A very brief history of suburbs

Suburbs have not always existed in our society. Although it is thought that around 80% of us live in suburban areas, three hundred years ago the modern day suburb was not really present yet. In those days living communities could easily be defined as a hamlet , a village , a (market) town or a city.

Everything changed with the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution started roughly around 1750 and overtime changed people’s life completely. It changed where people worked, where people lived and even how people earned their money. Traditionally people lived close by where they worked. Think about a farmer, a farm labourer, a miller, a blacksmith or an artist with an atelier. With the invention of factory floors and the employment of tens of people (if not more) per factory the workers had to find different accommodation outside the factory. New housing spruced up around these factories. Often people lived in squalid conditions, with not much room and time to do anything at home but eat and sleep. Migration to the centres of work continued through the 18th and 19th century and cities became busier, dirtier and grim places to live.

The industrial revolution not only changed how we lived and worked, it also created a new middle class with substantial money to spend. In fact, as the old aristocracy started to lose some of their financial strength a new upper middle class emerged that had earned their money through running their own successful businesses. By the mid -19th Century these middle-class families started leaving the dirty city to live in healthier and happier places in the countryside, but still close enough to make it easy to return to work. Highgate village, now in North London, is an example of one of those villages near the city of London that started to see people moving in.

Victorians saw suburbs as a morally preferable option to living in the dirty city: as soon as you could afford it you would move out to the English suburb.

Although, the movement of going to live outside the city was initially driven by well-to-do families, it was not long before the Victorians saw suburbs as a morally preferable option: as soon as you could afford it you would move out to the English suburb. This could not have been accomplished without the transport revolution of the late 19th century. Transport links improved dramatically with the opening of railway lines all over the country. New railway links encouraged a growing population to move out of the city and travel to work instead. Suburbs were actively planned near railway stations and the separation of work and home was now complete. And so was the creation of the English suburb.

It is probably fair to say that the move to the suburbs originated in England, but from the 1900s the same movement can be observed in many other countries. In the USA the trend of urbanisation was not only driven by people migrating from the countryside to the city, but also immigrants from all over the world were more likely to settle in urban areas. Suburbs in North America are younger than in Europe and are driven by car ownership and subsequently by good road connection to places of work, out of town shopping centres and leisure complexes. This new concept of the suburb has been copied all over the world and is being blamed for the disconnection felt in many communities today.

In short, overtime more and more people moved to primarily residential parts of cities that were removed from commercial activities, but with access to larger properties with gardens and more open spaces to enjoy in their free time. This is what is meant by a suburb. These residential areas can still be part of a large city e.g. Edgeware in London or they can be separate from a city e.g. Welvyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. Suburbs were seen to be pleasant to live in, a good place to raise a family and to have good transport links to the city it provides its workers for.   

Further reading

By no means is the above piece describing how the suburb came to exist complete. In fact, it is a rather short and abbreviated version of history. Should you be interested to read a bit more about urbanisation and the development of the suburbs a good starting point are the following books and articles. I am sure there are a lot more books and articles about this subject than that I know about so feel free to comment below or email me with recommendations.

Nick Barratt, Greater London: the story of the suburbs (2012)

Susan Galavan, Dublin’s Bourgois homes: Building the Victorian Suburbs, 1850-1901, (2018)

David Lewis, the Illustrated History of Liverpool’s Suburbs (2014)

David Rusk, Cities without Suburbs: a census 2010 perspective, (2013)

Robert A.M. Stern, Paradise planned: the garden suburb and the modern city (2013)


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