Do you live in a suburb? For most people in the United States’ major metropolitan areas, the answer to that question seems to come easily. If you live in the metropolis’ most recognizable municipality—the place whose name you’d be sure someone from far away would recognize – the answer is no, I live in a city. If you don’t—if you live in the sort of place you’d describe to someone from elsewhere as “just outside Washington” or “about half an hour from Phoenix” – you’d say you are a suburbanite. Places within a “City of…” jurisdiction are urban, and everything else is not. It’s that simple—or is it?
The simple city-suburb distinction is certainly useful for some purposes. In most states, for example, places incorporated as cities have different government structures and taxation powers than sometimes-unincorporated towns, boroughs, or villages, or the county governments that often act on behalf of multiple suburbs. Even where suburbs are incorporated as cities or towns, they may have a different vision for their residents than a larger core city. Thus, you might be interested in the way different structures of government tend to lead to certain sorts of outcomes. Or you might be interested in how smaller municipalities do and don’t integrate their infrastructure with that of their nearby principal city.
If you’re trying to gauge the character of a place—if you’re trying, as a New Urbanist might, to come up with a straightforward way to identify which communities have developed to be diverse in uses and more liveable, and which haven’t—these simple distinctions are less than helpful. It’s true that the places we might call “urban” tend to be more dense, more walkable, more diverse in their housing options, and have all the other attributes New Urbanists esteem, and that “suburban” places tend to be less so. But those tendencies are riddled with exceptions, so much so that they can sometimes be useless as rules of thumb.
Let’s use my hometown of Washington, DC as an example, simply because I’m most familiar with it. Most of the city is just as dense and walkable as you might expect. But a significant portion isn’t; the city’s western fringes are home to stately, manicured homes and not much else. In several Northeast neighborhoods, bungalows and strip malls, grocery stores, or big box developments surrounded by parking predominate. It seems strange to call such neighborhoods “urban” simply by virtue of their being within one municipality rather than another.
Conversely, communities surrounding Washington like Arlington, Bethesda, or Silver Spring, none of which would be “urban” according to the aforementioned definition (none are incorporated as cities), have areas that are just as built up as the densest areas of the District. (To be sure, in several cases these are newer developments, or recent extensions of older, transit-oriented suburbs.) This phenomenon is hardly unique to my region. Compare Los Angeles’ “urban” Pacific Palisades with nearby “suburbs” like Santa Monica (a city in its own right, with a council and mayor) or Manhattan Beach; or New York City’s “urban” Staten Island” with adjacent “suburban” Bayonne, New Jersey.
Leesburg, Virginia embodies many traits of both urban and suburban form, with a well-established older town at its center and suburban development both within and beyond city limits.
New Urbanists have an ample vocabulary to describe what we like: walkability, mixed uses, diverse interactions, density, and so forth. But when we try to describe what we take issue with in the suburbs, we run into trouble if we generalize. Criticizing the “suburbs” alone won’t work. We need new ways to talk about our suburbs, using terms that are memorable and meaningful. (Think of the power of terms from New Urbanism like “the missing middle” for diverse, low- and mid-rise housing, or “the transect” for the continuum between town and countryside, terms evoking ideas that would otherwise take far too long to describe in an elevator pitch. What if we were able to characterize suburban forms—desirable and not so desirable—so specifically?).
In “There Is No Such Thing as Suburbia,” Addison Del Mastro describes three tiers of suburb, providing much more specificity to support thoughtful solutions for their challenges:
- Midcentury suburbs, with street grids and mostly single-family homes clustered around a commercial highway strip. Even on the highway, there are likely to be sidewalks, and the sense of pedestrian presence is strong. Some of these suburbs were built on the foundations of existing towns. TAC reports, “There are often ballfields, churches, schools, and civic buildings amid the homes, echoing the mixed-use style of a true town.”
- Newer, “more modern sprawling subdivisions [that are] relatively dense but not gridded, featuring cul-de-sacs and 40-foot-wide corkscrew roads. Here, Del Mastro reports, “there are no ballfields, churches, or anything else amid the homes…. Separation of uses is stricter here, and there is no longer even a ghost of a small town.” The car becomes the dominant form of transportation in these suburbs, even for a simple trip to the store.
- Exurbs – “countrysides into which various trappings of suburbia suddenly crop up, as if airdropped in during the night,” says Del Mastro. “You pass forests, silos, farmhouses, tiny timeworn towns, and gravel roads, and then suddenly a massive Lowe’s or Walmart.” The fate of some of these suburbs, which have already rewritten the rural landscape, is in question. Some exurbs, says Del Mastro, will develop further, but others will remain as they are or shrink. Property values have declined in some of these would-be suburbs.
This categorization is a good start toward a language that captures the nuances of suburbia and allows for more focused criticism and solutions. Describing spatial characteristics (“exurbs”) or physical traits (“sprawl”) does a better job of conveying meaning than using categories like “urban” and “suburban,” which risks evoking ideas about the characteristics of a municipality’s government in people’s minds (or its demographics, though that may be changing). I think this shift of terminology is in keeping with what New Urbanists focus on: how the built environment makes a difference in people’s lives, wherever they live.
Henry Weiss is working on his bachelor’s degree at Clark University, and was a summer intern at the Congress for the New Urbanism. He was born in Washington, DC and grew up there and in Arlington County, Virginia.