Suburbs as always changing

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Panorama of houses and fields at the edge of suburban development (near Lund, Sweden)

Suburbs have been with us for a long time, but they have kept changing. There were residential districts of single-family houses outside major American cities in the late 1700s. However, "The suburb, as a lifestyle separating and distancing the workplace from the residence and involving a daily commute to jobs in the center, can be dated to around 1815." (Gandelsonas 1999, 31)

Streetcar and railroad suburbs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were built to resemble older towns, with their own business district and access to public transport. After World War II a new pattern developed, with large tracts of land devoted to housing, retail spread along strips or in malls, and most civic services left for struggling municipalities to invent and fund. The new pattern arose because of pressure from real estate and other interests, desires for more space and less density than crowded city streets, flight from the poor and from African-Americans moving in from the south, plus various tax and mortgage incentives put in place to favor suburbs over cities. The new highway systems enabled the shift to suburban development and an automobile dependent mode of life. (See Dreier 2001 and Squires 2002 for accounts of the policies and forces behind the postwar suburban boom.)

Later the pattern of commuting to the center city for jobs began to change, as retail and industry moved out, service jobs multiplied, and finance became globalized. The suburban sprawl now contained the economic functions that the city had previously provided. A multi-use and dispersed pattern developed, dependent on the automobile, and "not organized anymore in oppositional terms such as center versus periphery . . . but as a nonhierarchical fragmented urbanized territory." (37)

The suburbs have not remained homogeneous, if they ever were as uniform as they were pictured. Many closer in suburbs now house poorer populations, and while segregation by economic class remains strong, outer suburbs have increasingly diverse populations. Though Washington, D.C. is a somewhat special case, a suburban Maryland real estate agency advertises that their office can assist clients who speak: English, Spanish, French, German, Danish, Arabic, Italian, Korean, Indian, Tagalog, Dutch, ASL, "and more!"