An ode to the suburb
By Andrew Smith | January 4, 2024
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 Friedrich Hayek’s point in “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” that “economic problems arise always and only in consequence of change.” 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% from 1945-50, and again by 52% from 1950-60 and another 44% 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. 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 again: “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.”
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. The widespread adoption of the car as the primary mode of transport changed everything.
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 more so 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.
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.
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 and young professionals began to move to cities, reversing a trend. They are the preferred destination for those ages 20–34. But as they age, that trend reverses. By 2020, 48% of millennials were living in suburbs, and that number grew from 44% 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.
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.
Andrew Smith is an economics instructor at New Palestine (Indiana) High School and an adjunct instructor for Vincennes University. This column was reprinted with his permission.