Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is a Suburb?

5 minute read

Another term lacking a consensus definition in the field of planning, "suburb" is usually deployed to describe residential communities outside central urban areas.

Suburban development in Long Island, NY

Levittown, New York, one of eight suburban housing developments built after World War II for returning veterans and their new families—excluding people of color. | Mark Mathosian / Levittown, Long Island, NY

A suburb is an outlying city or neighborhood—described in contrast to more urban, central cities and neighborhoods. Depending on the location, whether in the United States or on any other continent, the term suburb can have varied meanings and connotations and can inspire heated debate.

The use of the term suburb usually implies a few characteristics of the built environment: sprawling, low-density development; predominantly single-family residential uses; the separation of retail and commercial uses into strip malls, shopping malls, big box stores, and suburban office parks; automobile dependence; and long-distance commutes into the central city for work. 

Suburbs are also commonly defined by what they lack: multi-family apartment buildings, commercial high-rises, and bustling, 24-7 commercial and entertainment districts. Suburbs are often described, instead, with the term "bedroom community"—a place for coming home after work and play. 

With suburbs, however, exceptions are as common as the rules. Suburban areas can exist inside city limits, for example, though the term often implies a separate jurisdiction or unincorporated area outside the central city in a metropolitan area. Cities located outside the boundaries of a central city can be far more urban than the vast majority of central cities throughout the country. Cambridge, outside Boston, and Berkeley and Oakland, outside San Francisco, are frequently cited as examples of "urban suburbs." Streetcar suburbs developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have also largely been absorbed by cities—and are more likely to be described as urban than many of the U.S. cities that have grown to prominence since.

Finally, while central cities are associated with large populations, and suburbs with lower populations, some suburbs have grown so populous that they outpace some of the largest cities in the country. Mesa, Arizona and Virginia Beach, Virginia, for example, are more populous than many core cities in the United States, but are still considered suburbs of neighboring cities. Meanwhile, San Francisco, while the historic and cultural center of the Bay Area, is far smaller in terms of population than its surrounding metropolitan area, which includes the the much more populous neighboring city of San José. 

Suburban Research

Adding to the lack of consensus about the term suburb is a lack of authoritative definition, though academics are constantly working to establish a scientific definition of the term. The U.S. Census's 15-chapter compendium of geographic terms and concepts does not include any definition of "suburb" or "suburban," for example.

Aa team of researchers at Indeed in 2020 published an analysis of survey results from 55,000 households asked to identify their communities as urban, rural, or suburban. According to the survey, more than half of American households identify as suburban (52%), than rural (21%) and urban (27%). (Read an article by David Montgomery for more on the survey results and the predictive model built by the researchers from the findings revealed by their analysis.)

In 2019, a paper by Whitney Airgood-Obrycki and Shannon Rieger further revealed the lack of consensus around the term by identifying three methods used in academia to define suburbs: the census-convenient definition, the suburbanisms definition, and typology definition—each of which produce different results in given metro areas. 

From the paper:

  • The census-convenient definition "is easily constructed using publicly available Census data, including Census TIGER/line files and population estimates. This definition conceptualizes suburbs as remainders in relation to the political boundaries of cities. Though there are several variations of this definition, the basic structure treats cities as places or tracts that fall within OMB-defined central or principal cities, while suburbs encompass any space that falls outside of categorized cities but within metropolitan area boundaries."
  • According to the suburbanisms definition, "there is no singular 'suburb' understood to exist in a dichotomous relationship with the city; rather, the suburbanisms definition proposes a continuum of suburban ways of life that can be present across a metropolitan area. Instead of relying, like the census-convenient definition, on notions of physical location or centrality to characterize suburbs and cities, the suburbanisms definition foregrounds ways of life as the critical distinguishing factor."
  • The typology definition "divide[s] the concept of suburb to categorize specific types of suburbs, providing additional detail about the built form, location within the metro, demographics, or history of a suburb. There have been many efforts to consider different types of suburbs, but a commonly used subset of typologies conceptualizes suburbs in terms of eras of building."

As pointed out in Richard Florida's analysis of the Airgood-Obycki and Rieker study, no matter which of these methods is chosen, most Americans live in suburbs as compared to urban or rural areas. Additionally, most suburbanites own single family homes and even more commute by car. 

In another recent effort to capture the lack of consensus about the definition of suburb, the Pew Research Center identified two attempts by U.S. government sources to create a taxonomy for "community type" in the United States.

Suburban History

Suburbs were developed on a large scale in the United States and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of improved rail and car transportation. Suburbs became ingrained in the culture of the the United States during the 20th century, both as the embodiment of the "American Dream" and as a target for criticism as personal isolation and social fragmentation emerged alongside dispersed development patterns. However, the history of suburban settlement is much longer—dating back to the Roman Empire in Europe and the Eastern Han Dynasty in China.

Public preference for suburban living is always hotly debated, especially as trends have reversed back and forth from city to suburb through the decades. In the United States, the history of suburban development and settlement has been marred by explicitly exclusionary purposes and the effects of "white flight," which de-urbanized the U.S. population in the mid-20th century and gutted the tax revenues and services in many urban areas. The years leading up to and following the Great Recession included a "Back to the City" movement spurred by the subprime market crisis and the growth of suburban poverty. During the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, a media narrative emerged that many while Americans were fleeing the city for suburban, exurban, and rural settlements. Though that assumption was immensely more complicated than the media portrayed, the Pew Research Center did identify increasing preference for suburban lifestyles in a survey conducted in 2021.   

Even before the Great Recession, suburbs were increasingly populated by racial minority groups, once again complicated stereotypes and easy definitions.

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