon et al. 2000). In addition, policies still in place to aid school integration are being challenged throughout the country, despite the fact that public schools remain heavily segregated. In 2006 the Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases regarding school integration policies that some parents considered discriminatory. Cases from Seattle, Washington, and Louisville, Kentucky, reviewed whether public schools can take race into consideration in campus assignments in order to achieve racial integration. In a 5—4 decision the Court declared that schools attempting to achieve or maintain racial integration cannot do so by measures that take explicit account of the students’ race (Greenhouse 2007).

Despite the passage in 1968 of the Fair Housing Act, little progress has been made toward racial integration of suburbs (Orser 1998). The Fair Housing Act prohibited owners, real-estate agents, and renters from denying access to housing on the basis of race. The act also outlawed lying about the availability of a dwelling, and prevented blockbusting (telling white residents that minorities are moving into a neighborhood in an effort to convince them to sell) (Sidney 2003). As of 1990, only 20 percent of Americans lived in desegregated neighborhoods (Darden 1998). Housing segregation between whites and Hispanics, as well as between whites and Asians, has risen since 1980. However, studies have shown that suburbanization is tied to socioeconomic status among Hispanics and Asians, but suburbs have remained mostly closed to blacks whatever their socioeconomic status (Darden 1998). Housing discrimination has also contributed to higher levels of poverty, a lower average income, and lower life chances for those trapped in declining inner-city neighborhoods.

One result of the formation of suburbs was that people who were left behind in urban neighborhoods were forced to deal with urban decay brought about by the flight of millions out of the cities. Buildings were left empty, and businesses were forced to close and move to more profitable areas. Resources previously available within cities were shifted to peripheral areas as suburbs grew. The 1949 Housing Act was designed to facilitate redevelopment in areas that had been affected by urban decay; this process came to be known as urban renewal. The act sparked a debate over how to handle such renewal. Federal subsides were given to private developers in order to generate new business within urban areas. But development was centered heavily around the interests of those in suburban areas, and little attention was paid to the needs of those living within urban areas. In addition, most urban development took place in residential areas, forcing many out of their homes. Eventually, a compromise was reached, and developers were required to find alternative housing for those displaced by urban renewal (Hays 1995). Urban-renewal plans have consistently favored the interests of the suburbs. As far back as 1766 an urban-renewal plan for London was designed around the needs of business owners with little regard for workers and lower-class citizens (Fishman 1987). Today, urban renewal still often functions in the interests of suburban residents over the poor and minorities who remain in inner cities.

From 1970 to 1990, the number of high-poverty metropolitan areas doubled; these areas are more likely to be home to traditionally disadvantaged minorities (Sidney 2003). American suburbs formed out of a desire for racial segregation. In the twenty-first century, continuing housing discrimination in America’s suburbs leads to a continuation of racial segregation with increases in economic stratification.


  1. Barnes, Robert. 2006. Supreme Court to Review Two School Integration Plans. Washington Post, December 3: A3.
  2. Darden, Joe T. 1998. Desegregation of Housing. In Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs, ed. Neil Larry Shumsky, 247–249. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
  3. Fishman, Robert. 1987. Bourgeois Utopias the Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Greenhouse, Linda. 2007. Justices Limit the Use of Race in School Plans for Integration. New York Times, June 29.
  5. Hays, R. Allen. 1995. The Federal Government and Urban Housing: Ideology and Change in Public Policy. 2nd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  6. James, David R. 1989. City Limits on Racial Equality: The Effects of City-Suburb Boundaries on Public-School Desegregation, 1968–1976. American Sociological Review 54 (6): 963–985.
  7. Keller, Mollie. 1998. Levittown. In Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs, ed. Neil Larry Shumsky, 431–432. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
  8. Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. 1998. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  9. Orser, W. Edward. 1998. White Flight. In Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs, ed. Neil Larry Shumsky, 877–878. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
  10. Reardon, Sean F., John T. Yun, and Tamela Mcnulty Eitle. 2000. The Changing Structure of School Segregation: Measurement and Evidence of Multiracial Metropolitan-Area School Segregation, 1989–1995. Demography 37 (3): 351–364.
  11. Rothblatt, Donald N., and Daniel J. Garr. 1986. Suburbia an International Assessment. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  12. Sidney, Mara S. 2003. Unfair Housing: How National Policy Shapes Community Action. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
  13. Weeks, John R. 1981. Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomason Wadsworth. 9th ed., 2005.
  14. Woodard, J. David. 1998. Busing. In Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs, ed. Neil Larry Shumsky, 113–114. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

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