Suburbanization Definition

What is Suburbanization?

Suburbanization occurs when the population of a metropolitan center expands from its centralized, densely populated areas out into its surrounding, suburban areas.

Suburbanization in the United States

The suburbanization of America, characterized by families moving from urban centers to nearby counties, started happening after World War II. At that time, only 13% of Americans lived in the suburbs, but by 2010, more than half the population of the United States called the suburbs their home.

Levittown, early 1950s, via Flickr user markgregory.

The purpose of suburbanization was to provide a means for the large influx of people moving back to the cities after World War II to have somewhere to live, ideally to own a home and a piece of land. The idea was marketed to Americans, largely by the Federal government, as “the American dream,” which consisted of owning a single-family home with a yard — the perfect setting in which to raise a family.

The reason for government involvement was to stimulate the economy through home building, lending, and building the infrastructure needed to support suburban life. The freeway/highway system, for example, was developed during this time, providing a method for people to commute to the city for work and then back home again. This created a car-reliant society.

The Ubiquitous Mall

The shopping mall was a development unique to the suburbs. The first indoor mall in America was the Southdale Center, built in 1956, and located in a Minneapolis suburb. Shopping malls, although privately owned and constructed, replaced downtown shopping districts.

suburban mall

At their peak, there were more than 1,200 malls in America, but as of 2020, more than 300 malls are likely to close.

The Impact of Suburbanization on Urban Cities

As people and businesses, including factories, left urban centers for the suburbs, many people who stayed in the urban centers found themselves out of work. Unemployment, combined with a loss of property tax dollars being shifted from the cities to the suburbs, further weakened the economy of urban centers, and poverty ensued. As the urban centers were becoming less attractive, the suburbs were becoming more attractive, keeping the exodus to the suburbs, the suburbanization, going.

The Racial Element of Suburbanization

During the early years of suburbanization, up until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was enacted, African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos were kept out of the suburbs. The FHA actually required racial segregation in the early days, a practice known as institutional discrimination, or “redlining.”

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, but racial segregation persisted for decades in the suburbs, despite the Fair Housing Act.

The Suburbanization Boom

During the 1980s, “suburban sprawl,” characterized by single-family homes that replaced either vacant land or farmland with little to no regional planning, was happening on a large scale. More than half the households in America were living in the suburbs by 2010.


This was made possible in large part by the rise of national builders during this time, such as Pulte, D.R. Horton, and Lennar, who were building tens of thousands of suburban homes a year.

Shifting Suburbanization Demographics

Suburbanization began as a place for married couples to raise a family, but by 2010, 75% of households were not composed of that sort of family.

Instead, suburbia represented a whole slew of family types: singles, elderly people, divorced people with shared custody, married couples with no children, and households shared by relatives or friends.

The Aftereffects of Suburbanization

Although the idea of suburbanization seemed idyllic when first introduced to America, many negative aftereffects of the model have occurred. The creation of suburbs drained resources from urban centers, encouraged segregation, made commuting in cars necessary (which led to wasted hours in traffic), and eventually led to isolation from the community as a whole. To help solve the problems created by suburbanization, “Smart Growth” initiatives have become popular. These call for mixed-use developments that encourage walkability and community involvement in live-work-play areas.

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