This is a wonderful article, from New Geography, providing a brief refresher course on the movement of people through space and time, seeking the best way to live—and yes, it is still found in the suburbs.
‘How shall we live?’ is a question that naturally concerns architects, planners, community representatives and all of us. It is a question that turns on the density of human settlements, the use of resources and the growing division of labour.
“Where Europeans lived mostly in the countryside in the eighteenth century, by the middle of the nineteenth century they had gathered in burgeoning towns and cities. The divide between town and country became a worldwide template in the twentieth century, as nations measured their economic growth by the pace of urbanisation.
"Today, more and more of the world’s population live in cities. In 1970, 35 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban environments; today that number has passed fifty per cent.
“The passage of people from the countryside to the city, though, was not the end of the great movement of peoples in the developed world. The developing world continues to urbanise, but North America and Europe started to move in the opposite direction in the 1920s, away from city centres outwards into new suburbs. Humanity, it seemed was on the move again, and by the 1970s more Americans lived in suburbs than in cities or in the country.
“European cities, too, saw the growth of suburbs, as first wealthy people, and then later working people moved away from city centres, taking advantage of new railway and tramlines, and then later motorways, to commute to work, and return to homes beyond the urban boundary line. All these have been in one way or the other supported by governments.
“Roosevelt’s government Homeowners Loan Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration and then later the Veterans Administration provided cheap mortgages with fixed term repayments and a low interest rate. After World War II, the rise continued and by 1972 the FHA had helped nearly eleven million families to own homes. In those same years between 1934 and 1972, the percentage of American families living in owner-occupied dwellings rose from 44 per cent to 63 per cent.
“Between 1920 and 1930, when automobile registrations rose by more than 150 per cent, the suburbs of the nation’s largest cities grew twice as fast as the core communities. Henry Ford said at the time 'The City is doomed' and that 'we shall solve the city problem by leaving the city' In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act created the largest freeway system in the world.
“In Britain, the postwar government planned and built garden suburbs and new towns, ringing London, on schemes first outlined by Ebenezer Howard at the end of the nineteenth century. Similar ‘garden cities’ were built in places like Hellerau, outside Dresden (1909) and Kapuskasing and Walkerville in Ontario, Canada.
“The reflux of people in the more developed world, away from the city centres, strains our distinctions between ‘city’ and ‘suburb’. The suburbs of the previous generation are the urban centres of the present. The dense settlements of Notting Hill, New Jersey and Sarcelles are the suburbs of twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago. As suburbanisation carries on, people are moving away from the suburbs their parents moved into, with much the same motives of seeking greener pastures or fleeing urban problems. New words are coined to describe the change: exurbs, edge cities, edgelands.
“This pace of suburbanisation has provoked its own anxieties. The great historian of ‘sprawl’, Robert Bruegmann, identifies three distinctive ‘anti-sprawl’ movements. In the 1920s Britain, intellectuals and Tory shire-dwellers raised a great protest against ‘ribbon development’ and what they condemned as ‘bungaloid growth’. In the late 1950s William H. Whyte, a journalist at Fortune magazine warned that ‘huge patches of once green countryside have been turned into vast, smog-filled deserts – at a rate of some 3000 acres a day’.
“Today suburbs are no longer just gauche or racist; they are killers of the planet. Herbert Girardet’s idea of the ‘human footprint’ was that each head of population would need a given area of land from which to raise his or her subsistence. As the mass of consumer goods each person used increased, he would need more land – the footprint would get larger. Indeed, says Girardet, if all the world lived at London rates of consumption, they would need three planets to sustain them, around 40 billion hectares, rather than the 14 billion hectares of landmass on our earth.”