Suburbia: The Natural Evolution of Development?

Is suburban growth really a product of the natural progression of human development, and if not, could a a different growth pattern better meet our desires and reduce our impact the climate?

This article is adapted from a presentation made as part of a "Focus the Nation: Climate Change Solutions for America" event at the California State University, Northridge. It was intended for a lay audience, and so begins by stating what may be obvious to most planners.

Photo: Ashwani Vasishth

Where we live, work and play matters because the relative locations of such places most directly influence the extent to which we must travel in the course of a typical day. If we live, on average, some 25 miles from where we work, and if where we go to play is similarly distant from both these places then we end up racking up more miles. And there is a direct correlation between how far we drive and the amount of greenhouse gases we emit each day.

Suburban growth is shaped by the proximate location of detached single-family homes arranged into dispersed residential enclaves, organized by socio-economic status, and relying primarily on single-occupancy automobile use as the dominant mode of transportation. Smart growth, as some planners advocate, is a pattern of development that is constituted by higher density, transit- and pedestrian-oriented settlements, showing a more mixed land use pattern-with shops, offices, entertainment venues intermingled with higher density residential buildings.

It has been estimated that half of all Americans, and two-thirds of urban Americans, live in suburbia. Here are the key questions: Does suburbia exist because it is the natural "culmination of urban development"? If we were to reboot society, how close would we come to the same present? If we had it to do over again, would we return to where we are, because this is the natural order of the human universe? Do Americans live in suburbia because this is what they actually, and proactively, want-detached and segregated and sorted by type? Is suburbia simply an expression of personal preference?

If it is, then, in a democratic frame, we have no business messing with that expressed will of the people.

But, wait. What if it is not merely the "will of the people," but rather a strange mix of at least somewhat arbitrary social policies and practices that have shaped how people came to live, and then, in subsequent generations, came to determine what people think of as "normal," and so desirable? Do the rules of the game change, then? Now can we "shatter it to bits, and remold it closer to our heart's desire"?

The conventional story of the emergence of suburbia is as a "natural" outcome of urbanization. As the city grows more dense and intense, those who can afford to do so move outward to the cleaner, more civilized outskirts. As congestion and crime and pollution mount, those who have the wherewithal to escape flee to more attractive climes. And that's simply the nature of the beast that is urbanization.

What if we told the story differently, though? What if, for instance, during and after World War Two, there were very few houses built, because the nation was focused on the war effort for all those years? Housing would be in short supply in the post-World War Two years, and-with the terms of a mortgage something like 50% cash down, and with a pay-back of five years-out of reach for most young ex-soldiers.

And then, wonder of wonders, two things were to happen: The US Government offers the banks loan guarantees if they will change the terms of a conventional mortgage to something more like 10% down, pay-back in 30 years. And the lessons of Fordist mass-production are applied to a massive home-building program. Given economies of scale, it's way cheaper to build thousands of identical homes than to build as many distinct and individualized homes. And a detached single-family layout scheme better pretends to portray the held European ideal of "country living."

If we buy this second story line, then there is nothing inherently sacred about suburbia, because it is not, primarily, the outcome of expressed or revealed preference. It has become the stated preference for many people, but not in any innate sort of way. Then we are free to challenge the ideals inherited by subsequent generations, as these ideals are no longer the pristine outcomes of democratic market forces and emblematic of revealed preference, but rather the products of a messy mash of policies and programs.

The typical American emits about 20 tons of greenhouse gases each year. We would reduce our carbon footprint if at least some of us were to instead live, work and play in closer proximity to each other. This is an argument against an exclusively suburban growth and for a smarter way to grow. We could reduce our per capita carbon footprint by choosing a different land use pattern, based on smart growth. Free at last, free at last-free to be what we want to be. Actually.

Ashwani Vasishth is an ecological planner and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, California State University, Northridge.



More False Binary Choices

Nothing strikes anger in the ardent anti-sprawlers as much as suggesting we have urban sprawl because some people like it. But, to suggest that isn't at all part of the equation is just being blind to reality - as is suggesting exactly the opposite. It's not one or the other, it's both.

Suburban development was caused and fostered by numerous things, from white flight, a preference for open space to building interstate highways and municipal fragmentation. Now you might blame bad zoning, traffic engineering, and planning on the *nature* of suburban development (cul de sacs, lack of grids, lower than existing density, segregated uses), but you would have to be moronic to believe its entire existence is due to a varied, even uncoordinated set of public policies. Sure, some of those policies allowed it, even fostered it, but no consumer choice involved? No way.

The suburbs pulled and the inner cities pushed. Intelligent people can debate the relative blame of public policy vs. market outcomes, but I wouldn't take anyone seriously who thought it was entirely one or the other.

I'll give this guy a "pass" since this was for a lay audience, but he seems lost in his social ecology propaganda and forgot to include other disciplines contributions to thoughts on urban sprawl.

Suburbanization Vs. Sprawl

CP: What you say makes some sense if we are talking about suburbanization, but not if we are talking about sprawl - defining sprawl as the sort of new neighborhood built after World War II with housing on twisted streets and cul-de-sacs and with an extreme separation of functions that makes it impossible to walk anywhere.

Before World War II, the middle-class had been moving to suburbs with continuous street grids and with some shopping on main streets - and these were more or less walkable. Have you read the book "Topper" written in the 1920s about a banker who lives in suburban New Jersey, commutes to Manhattan every day, and does not buy his first car until he is about 40 years old? That is one bit of evidence that pre-war suburbs were not auto-dependent.

The change in suburban street design and zoning after World War II was, I believe, a bright idea of the city planners of the time. Most Americans did not think about it at all and would have been just as happy to move to pre-war-style suburbs if they were still being built.

Of course, the original article that you are responding to does not make this distinction: he says that suburbanization (not sprawl) resulted from post-war government policy. This is obviously not the only explanation, as you say, since there was plenty of pre-war suburbanization.

But you reply that we have sprawl (not suburbanization) because some people like it - also failing to make this distinction.

Charles Siegel

Agree with that

It's a distinction worth noting, I believe. Let's call it "design sprawl" since it is more than just dispersion - the literal interpretation of sprawl. I have seen lots of design sprawl inside central cities and lots of pre WWII design in suburban jurisdictions outside central cities.

To your point, I'm convinced as well that there are at least some people that like this design sprawl as well as the suburbs. Granted, the number of people that like it may be smaller than the number of people living in it due to limited options, but some people are quite happy with it. The author/presenter makes no distinctions, but rather paints a broad brush of "suburban development" which was my rub on the piece.

Loving Sprawl

"I'm convinced as well that there are at least some people that like this design sprawl as well as the suburbs."

People tend to like what they have grown up with and are used to, so I am sure that there are people who like living on a cul-de-sac and driving everywhere - and who could hardly even imagine living differently.

However, I don't think that we first started building design-sprawl in response to what people wanted. Again, I think the average person didn't even imagine design sprawl before any was built.

Design sprawl was first built because it was a bright idea of modernist planners, as I say above. Let me add that it was also built because it is convenient for large developers to build isolated housing pods or isolated shopping centers, rather than building mixed uses on a street grid.

Charles Siegel

Historical Perspective

Keep in mind that the "oil age" is about 150 years old, and the age of the automobile and the airplane are just a little bit over 100 years.

What will be the fate of these resources and technologies 100 years from now?

What does that say about the future of our "driveable suburbanist" environs?

Michael Lewyn's picture

Two definitions of sprawl

A couple of comments on contrarianplanner's post:

1. He points out that some people like sprawl. I agree. But you should look at the main article in social context: the dominant political argument in some circles is that almost everyone people like sprawl, and that government has almost nothing to do with it. All the author is trying to do is rebut this claim (which both contrarianplanner and he would reject).

2. When we talk about sprawl, we are really talking about two things:

a) HOW we grow ("design sprawl")

b) WHERE we grow (movement from city to suburb).

The two have gone together in 20th-c. America but in theory they need not.

Questions, not choices

The point of the argument is not that people do not like suburbia, it would be as you say moronic to suggest that. The point of the argument is that would we still choose this style of building if we could go back. Clearly we can see the consequences of sprawl today. The argument at hand is if suburbia is even what the market would have chosen as the dominant style of growth left to its own devices. Of course the argument complicates because there is not a purely free market when it comes to these kinds of things but that should not prevent us from asking the question.
Is sprawl as the article puts it "The Natural Evolution of Development?"or was it artificially imposed. Clearly at some point along the way the market choose that sprawl was a good idea, but it might not have with out the VA Bonds and mass subsidization of this style of growth. Then again, maybe it would have and the government just gave it a push. We can't know, but its worth thinking about especially in light of the current dilemma places like the San Fernando Valley (where California State Northridge is located) have with what to do with what they have become as a result of the growth patterns they choose.
This article poses no binary choices as you suggest, the Mr. Vasisth clearly eludes to the fact that he does not believe we would have chosen it, but I believe this was more to provoke a questioning of suburban growth patterns rather than to suggest there was a definitive answer. It's a worthy line of questioning. Who we are is related to how we got here. We cannot simply always accept conventional answers as the correct answers.

Sprawl: Who cares if people like it?

What this whole discussion fails to account for is that the question of whether or not people “like” sprawl (design- or otherwise) may be beside the point. It is not automatically true that there should be an exact correspondence between what people like and what we, as a society, allow to be built.

The fact is that sprawl (again, design- or otherwise) is not an appropriate form of development for a small planet with 6 billion people. As planners, our job is to protect the resources we have left and guide people towards planning and design solutions that create healthy, sustainable, and desirable places to live within the very real constraints we now live under.

Sprawl Again

Very true that we have to move away from sprawl for environmental reasons, but which of these statements would be more effective politically:

- We have to abandon sprawl, like it or not. I don't care whether the public wants sprawl.

- We have to abandon sprawl. Sprawl makes suburbs less livable, and the public never wanted sprawl in the first place.

I also think it is very useful to tell the public that ending sprawl doesn't mean that we have to stop living in private houses and start living in apartments - that there were walkable streetcar suburbs where no one owned cars, and they were more livable than our sprawl suburbs. Eg, see the picture at
Charles Siegel


The author of this piece neatly skirts the issue of affordability. Whether or not people like sprawl, their choices are limited by finances, and the way new development is structured financially many people can't choose differently. So we really don't know what people WANT. We know what they can afford.

I believe that you are

I believe that you are wrong. Peoples finances are limited by their choices. People choose to have more short term, tangible items that they do long term intangibles.

Americans spend more for durable goods(cars, appliances etc) that wont last past their warranty, just to have the latest model, than they will on a home in an area that is walkable, sociable and durable. They then proceed to overwork those items till they fail and claim that they were faulty.

If you didn't have two cars and drive all over town to get to work and do your errands, then the money spent on gas could be spent on a better located dwelling.

People don't know what they want, they know what they have been told they can afford and the lending companies have told them they can have everything. Is it any wonder we are in the mess we're in?

Nothing "Just Happens"

I've been reading "Zone Out: Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land-Use" by Jonathan Levine, associate prof. of Urban and Regional Planning at U.of Michigan. The thesis (as far as I've made out thus far) is that the current paradigm (low density, auto-centric development) is NOT the default "market norm", but a reflection of roughly 80 years (1920's era codification of home-rule zoning prerogatives?) of "planning".

We've zoned OUT the possibility for dense, TOD's. There is no "free-market" default land-use patter to be "interfered" with via "regulation". Its all regulated and as such our land use patterns reflect that regulation.

We're NOT ALLOWED (I'm not shouting btw, just not good a the italics thing :) )to build dense, TOD's and such. Our building codes prevent a town from allowing an interested developer from re-converting storage above store fronts back into livable space (1950's fire codes).

As for affordable housing and finding it exclusively in the suburbs, I don't buy it. Our cities and towns of yesterday, big and small, contained a multiplicity of options. The breadth of options in older building codes made such a reality possible due to the realities of transportation options in my opinion.

To me, the phrase "The past is prologue" is meaningful.

Reading a local newspaper from Newport, KY., a river community across from Cincinnati on the Ohio is indicative of this. An old town recently revived (affordable housing and beautiful layout and stock) was grappling with un-used stock in the form of storage above storefronts that once were apartments (usually housing the establishment owners family) but were zoned, or coded out. Now, the forward thinking town officials were realizing the opportunity, but old codes stood in the way.

We simply need to rethink what we want. The "market" is what we make of it. It serves us, or at least it should and not the other way around.

Everyone should read Levine's book "Zoned Out".

Charles Buki's picture

Suburbia: Evolutionary Inevitability

The right question may be less "is suburbia a consequence of natural development" than "is the DNA of suburbia" an inevitable result of settlement tendencies?"

To get at the answer, it might be helpful to unpack suburbia a little.

At first glance one could assert that the DNA of contemporary suburban settlement is comprised of large lots. Auto-orientation. The usual.

But really these are second order traits.

First order traits are what determine the likelihood of settlement patterns being suburban. So what are these first order traits? And are they a result of a perfect storm of government, technology, geography, and other inputs? Or are they more permanent?

I would suggest the bones of suburbia are the contours of class first and race (to the extent it becomes a proxy for class) second. As long as society organizes itself into hierarchical orders based on unequal possessions (talent, wealth, opportunity, knowledge - whatever may be in short supply so as to drive value up), settlement will disaggregate people.

When geography or technology facilitate disaggregation, resulting separations (and concentrations) become more acute.

What a great question.


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