Social scientists in the US usually identify a city’s suburbs as the municipalities (plus any ‘‘urban’’ unincorporated areas) that are located outside the political boundaries of that city, but are adjacent to the city or to its other suburbs. A city’s suburbs form a band around the city that has (1) lower population density overall than the city, yet (2) predominantly urban land uses. Unless the city is located near another city, its suburbs end where farmland or open space predominates. The term suburb refers either to the entire band of suburbs around a city or to particular places within a suburban band. The term suburban also can refer to a way of life identified with suburbs.

The definition of suburb and the characteristics of suburbs differ around the world, in part because of differences in local government structure. In many countries, suburbs are relatively new neighborhoods within a city or within a metropolitan area served by one government. This entry focuses on suburbs in the US, where municipalities, including those considered suburbs, have substantial political and fiscal autonomy. In 2000, half the US population lived in suburbs of metropolitan areas (Hobbs & Stoops 2002).

Early US cities absorbed more people and more activities by (1) using land more intensively, and (2) expanding on the edge, as developers converted farmland to an urban use. Cities routinely annexed the newly urban land. In the nineteenth century, railroads permitted a new kind of small town: a primarily residential town linked by rail to a city. These towns were called suburbs. As the city expanded toward a commuter suburb, well to do residents frequently resisted annexation. State laws in Eastern states soon facilitated this method of retaining local political control by making incorporation relatively easy, and annexation difficult.

The US population shifted from small towns and farms to large towns and cities during the nineteenth century, and additional types of suburbs formed. Before 1900, street car lines facilitated lines of urban land use that extended outside city limits. Factory owners built modern factories on the city’s outskirts, creating industrial suburbs. Cities annexed some of this newly urban land, but residents of other new places incorporated. New urban land uses eventually surrounded older towns, cities, and commuter suburbs. Despite the resulting diversity among a city’s suburbs, the term suburb retained a con notation of new, residential, and middle class.

Factories built during World War II brought more jobs to former farmland around cities, and both residential and commercial construction boomed after the war. Farmland near a city provided ideal locations for large developments, especially when near a highway. Diverse federal and state policies subsidized new schools, hospitals, sewer lines, and other infrastructure, but did little to repair and upgrade existing infra structure. Federal housing policies combined with banking and real estate practices also tended to put cities at a disadvantage. Some cities, especially cities in the West, continued to annex new development. If a city did not annex growing areas, its suburban band expanded in land area, employment, and population. If the city itself failed to attract new residents and businesses, its property tax revenue declined, putting it at further disadvantage.

As cities stopped routine annexation, social scientists and administrators needed a straight forward definition for this urban land outside city limits, a definition that would facilitate both data collection and comparisons among places and across time. The US Bureau of the Census based such definitions on political boundaries – municipal or county. Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs) contain a large city and its ‘‘ring’’ – the rest of the county that contains the central city land plus any adjacent counties economically tied to the city. An SMSA can include substantial rural areas. In 1910 the Census identified 25 metropolitan districts – cities plus adjacent ‘‘urban’’ minor civil divisions (Gardner 1999) – but published little information about the ‘‘fringe’’ of each district. In 1950 the Bureau defined 35 urbanized areas, units again based on minor civil divisions. A city’s fringe could include incorporated places (residential suburbs, industrial suburbs, older towns and villages) plus unincorporated land that had a population density of 1,000 per square mile or more or was surrounded by other land within the fringe. Since land area and the population size of a city’s fringe depended in part on past annexation, large fringe areas were more typical of cities in the Northeast than of cities in the West or South.

In Census reports and in academic research using Census data, a city’s fringe (and its ring) became its suburbs. Individual incorporated places within the fringe or ring also are called suburbs. Demographers such as Schnore (1965) emphasized the diversity of these incorporated places, and suggested categories. Schnore reserved ‘‘suburb’’ for primarily residential municipalities; suburban residents still largely commuted to city jobs. Schnore called municipalities that provided substantial employment, and hence had some independence from the city, ‘‘satellites.’’

Even in 1950, distinctions between city and suburb were not always obvious, particularly in highly urban areas. Jersey City, NJ could be a central city or a satellite, but was it a satellite of Newark or of New York City? Similarly, was Newark a city with suburbs, or a part of New York City’s suburbs? With each subsequent Census, this situation has become more common and more complex.

Further changes in land use, particularly the growth of jobs in suburbs, have generated a new kind of commute and a new term: exurb. Exurbs are small towns or unincorporated areas with sizable new housing developments. Located outside the suburban fringe, an exurb houses many people who work in suburbs.

The suburbs (and exurbs) of any US city tend to be different from each other, yet intern ally homogeneous. Employment is no longer a key distinction. Municipal zoning practices, economic development policies, and other local policies mean that a suburb can appear residential, yet have substantial commercial, office, and even industrial activity. Suburbs now concentrate such activities in malls or in ‘‘parks’’ located near highway interchanges, effectively out of sight as corporate landscaping blends into the residential landscape.

The critical difference among US suburbs today involves ability to finance municipal services. US municipalities, counties, and school districts depend heavily upon property tax revenue, and per capita property tax revenue varies substantially. Federal and state funds have not equalized local revenue (and services). A suburb with wealthy residents plus substantial non residential development can provide services more easily than a primarily residential community with low income residents. Over time, these differences have produced substantial ‘‘stratification of place’’ among each city’s suburbs. As this suggests, there is wide variation in median family income as well. Suburbs are not necessarily middle class.

The processes creating the decline of annexation, suburban stratification of place, and substantial population and housing homogeneity within each suburban municipality involve more than municipal finance. Long held beliefs about proper land use planning, use of local land use planning (rather than metropolitan area planning), and the importance of home ownership as a financial investment make substantial contributions. The initial characteristics of each suburb also have lasting impact. Older industrial suburbs, for example, tend to follow a different track than older suburbs that began as upper middle class residential areas.

Housing stock can be especially important, as it varies with the period in which a sub urban municipality experienced rapid growth (Friedman 1994). Suburbs that grew rapidly before World War II include satellites with substantial multifamily housing and other housing built for the working class. Other older residential suburbs can have large homes that have retained, even gained, value. Places that grew rapidly just after World War II are likely to include former defense plants and post war housing tracts that initially had small houses on small lots. In this period, many municipalities, anticipating future growth, zoned for large lot single family homes. In part for this reason, average house size increased rather steadily after 1948. Single family homes built in 1955 aver aged 1,270 square feet. The mean for new single family homes increased to 1,500 in 1970, 2,080 in 1990, and 2,330 in 2003 (HUD and US Bureau of the Census 2004). Suburbs also vary in the extent they have added condominium and townhouse developments, a possible source of ‘‘moderate’’ cost (but not necessarily ‘‘affordable’’) housing.

The total suburban population of the US is becoming less ‘‘white’’ as others settle in suburbs. By 2000, over half (58 percent) of the Asian population, half (49 percent) of the Hispanic population, but only 39 percent of the black population lived in suburbs (defined as the rings of SMSAs) (Logan 2001). Koreans and Asian Indians are especially suburban, in part because immigrants are settling directly in suburbs. In the entire country, 75 percent of the 2000 suburban population was non Hispanic white. The remaining 25 percent included 11 percent classified Hispanic, 8 percent black, and 4 percent Asian (US Census).

The suburban history of blacks is complex. US suburbs have always housed and employed African Americans (Wiess 2004). Before World War II, high status suburbs typically had neighborhoods that housed African American servants and other local workers. In the South, African Americans typically lived on the out skirts of the city. In the North, freed slaves founded villages and towns that are now within a city’s fringe. The vast majority of the housing developments that went up outside (and also inside) city limits before, perhaps, 1970 were, however, entirely white. Homogeneity in residential neighborhoods was ‘‘best practice.’’ Realtors and sociologists alike argued that neighborhoods homogeneous in income, race, ethnicity, and other characteristics were more likely to retain property value over time. Further, housing discrimination was legal until the late 1960s. Since then, the percentage of blacks living in suburbs has slowly increased. Informal practices continue, however, to limit housing integration.


  1. Friedman, J. J. (1994) Suburban Variations within Highly Urbanized Regions: The Case of New Jersey. In: Baldassare, M. & Chekki, D. (Eds.), Suburban Communities, Research in Community Sociology 4: 97-132.
  2. Gardner, T. (1999) Metropolitan Classification for Census Years before World War II. Historical Methods 32: 139-50.
  3. Hobbs, F. & Stoops, N. (2002) Demographic Trends in the 20th Century. Census 2000 Special Reports (November), US Census Bureau, US Department of Commerce, Washington, DC.
  4. HUD and US Bureau of the Census (2004) Characteristics of New One Family Homes. Construction Reports, Series C 25. HUD and US Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC.
  5. Logan, J. R. (2001) The New Ethnic Enclaves in America’s Suburbs. Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, State University of New York, Albany.
  6. Rudel, T. (1989) Situations and Strategies in American Land Use Planning. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  7. Salamon, S. (2003) Newcomers to Old Towns. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  8. Schnore, L. (1965) The Urban Scene: Human Ecology and Demography. Free Press, New York.
  9. Wiess, A. (2004) Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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