Category Archives: Books – Suburban Studies

Article | Filling the Governance Gap by Allan Wallis

Read Filling the Governance Gap by Allan Wallis, my annotated copy of this article.

Wallis, Allan D. “Filling the Governance Gap.” National Civic Review 87, no. 1 (1998).


The dominant vision for regional growth

  1. Ownership of a detached single-family house;
  2. Automobile ownership;
  3. Low-rise workplaces;
  4. Small communities with strong local governments;
  5. Environment free from signs of poverty.

Downs says the dominant vision succeeds admirably in satisfying short-term needs, while simultaneously making it more difficult to solve long-term problems. (103)

Past solutions, notably those that are essentially structural (such as city/county consolidations), offer limited promise for filling the governance gap. Never- theless, some sustaining structure is essential lest regionalism resolve itself to being a celebration of process over substance. But what kind of structure, and how much is needed? “Herein lies a regional paradox,” Savitch and Vogel con- clude. “If metropolitan regions are to pursue effective policies, they must be politically viable (i.e., command popular and elite consensus), yet regional bodies whose policies go beyond the bounds of consensus are apt to lose that viability. In effect, the more aggressive regions become, the less power they possess. Regional bodies must then forever balance these tensions, trading off and adapting themselves to pressure and circumstances. The challenge is to do this while taking a long-term view of the need to convert political legitimacy into broader political mandates.”

Resolving this paradox requires more than analyses of all of the things that are problematic with current arrangements. It requires, as Downs suggests, some type of shared vision based on shared values that are in turn embodied in institutional arrangements.

These visions and values need to be developed simultaneously at the neigh- borhood and regional levels. At the neighborhood level, people must be con- vinced of a net gain in shifting from patterns of spatial and social organization that follow the current dominant vision to a new vision and lifestyle. This is beginning to happen as more and more local comprehensive plans adopt the language of the new urbanist and call for creation of urban villages and transit- oriented developments. At the same time, it is necessary to create vision and binding values at the regional level. A call for environmental stewardship that is based on preserving the natural assets of each region is one important foun- dation. Developing fair-share formulas for distributing a wide range of land uses, including affordable housing, is another.

Vision and values flow through networks of communications and social interaction. This calls for the kind of civic networking that Dodge, Peirce, and others23 recognize as essential to the development of regionalism. Unfortu- nately, evidence of that sort of networking is still hard to find.

Does all this support the contention of such pragmatists as Savitch and Vogel, that the pace for achieving regionalism will be glacial? Not necessarily. If other advanced industrialized countries continue to move rapidly forward on government reform, embracing regionalism in order to make themselves more globally competitive, then changes in the United States may be forced to accelerate. If so, the presentations offered in the books reviewed here will gain a very wide audience.

Book | Metropolitics by Myron Orfield

51F6QVJN2VL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Orfield, Myron. Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability. Cambridge, MA: Brookings Institution Press; Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1997.

Author – Myron Orfield


Myron Orfield identifies six distinct types of suburban communities:

  1. at-risk segregated,
  2. at-risk older,
  3. at-risk low density,
  4. bedroom-developing,
  5. affluent job centers, and
  6. very affluent job centers.

These six types represent one of the greatest challenges of suburbia: the socio-economic stratification of the suburban population. (31-48)

Social separation leaves middle-class children in overcrowded, underfunded schools, but its more powerful harms accrue to the poor people of color left behind in communities of concentrated poverty in many American cities and some older suburbs. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty destroy the lives of the people trapped in them and create a growing social and fiscal cancer in the midst of previously healthy communities. In cities and older suburbs, as joblessness, racial segregation, and single-parent families come to dominate neighborhoods, residents are cut off from middle-class society and the private economy. Individuals, particularly children, are deprived of successful local role models and connections to opportunities outside their neighborhood. A distinct society emerges with expectations and patterns of behavior at odds with middle-class norms, and the ‘exodus of middle and working-class families from ghetto neighborhoods removes an important social buffer. (53-54)

From a review of Orfield’s related article:

Orfield gives two steps, to be implemented on a regional level, toward the deconcentration of poverty. The first is regional reform in fair housing, including the destruction of regulatory barriers to affordable housing in the suburbs. Orfield contends that once affordable housing is built at the metropolitan periphery, the expansion of the urban and suburban distressed areas will slow and ultimately stop.

The second reform is tax-base sharing. The most prosperous areas of the metropolitan region will share a certain portion of commercial, industrial, or residential property taxes on high valued homes region-wide. Orfield argues that property tax-base sharing: (1) creates equity in the provision of public services, (2) breaks the intensifying metropolitan mismatch between social needs and property tax-based resources, (3) undermines local fiscal incentives supporting exclusive zoning, (4) undermines local fiscal incentives supporting sprawl, and (5) ends intra-metropolitan competition for tax base.

Book | Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson

images copyJackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

The Author

Kenneth Jackson

JacksonProfessor of History and the Social Sciences at Columbia University

My Thoughts

Jackson’s work—Crabgrass Frontier—is the most ubiquitous citation in my experience of studying suburbia. He published this history of the Suburbs in 1985. It was on the front edge of a wave of suburban studies and framed much of the academic imagination thereafter. Most of his work is that of historical documentation of how suburbs evolved. A significant contribution this book has made is debunking the popular misconception that the suburbs were born after WWII. Suburbia has been around for many generations. It began with the romantic ideal of living in the countryside, while still having access to the commerce of the city. The wealthy were able to achieve this ideal. Jackson demonstrates how the evolution of transportation technology reshaped the urban landscape and allowed more and more people to achieve the garden life outside the city.

Summary Argument

“I will argue that there were two necessary conditions for Americans residential deconcentration—the suburban ideal and population growth—and two fundamental causes—racial prejudice and cheap housing….The residential behavior of the American people, therefore, can be viewed primarily a the result of market forces and government policies. Some suburban families may have acted out of ignorance or irrationality, but most moved to a single-family house because it maximized their utility from a stable set of preferences. In other words, low-density housing was a good deal.”⁠1

My Notes

The uniqueness of the United States Suburb:

  1. 1. population density
  2. 2. home-ownership
  3. 3. residential status – wealthier people live further away from the central city. This is just the opposite of other countries where it is considered a privilege of wealth to live close to the city.
  4. 4. journey-to-work⁠2

early 19th century:

“suburbs, then, were socially and economically inferior to cities when wind, muscle, and water were the prime movers of civilization. This basic cultural and spatial arrangement was essentially the same around the world…even the word suburb suggested inferior manners, narrowness of view, and physical squalor.”⁠3


“The process of suburbanization began between 1815 and 1835 and was well-advanced by the advent of the Civil War. Cities increased in size and area and also in internal structure as speculators constructed class-segregated residential suburbs for white-collar workers and managers at the circumference of the city. Whereas poorer housing had been hidden, quite literally, behind the agreeable facades of the more prosperous dwellings, and whereas blacks had lived in back-alley slums, close to the houses of whites, the new suburban areas, with discriminatory barriers, attractive topography, and inflated real-estate values, attracted wealthier residents.”⁠4


“The nineteenth century was the century of steam, when the commuting railroads created suburbs of a new type in North America—distant from the city, distinguished by an elite dominant class, semirural in orientation, and mixed socioeconomically…The railroad suburbs…stood as a model for success. In the nineteenth century the image of suburbia as an affluent community of railroad commuters was set, and the image remained until the interstate suburbs developed in the 1960s.”⁠5


Lewis Mumford:

“In the suburb one might live and die without marring the image of an innocent world, except when some shadow of its evil fell over a column in the newspaper. Thus the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion. Here domesticity could flourish, forgetful of the exploitation on which so much of it was based. Here individuals could prosper, oblivious of the pervasive regimentation beyond. This was not merely a child-centered environment; it was based on a childish view of the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure principle.” 155-156


1933 governmental report:

“In a considerable degree the rapid popular acceptance of the. Es vehicle centered in the fact that if face to the owner a control over his movements that the older agencies denied. Close at hand and ready for instant use, it carried its owner from door to destination by routes he himself selected, and on schedules of his own making; baggage inconveniences were minimized and perhaps most important of all, the automobile made possible the movement of an entire family at costs that were relatively small. Convenience augmented utility and accelerated adoption of the vehicle.” 173.


The automobile benefitted the suburbs most because the the tractor minimized the need for manual labor in the country, thus reducing the population, and the problem of parking and congestion made the automobile a limited boom in the city. The suburbs had the people and the space. 173-175


“the automobile suburbs that appeared in the 1920s differed in four major respects from their mass transit related predecessors: (1) the overall pattern of settlement, (2) the length and especially the direction of the journey-to-work, (3) the deconcentration of employment, and (4) new forms of low-density, residential architecture.” 181.

in 1949 the housing Act made public housing voluntary for local municipalities. That meant wealthy suburbs that didn’t want to tarnish their image didn’t have to provide public housing. 225.


This reinforced segregation.


1 {Jackson, 1985 #189@287-296}

2 Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 6-11.

3 Ibid.,  19.

4 Ibid.,  310-311.

5 Ibid.,  102.

Book | Building Suburbia by Dolores Hayden

51MQR0TGKJLHayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.

The Author

HaydenDolores Hayden

She is a professor at Yale University and past president of the Urban History Association.

The triple dream: house, yard, and neighborhood.

The following paragraph summarizes the intent of this book:

“Arguing for the metropolitan context of suburban landscapes, this history attempts to reconnect city and suburb, showing that since the early nineteenth century, suburbs have been important to the process of urbanization and economic growth, perhaps as important as the crowded centers of cities. Defining the seven historic landscapes of urban expansion can lead to more precise proposals for their reconstruction. The vernacular houses and yards of suburbia, the older suburban and small-town centers, so long overlooked by urban historians, are an essential part of American life. Their fabric could be preserved by sympathetic practitioners, skilled developers, architects, planners, and public historians, who mend and reweave landscapes while adding new housing, services, and amenities. This would demand both political insight and cultural understanding.”⁠1


Part One: The American Metropolitan Landscape

One—The Shapes of Suburbia

Two—The Suburban City

Part Two: Historic Patterns in the Landscape


Four—Picturesque Enclaves

Five—Streetcar Buildouts

Six—Mail-Order and Self-Built Suburbs

Seven—Sitcom Suburbs

Eight—Edge Nodes

Nine—Rural Fringes

Part Three: The Next Suburbs

Ten—Nostalgia and Futurism

Eleven—The Importance of Older Suburbs

“There is growing realization that the problems of excessive fringe suburban development require more than better design. Indeed, the story of the solar house echoes that of the electric car American inventors had designed, built, and sold early in the century. It was innovative, but large manufacturers chose to promote other products and fuels. In 2003 it is too late to correct past mistakes with better new products alone. Even a program for one hundred million solar houses or one hundred and thirty million electric cars could not make the United States sustainable. To turn patterns of excessive consumption into patterns of wise use that can be sustained forever would require severe limits on land use, energy use, and new construction. All such limits have to be enacted despite the opposition of lobbyists for real estate and product development, who have spent decades priming government and banks to work with them to promote new growth.

Looking at the contributions of architects who create historicist enclaves, digital houses, and green architecture, citizens can see substantial demonstrations of better ways to plan and build. Many architects are eloquent as they address the issues. Many are talented and hardworking. But new designs alone cannot redeem a throwaway culture organized around obsolescence and the continual consumption of undeveloped land and new products. Housing is tied to the political economy. Better architecture cannot, in itself, change the larger patterns of social and economic exploitation developed by growth machines which profit from round after round of fringe development. If the United States is to become a more sustainable and more equitable place, older suburbs have to be saved rather than abandoned on the way to new projects”⁠2





1 {Hayden, 2003 #194@17}

2 {Hayden, 2003 #194@229}