Urban vs. Suburban: Understanding These Settlement Types

Since most Americans describe their living area as suburban, you would think we’d have a firmer definition of what distinguishes an urban environment from a suburban one. The United States government has clear definitions of what constitutes a rural area and an urban one, but what about the suburbs? 

An urban area is the area within the city limits and is characterized by denser community structures like apartment buildings and high-rises. A suburban area by contrast includes the single-family residential and mixed-land use areas that are either located within an urban area or just outside of one.

This article will cover the fundamental differences between urban and suburban environments and the processes of urbanization and suburbanization.

Urban vs. Suburban

According to Bloomberg, about 52 percent of Americans describe their neighborhood as suburban, while 27 percent describe their community as urban and 21 percent rural (source).

Urban and suburban areas are both part of metropolitan areas, which we regard as distinct from rural areas. The actual cutoff point between each of these — urban, suburban, and rural — can appear somewhat arbitrary, though (source).

Common measurements used to distinguish them include population size and density, economic activity, linear distance from the central city, and housing type. However, new data-driven definitions are currently under development.

While an absolute definition can be elusive, the general concepts themselves are not hard to grasp, so let’s look at each in turn.

What Is Considered Urban?

The word “urban” is an adjective that describes something in or relating to a town or city.

We usually contrast densely populated urban areas, where individuals carry on various economic activities, with the more sparsely populated rural areas that focus more on agriculture.

UNESCO dates the earliest known town in the world, Jericho, to around 8,000 BC, while the first cities, like Eridu and Uruk, emerged between 5000 and 3000 BC (source). 

Etymology

Much of our terminology in the West regarding cities derives from the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome. The Latin word for a walled town or city is urbs, and the English word “urban” derives from the Latin adjective form urbanus

We find one of the earliest examples of the term used by the ancient 3rd-century BC Roman comedian Plautus in the form “urbani fiunt rustici” (source). 

The first use of the words “city” and “cities” in English appeared in the 13th century AD as London, England, was rapidly expanding. By AD 1200, London had a population of 25,000. 

Lexicographers date the first use of the word “urban” in Early Modern English to 1634, and by the mid-1670s, London had a population of 500,000 (source).

Still, the word “urban” did not enter common usage until the mid-19th century, as numerous major cities emerged in the West during the Industrial Revolution.

State Definitions

Some states within the United States are more rural than others, so each state tends to define what qualifies as a town or city very differently.

More rural states like North Carolina might classify a settlement with a population of 1,000 people as a town, while larger states like New York might set the bar at 5,000 persons.

For example, in New York, they define the primary difference between a city and a village as having organization and government structures set out in formal charters.

Some villages may have populations larger than small cities, and villages pay taxes for towns’ services (source). In California, on the other hand, they make no distinction between a town and a city.

Urbanized Areas

On the federal level, the United States Census Bureau defines urban areas as a densely developed territory that includes residential, commercial, and other urban land uses. They also distinguish between Urbanized Areas and Urban Clusters (source). 

Urbanized Areas have a population of 50,000 or more, while Urban Clusters have between 2,500 and 50,000.

The intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), headquartered in Paris, France, defines small urban areas as between 50,000 to 200,000 (source).

Principal Cities

The US Office of Management and Budget defines a principal city as the largest incorporated place in a Core Based Statistical Area with a population of at least 10,000.

In more sparsely populated areas, a principal city can be the largest incorporated area or census-designated place.

However, much smaller towns like Logan City, West Virginia, with a population under 2,000, have been designated principal cities as the largest incorporated place of a Micropolitan Statistical Area (source).

Metropolitan areas can have more than one principal city if those cities meet the population requirements.

Areas with a population of 10,000 to 50,000 qualify if the number of people working there exceeds the number of working residents while being at least 1/3rd of the largest principal city population.

With a population between 50,000 and 250,000, they qualify if the number of workers exceeds working residents. With a population of over 250,000, they merely have to have 100,000 or more workers.

Business and Residential Districts

At the core of a city is its central business district, such as Midtown Manhattan, Chicagos’ Loop, and Downtown Los Angeles. The central business district is typically surrounded by factories and industrial centers and then residential rings. 

Generally, the further away from the central city the housing is, the more expensive it becomes as individuals seek to escape the crowded and polluted nature of the city.

However, in some areas, suburban apartments have become less expensive to rent than those in the city proper.

Industrial Cities

The cities are usually the seats of the county or state governments and the headquarters of powerful corporations. They also contain a mixture of upper-middle-class housing and typically higher-density housing for working-class residents.

During the Industrial Revolution, the cities became major manufacturing centers, unlike previous cities in history, which were primarily commercial.

The rural poor flocked to the cities for jobs as many in the emerging upper-middle class fled to the suburbs to escape the congestion as well as the smog and pollution caused by manufacturing equipment.

The growing need for cheap labor for the industrial sector was fed by mass immigration during that time. This also led to the development of slums as land developers attempted to squeeze more and more houses onto a single lot.

After the Civil War, many shantytowns were replaced by large tenements.

At this time, the slums and ghettos were largely filled by migrants from Europe, especially from Germany and Ireland.

Later, they would come primarily from Eastern Europe, while during both World Wars, many northern factories sought to recruit black labor from the American South.

Urban Culture

Increasingly, the inner city has become associated with minority groups, particularly black Americans. Since 2000, whites have constituted a minority in America’s cities (source).

As a result, many Americans associate the word “urban” with black culture.

Black migration to many northern cities began in 1890 and expanded from 1900 to 1910.

The World Wars expanded this migration exponentially as black Americans received unparalleled opportunities in northern factories compared to the poverty they often experienced in the pre-Civil Rights era segregated South, although they would see their share of obstacles there as well.

The industrial centers of the North and Midwest encouraged them to come by trainloads, which often led to further ethnic strife in the cities as they competed for wages with European immigrants as well a native-born Americans.

They were hit particularly hard by the process of deindustrialization that began after World War II, and accelerated in the 1970s. The higher unemployment rates in many cities across the nation compared to the suburbs is well-documented (source).

What Is Considered Suburban?

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A suburb is an outlying part of a city or town within commuting distance of the central city. The prefix sub- represents its proximity to the city rather than its usual connotation of “less than” or “underneath” (source).

We might consider a small town outside of a city as a suburb. Suburbs typically have a much lower population density than the central city, and, most often, they are primarily residential. Suburban residents frequently travel to the city for employment.

A suburb is a particularly difficult concept to define as a gradient somewhere between urban and rural.

They are variously defined by their location, transportation, culture, and appearance. Data-based attempts at definition include sprawl indices or fiscal capacity indicators (source).

Etymology

While suburbanization is largely a more modern phenomenon, it did occur on a smaller scale in the ancient and Medieval world. We derive our English word suburb from the Latin suburbium through the Old French form subburbe (source). 

Such early suburbs were often outside of the municipal jurisdiction of the cities, so they gained a reputation for unsavory practices like prostitution. In English, the term “suburban sinner” became slang for a prostitute.

It is in the context of an outlying part of a city that the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) used one of the earliest instances of the Latin word suburbium in one of his orations (source).

Another form of suburb during the Roman period consisted mainly of small villas outside of the city, where aristocrats could escape the hubbub of the city of Rome, such as the Gardens of Sallust and the Villa of Hadrian (source). 

These would be similar in concept to the English country houses that emerged during the Tudor period in England, where aristocrats purchased landed estates outside of the city without the need for fortification. Such individuals often also owned townhouses in the city.

By AD 1300, the population of London was around  80,000, and we have the first use of the word suburb in Middle English by John Wycliffe in his English translation of the Bible.

However, he was referring to the cities of Canaan and their “common-lands” or “pasture lands,” as you will see it in more modern translations (source).

By the 19th century, the meaning had shifted to denote someone who possessed poor manners or was narrow-minded. It’s not until the 20th century that it really gained the connotations that it does today with middle-class living and prosperity.

Streetcar Suburbs or Middle Suburbs

The transportation revolution in the US aided the expansion of cities for the east coast further west through the construction of roads and canals, which led to the rise of cities like St. Louis, Detroit, Buffalo, and Chicago in the 1830s and 1840s. 

Meanwhile, in the East, well-to-do Boston merchants began to use newly added railway services to travel to their rural estates in nearby Milton and Newton by at least the 1840s. These would also become some of the earliest “streetcar suburbs.”

Many Boston businessmen would travel by rail from their country houses to their downtown offices in the city. New Yorkers used the local ferries to the same effect from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

The middle-class now followed the wealthy out into the countryside, creating the first major wave of suburbanization. Further advances in transportation would contribute to suburbanization, including subways and, most importantly, the automobile.

The Suburban Explosion of the 1950s

The early 20th century saw the rise of major metropolises, and suburbanization would see a significant boost with the mass production of Henry Ford’s Model T in the 1910s onward.

However, It was not until after World War II that the real suburban explosion began. 

GIs returning home from the war sought to settle down and have families, leading to the massive baby boom.

The GI Bill enabled many vets to obtain an education and enter the new managerial class. America prospered during this time as war-ravaged Europe needed time to recover.

The massive war industries had been geared up for production, and they turned their attention to the civilian market, producing goods for the housing and automobile industries. Car ownership soon became the norm. 

Housing developments such as the Levittowns began to spring up all over the country. The expansion of automobile usage was aided when Congress approved the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways in 1956.

All these factors combined encouraged a massive out-migration from the cities into the suburbs.

Suburban growth between 1950 and 1980 occurred most rapidly in the Sunbelt cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Tampa, and Miami.

Suburbanization was especially great around Los Angeles, fueled by industries related to the War Department. 

Balances of Principal Cities

The United States Census Bureau defines suburbs more by what they are not rather than what they are.

While a principal city is the largest city within a Metropolitan Statistical Area, anything within that statistical area that is not a principal city qualifies as a suburban area, falling under the term “balances of principal cities” (source).

Variation by State

In the US, the city of Los Angeles in California has several suburbs, including Beverly Hills, with a population of 34,000, and Santa Monica, with a population of 90,000 (source).

While suburbs typically have lower population densities than urban areas, Santa Monica has a population density of 10,996 persons per square mile compared to Los Angeles with a density of 8,484 persons per square mile (source).

Based on their populations, most other states would consider these to be major cities rather than suburbs. For example, the population of Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina, is around 132,000.

In 1962, the New York State Legislature established the qualification of a suburban town as a town of the “first class,” having a population of at least 25,000 people or having a population of at least 7,500 and being within 15 miles of a city with a population over 100,000 (source).

Building Patterns

Suburban neighborhoods are known to be more family-oriented and occupied by more close-knit family groups.

In contrast to the central-city dwellers, suburban areas are marked by single-family homes that are single-story, freestanding buildings with a larger plot of land and space between homes for privacy.

Homeownership is part of the suburban dream, centered around nuclear families. There are far more married couples in the suburbs than there are in the cities.

The California Department of Real Estate defines the practical limit for a single-family detached subdivision as 30 dwelling units per acre (source).

The Suburban Way of Life

As an adjective, suburban has connotations of class as suburban neighborhoods are occupied by middle-class families and individuals with higher incomes compared to working-class individuals.

As a result, we often associate the suburban way of life with consumerism. Sociologists have also had a tendency to view suburban development through the lens of Marxist conceptions of class conflict.

At its best, the suburban way of life represents a strong family structure and values. Many individuals view the cities as non-conducive to a solid family environment, which is why many move out into the suburbs in the first place.

The suburbs are also representative in many ways of the staunchly independent mindset of Americans.

In the United States, suburbs often form their own political jurisdictions, while this is not the case in the United Kingdom, where suburbs are administered by the cities they are attached to (source).

The political independence of the suburbs does affect education and zoning laws, with suburbanites often having better housing and educational opportunities.

The Uncertain Future of Cities and Suburbs

One of the unintended consequences such a rapid move out into the suburbs during the 1950s was the gutting of the inner cities.

This has had a particularly devastating effect on minority groups, and the movement out into the suburbs is often associated with “white flight.”

Perhaps the more appropriate term would be “middle-class flight,” as middle-class blacks, as well as anyone who could afford to, often fled from the economic devastation of the inner cities. 

Many suburban areas did have “restrictive covenants” that specified that the residents had to be of a certain ethnicity. However, by the 1990s, there were several mixed suburban communities. Now, one-third of American suburbanites belong to minority groups.

While industrial cities received a boost from Cold War defense spending, reaching its peak as a percentage of Federal expenditures under JFK, continued deindustrialization in what would become the Rust Belt devastated working-class residents of the inner cities.

Foreign competition in the steel market was particularly devastating for the Midwest.

The rise of cell phones, laptop computers, and the internet has also increased our ability to work from home, and e-commerce has devastated local department stores.

The recent COVID-19 shutdown of the economy has already had further devastating consequences to city dwellers and has accelerated flight to the suburbs (source).

In 2020, Forbes ranked Texas, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Washing as having the best suburbs for those looking to resettle (source).

The scramble for suburban housing has raised prices in many areas outside of America’s major cities due to the recent unrest in those cities. 

The long-term prospects for the suburban way of life are uncertain, as millennials face the challenges of massive student debt and lack of jobs in the suburbs, meaning many are unable to afford suburban housing.

Perhaps the recent flight to the suburbs will lead to the rise of new jobs and opportunities in the suburbs and exurbs — lower-density residential areas on the outer edges of the suburbs..

The housing issues of the inner cities and the tension between the cities and the suburbs have sparked debate over single-family zoning and replacing them with high-density low-income housing (source).

Many cities are looking to decrease the independence of the suburbs, which will no doubt stir further resentment.

Final Thoughts

While suburban environments have been around in some form for thousands of years, the scale of suburbanization in the United States stems from the abundance of the automobile and the booming middle class of the 1950s.

Essentially, a suburb is an outlying part of a city within commuting distance of the city, and the future of such suburbs is up for debate.

It will be interesting to see how the future of urbanization and suburbanization play out with the various economic and political forces at play.

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