Suburbs are considered the ugly stepchild of American urban design. They’re generally despised, considered bastions of conformity, derided as “cookie-cutter vinyl villages,” considered eyesores and blamed for virtually every malady that has affected urban America.
But if they’re so awful, why are they so popular? More than half the U.S. population — 55 percent as of 2016 — lives in suburban areas. That number has continued to steadily grow since the suburban form began to take off in the post-World War II era.
Let’s start with a history lesson. The suburban form began out of necessity. As World War II ended, a generation of soldiers returned to civilian life and needed places to live. Early suburban developers like William Levitt applied Henry Ford’s assembly-line mass production techniques to homes. By building on low-cost farmland well outside the central city, hundreds of affordable homes could be built and a master-planned community took shape. The homes were larger than before — in 1950, only one-third of new houses being built had at least three bedrooms. By 1956, that number was close to 80 percent. More than two-thirds of houses by 1956 had garages. The master-planned community was born.
This follows Fredrich Hayek’s point in “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” that “economic problems arise always and only in consequence of change. So long as things continue as before, or at least as they were expected to, there arise no new problems requiring a decision, no need to form a new plan.”
The change was society’s makeup. A horde of young families needed housing quickly — especially because they were having children at an unprecedented rate. Economic growth meant families were wealthier — real median household income grew by more than 50% in the 1950s — and could not just afford larger houses, but also the freedom provided by owning a car. Private vehicle registrations grew by 56 percent from 1945–50, and again by 52 percent from 1950–60 and another 44 percent from 1960–70.
While derided by critics, suburban-style neighborhoods and communities dominated new housing and led to much of the growth of urban areas. In Indianapolis, 77% of the eight-county metro-area population lived in Marion County, and a significant amount of that in the urban core of Indianapolis. By 1980, that number had shrunk to 66%, and by 2020, 51%. The population of the seven “collar counties” grew from 167,805 in 1950 to 401,342 by 1980 and again to 951,497 by 2022.
Critics will blame single-family zoning and policy choices. Yes, suburbs are low-density. No, they’re not architectural wonders. Yes, they are car-centric. But they reflect what people have desired.
Suburbs are a triumph of decentralized decision-making, rather than the top-down decision-making preferred by critics. Each person or family moving to a community did so for its own reason, using local knowledge and weighing their own costs and benefits.
To quote Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society,”
“The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources — if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. …
“If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some form of decentralization. But this answers only part of our problem. We need decentralization because only thus can we insure that the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place will be promptly used.”
Hayek’s thesis in that essay is that market prices help drive our decision-making, and by building in lower-cost areas, Levitt and other mass-production homebuilders allowed families to have more home and more land for less money. Better roads, especially with the advent of the Interstate Highway System, followed, reducing commuting time and thus one “cost” of living in the suburbs. However, that cost was also reduced by a number of firms relocating from the downtown central business district to suburban areas. Retail stores followed their customers, and the shopping mall and supermarket became the archetype of the later 20th century.
It’s the natural order of development. The central business districts of cities — and even in smaller towns — predate widespread automobile usage and were built along rivers, wagon roads or railroad stops, based on the availability of commerce, as Adam Smith contextualizes in Book I, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations. Because residents had to get around by foot (and those living in nearby rural areas, likely coming in once a week by horse), they prioritized small lots and dense development. What retail existed was very small and limited in choice. As our mobility changed with the advent of streetcars and interurbans, we could be more spread out from the central business district and travel further, but development had to remain compact. The widespread adoption of the car as the primary mode of transport changed everything. Able to serve more people in one location due to increased mobility, supermarkets and department stores made a previously-unthinkable variety of goods available within a short drive of home.
Simply put, the suburban form is simply the next level in the evolution of the development of communities.
But there are other reasons why suburbs are attractive, especially to families with children. By prioritizing mass-production techniques and low-density single-family development, they allow families to have more space, both indoors and out. Former homebuilder C.P. Morgan sold many suburban homes with the tagline, “more square feet, less money.” A larger home means bedrooms for each child, common living spaces — and in many homes, multiple common living spaces — more bathrooms so multiple people can go at once, opportunities for entertaining others. The home becomes the epicenter of family life. Single-family development means each home has a yard, and often a spacious yard at that, for the children to play in safely.
By separating residential neighborhoods from commercial developments, and setting neighborhoods off from arterial streets in a collector-road design that doesn’t allow for thru traffic, children can play in relative peace and safety, with very little traffic passing in front of their homes, and thanks to curved streets and only one function for neighborhood traffic — getting to and from one’s home — usually at relatively slow speeds. The residential nature of a neighborhood allows families to forge very close bonds, and the relative safety enables children to ride their bikes and adults to take walks in relative peace, quiet and safety, while still being able to get to nearby shopping, work and schools by using the collector roads that distribute traffic between neighborhoods and quickly and efficiently bring them to the commercial districts.
As a result, suburbs become the preference when families have children. The millennial generation was hailed as the one that would bring back the cities, as, going back to the 1990s when Generation Xers began to graduate from college, young professionals began to move to cities, reversing a trend, and they are the preferred destination for those ages 20–34. But as they age, that trend reverses. By 2020, 48 percent of millennials were living in suburbs, and that number grew from 44 percent the year before, as that age group (which ranged from 25–39 in 2020) began to hit the ages where they settle down, marry and have children. Priorities change, and the suburbs provide the space, safety and good schools young families need.
Meanwhile, set-aside commercial developments allow for economies of scale — a supermarket, department store, restaurant, pharmacy or doctor’s office can serve hundreds or thousands of nearby residents who are all within an easy, short drive. They aren’t within walking distance, but they don’t need to be when everyone has a car. And when you’re buying a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four or five, a car is a necessity as only it can provide the storage space.
The whole design allows us to separate and compartmentalize our work, home and recreation into different parts of our lives.
Suburbs are thousands of families deciding they prefer the peace, quiet, space, ability to have a larger home and the accessibility of a suburban community. That their houses have the same floorplans as the ones three doors down is not a real concern. That their commute might be five minutes longer is a trade-off they’re more than happy to make.
While suburbs are often considered devoid of community, the opposite is true. Community bonds are often forged around churches and religious organizations, and because suburban communities by their nature tend to cater to families with children, the school becomes the epicenter of that community. In my community, we felt welcomed almost immediately by seeing neighbors on our daily walks around the neighborhood, but even moreso by those we attend church with and see every Sunday, and forge even greater bonds at the Friday night high school football and basketball games. The latter are almost weekly town halls, because it seems like everyone in town is there, supporting our children but also catching up with our fellow townspeople.
Hardly a grocery trip goes by without stopping to converse with a familiar face in the aisles of the local supermarket. The same happens with a trip to a restaurant. That’s where community is forged, and just like with the way our communities were developed, that sense of community comes organically.
Very few of the residents of the suburban community where I live were born and raised here. Many of us come from somewhere else. But it is our home and a place I don’t ever want to leave.
There’s a lot behind those little boxes when you peel back the curtains. Families enjoying peace, quiet, space, modernity and community are atop the list.
For policymakers, it’s important to understand suburbs are not a net negative. They are a positive and home to the people who choose to live there. While one may desire transit-oriented development, highway cancellations and densification to try to nudge people back into the cities planners and the “Strong Towns” crowd prefer, understand that planning decisions should reflect how people live, not attempt to direct how people live. The majority of Americans live in single-family homes and suburbs. The quiet neighborhoods, the freedom of movement brought about by communities that separate uses and the cars we own that get us everywhere we need to go — including other communities — are important. It’s a choice we’ve made, and that should be supported, not despised.