Suburbs Essay

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On the outskirts of every major city are large business and residential areas known as the suburbs, sometimes called industrial or residential suburbs. The term came from the Latin suburbium, with the first use in English by John Wycliffe referring to subarbis in 1380. A few scholars, such as Christopher Tunnard, saw it as a modern phenomenon, certainly in its present manifestation. However, others have argued for it having happened in ancient cities.

Since the building of the first cities, there have been suburbs created for various reasons. As the population in a particular area grew, there were many activities such as slaughterhouses and light industry (and later heavy industry) that many people did not want in the increasingly crowded city centers, and conversely the land became too valuable to occupy with such activities. Other places needed port areas. Many early cities chose to have cemeteries and burial grounds beyond the city walls. Furthermore, there were often people who were quite happy to live outside the city where they would forgo the protection of the city walls to live in large residential areas with cheaper land, more space, and greater privacy. During long periods of peace, many cities quickly developed suburbs.

Many cities grew haphazardly over time, with shanty towns being common on the outskirts of Sumerian and other settlements. Sir Leonard Woolley felt that Ur had suburbs-with some important buildings as far as four miles from the city center. One of the earliest excavated totally planned cities was El-Amarna in Egypt-the capital of the Pharaoh Akhnaten in the 14th century B.C.E. The ceremonial heart of the city was carefully developed, with a small northern suburb and a much larger southern suburb-both being residential areas with houses for government officials and their retinues. Ancient Greek and Roman settlements also had suburbs. Rome itself had large numbers of suburbs, and when, following the defeat of Hannibal, it went six centuries before being attacked again, massive suburbs sprang up all around the city.

It was during the Middle Ages that some suburbs became divided into largely industrial areas with working class residences and other suburbs for wealthier residents. The former were often polluted, and the latter tended to be healthier and on better land. To help regulate this, zoning restrictions-albeit under other names, and sometimes haphazardly administered-were introduced. Some of the new housing and settlements tended to be on good agricultural land, often the reason for locating the city in a particular location in the first place. In this way much rich agricultural land around London has long been occupied by housing.

The growth of the suburbs changed the nature of many cities. Many people continued to work in city centers, but gradually many people found business opportunities in their own suburbs with the development of shops and service industries. Only the rich could afford to maintain a property in the city center and another in a suburb.

19th and 20th Century Suburbs

During the 19th century, transport was developed to cope with the ever increasing suburbs. Train service easily brought large numbers of people from suburbs to cities, as did tram service, underground railways, metros, and buses later. The speed, regularity, and relative cheapness of using this transportation system saw people starting to live farther and farther from their places of work. Suburbs quickly sprawled as the tram or train lines were extended-and sometimes it was the other way around, with the suburb growing with the promise or expectation of an extension to the tram or train routes. The 20th century again led to many changes, and another large increase in suburbs. In the United States, Canada, Australia, parts of Latin America, and in other countries, vast road systems were constructed.

Large residential suburbs also arose in places such as England, where wealthy industrialists constructed thousands of houses, such as the Lever Brothers in Levershulme, and the creations of Slough and Milton Keynes, and the formation of Telford. This has also been true of France, where La Defense was created on the outskirts of Paris to move some government work and businesses from central Paris and to provide employment and housing in close proximity to each other.

The regulation of many suburbs also came about in the early 20th century. By this time some parts of particular cities became identified with specific residents or occupations. While medieval and early modern cities often had streets devoted to particular occupations-such as the scriveners at Paternoster Row in London, England, and the flower merchants, fishmongers, and tombstone makers in their particular streets in Hanoi, Vietnam, by the 20th century whole sections of cities tended to be occupied by people of similar racial or religious backgrounds or socioeconomic statuses. The Jewish ghettos in some European cities, as well as Jewish customs that involve the obligation to walk to a synagogue for a service, tended to concentrate Jewish communities in particular suburbs. Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in Myanmar (formerly Burma) has several distinct Muslim quarters in what is largely a Buddhist city.

Throughout the European colonies, many cities had a European Quarter, an Indian Quarter, and so forth. In many North American cities, certain sections are very heavily African American. Large numbers of cities around the world have Chinatowns. The most extreme system was apartheid in South Africa, which delineated particular areas as belonging only to particular races. The result was that the better suburbs tended to be well-resourced with good schools, easy access to hospitals and the like, whereas poor suburbs were poorly resourced, often with a smaller tax base unable to afford the facilities elsewhere.

During the 20th century large numbers of suburbs were purposefully created in European and American cities. Surbiton on the outskirts of London-standing for Suburban Town, is perhaps the best known British example. Developments in most North American cities were similar. Some large Canadian cities such as Calgary, Ottawa, and Winnipeg all sprawl into the surrounding countryside, as do many other large cities such as Buenos Aires, Melbourne, and Madras.

Officially, the largest suburb in the world is Inch’on, a part of Greater Seoul with a population of 2,466,388 people. Giza in Greater Cairo, with a population of 2,221,868, comes second, followed by Quezon City in Metro Manila, the Philippines, with 2,173,831 residents. The next few are Bekasi in Greater Jakarta, Indonesia; Ecatepec de Morelos in Mexico City, Mexico; and Kobe in Greater Osaka, Japan.


  1. Anthony Flint, This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006);
  2. Kevin Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue, eds., The New Suburban History (University of Chicago Press, 2006);
  3. John J. Marcionis & Vincent N. Parrillo, Cities and Urban Life (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007);
  4. Lewis Mumford, The City in History (Penguin Books, 1966);
  5. Roger Panetta, ed., Westchester: the American Suburb (Hudson River Museum, 2006);
  6. Trevor Rowley, The English Landscape in the Twentieth Century (Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

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