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  • Writer's pictureSoren Miles Fesel

How American Suburbs Hurt Cities

In the 1950s, suburbs first emerged in the United States. The post-war economy was expanding and prosperous, which prompted many Americans to move to newly constructed suburban areas on the outskirts of cities. 

These new places were sparsely populated residential areas usually only accessible by car. In the decades following their emergence, suburbanization has gradually increased, with more and more people moving to these peripheral areas of cities. 

And as suburbs have risen in America, so have car usage, environmental harms, emissions, costs associated with infrastructure, and socioeconomic inequalities. 

Suburbanization is not coincidentally correlated with these described effects, but instead the direct cause of them. Since they initially became prominent, suburbs have crippled American cities, and have generated many prominent social and economic problems. 

Of course, some cities and regions in the US are less affected by suburbanization than others. For instance, the northeastern cities in the United States like New York and Boston tend to have less suburban sprawl and better public transportation networks than metropolitan areas in the west. 

Firstly, to fully understand suburbanization, we must first acknowledge some more historical background. 

Suburban areas were originally designed and drawn up (at least in part) by urban planners in a racist effort to separate black and white people. 

The 1949 Housing Act passed by the Truman administration encouraged white people to move from city centers to the newly constructed peripheral areas. In contrast, black people were forced to remain mostly in inner cities, often lacking economic and educational opportunities as a result. 

The construction of these communities was intended to reaffirm the socioeconomic divide between white and black people by geographically separating them and pushing wealth and industry from inner cities to the outskirts. 

While discriminatory housing policies are technically gone, their effects are still clearly felt across metropolitical areas in the US. There is a strong divide between the wealth of white people who mostly reside in the suburbs and the comparatively lower economic attainment of black people living mostly in inner cities. 

Extending beyond the racist roots of suburban areas, suburbs have gradually made cities more unlivable and have increased environmental degradation.

The key way this happens is through suburban sprawl. Since suburbs are relatively sparsely populated compared to the urban center, they are likewise very spread out. 

Suburbs take up more space, which causes many previously undeveloped pieces of land to be built upon. This hurts local ecosystems and the environment as they are gradually replaced by the construction of new residential suburbs. More infrastructure (including roads, pipe systems, and electric cables) has to be built to accommodate the sprawling nature of suburbs. This, in turn, sucks up money and resources. 

This decentralized, spread-out nature of suburbs also promotes excessive car usage. Since suburbs are usually expansive and low in population density, it makes them hard to traverse by simply walking or biking.

Likewise, it is not efficient to build public transportation networks because only a few people in a given suburban area would be physically close enough to said transport center to reliably access it. 

Because of these natural inefficiencies, suburbanites rely mostly on cars to get in, around, and out of suburbs. This overreliance on cars, caused by suburban sprawl, has many harmful effects.

Many cars in an urban area necessitate the construction of massive highways, roads, and parking lots that are present everywhere in a city. 

And cars are not just used in the suburbs, but also in different parts of the city since suburbanites travel and commute to other areas with their vehicles. 

The financial cost of maintaining these networks costs American taxpayers billions of dollars every single year; money that could be better invested in the construction of public transportation and other urban initiatives. 

Excessive car usage can also be a financial problem for countless individual Americans. Maintaining a car is very expensive. Costs associated with refueling, repairs, maintenance, and purchasing a car in the first place may be unaffordable to people. Owning one car has an average cost of 12,000 dollars per year, according to the New York Times. 

Comparatively, other methods of transportation like bus or train systems are much cheaper. 

Additionally, car-oriented infrastructure like highways or parking lots comes at the expense of previously existing places in city centers. 

American city centers did not always have gigantic highways slicing through them, nor did they have countless parking lots dotting the area. Urban centers used to have significantly more residential areas, apartment blocks, commercial districts, parks, and public places where people could meet. 

Before suburbanization and the car boom that it caused, city centers were much more liveable and social - filled with interesting buildings and features. 

Many of these unique characteristics and buildings have been bulldozed and destroyed to make room for dull concrete highways and parking lots - an ultimate consequence of suburbanization. 

Apart from draining the US’s national budget and getting rid of liveable urban environments, car-centric cities can also cause negative health effects. 

Noise pollution from traffic and heavy car presence can increase stress and worsen mental and physical health.

Emissions caused by automobiles contribute to congestion and air pollution, increasing cases of chronic lung diseases for people who have lived in urban areas for many years. 

These emissions, of course, contribute to climate change and increase carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere as well. 

All of these factors are complicated, and this article is not long enough to explain them fully. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the rise of suburbs has harmed cities, and contributed to the described effects.

That being said, what are some of the potential solutions to suburbanization? How can we make cities more liveable and decrease suburban sprawl?

Since the main issue with suburbs is low density, it should naturally follow that increasing density would help in improving the overall quality of cities. 

There are multiple policies American cities can embark on. Changing zoning laws so that multiple families can live in houses in suburbs can help increase density. Coordinating and planning the construction of high-density, affordable housing units in suburban areas can help to gradually convert the suburbs to higher-density areas. Additionally, canceling the planning of new low-density housing can also help.

The resultant benefits of more compact cities would certainly be felt. Public transportation will be able to be built, replacing heavy car usage. Cities will be more accessible by non-car means. More space will be available for apartments, public areas, and other buildings and there will be significantly less toxic emissions and noise pollution as a result. If implemented, policies that reduce suburbanization, and increase density can transform American cities from dull, concrete deserts of highways and parking lots into liveable spaces. 

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1 Comment

Melinda Mizuno
Melinda Mizuno
Jan 22

What a great introduction to the history and impact of suburbanization. I'm wondering if this has spurred you to explore a career in urban planning? I think that's a fascinating field!

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