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Defining suburbia

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
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3,149
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27
In the Impacts of Suburbia on Children thread, an attempt to "define" suburbia was suggested, but received very little response. I think this is a compelling activity, to define suburbia in such a way that is measurable.

One trait of suburbia that I think can be measured is:

The majority of the residences are single-family detached homes.

All a researcher needs to do is define the geographic area to be studied and then go out and count the ratio of single-family residences to other types of residences. If the majority are single-family, then yep, it's quite possible that the geographic area may indeed be suburban in nature... you get the idea.

But this is only one trait. I am sure there are many others. Any more suggestions? If you post, please tell us what should be measured and how it would be measured. A complete scientific methodology isn't required, just a quick sentence or two to demonstrate how the suggested measure can be quantified.

Let's be sure to keep the tone conversational, accessible, and fun, yet articulate and concise!
 

JNL

Cyburbian
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2,449
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25
Hmm articulate and concise.. how about low-density housing and low volume roads (that are mainly for residential access).
 
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I would say that suburbia is a true reflection of Euclidian zoning in which there is a strict separation of uses - residential, commercial and industrial separate from one another - whereas in urban areas there is a mixture of uses, housing densities, etc.
 

JNL

Cyburbian
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2,449
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I have a definition of a suburb as "an outlying esp. residential district of a city" - distance from the city seems to be part of what makes suburbia.
 

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
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3,149
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27
JNL said:
Hmm articulate and concise.. how about low-density housing and low volume roads (that are mainly for residential access).
But how would you measure "low-density housing"? How do you quantify that? Is it a ratio of detached single-family homes to multi-family units? Or is it some other measure?

How do you define "low-volume roads"? In Detroit, a major thoroughfare going through a neighborhood may have a comparable vehicular density to a rural community in upstate New York. My point is that road volume may have nothing to do with the density or compactness of a jurisdiction.
 

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
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3,149
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27
Planderella said:
I would say that suburbia is a true reflection of Euclidian zoning in which there is a strict separation of uses - residential, commercial and industrial separate from one another - whereas in urban areas there is a mixture of uses, housing densities, etc.
But how would you measure that seperation/clustering of uses? It's one thing to state it qualitatively, as you have, but to quantitatively measure it, then we might get somewhere. What is the measure of seperation of uses, and how do you measure it?

I'm not trying to be a hard-ass here: all I'm trying to do is get a thoughtful and productive conversation going. Qualitative descriptions are just that: they are only descriptive and are highly susceptible to criticisms. Through quantitative measures, defining suburbia becomes more scientific, less amorphous.
 

JNL

Cyburbian
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2,449
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Ha ha okay maybe that wasn't articulate and concise! I was just making a suggestion to help get things moving...
 

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
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3,149
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27
JNL said:
I have a definition of a suburb as "an outlying esp. residential district of a city" - distance from the city seems to be part of what makes suburbia.
In the Detroit region, you have the city of Detroit, as well as the cities of Dearborn, Livonia, etc...

These other places, Dearborn & Livonia, although they are adjacenet to the city of Detroit, are indeed cities. But, many would call them suburbs because they are adjacent to the big, bad-ass city of Detroit! But take Dearborn for instance, there is a major employer there, Ford Motors, and the place has a definite city-center. So, is Dearborn a city or suburb? From a self-governing stance, Dearbornites would call themselves a city. But from historical development patterns, we might call it a suburb. But which is it?

To deifne a place as suburbia, we need to analyze each municipality on its own grounds, not in relation to each and every adjacent jurisdiction. By analyzing each municipality on its own grounds, we avoid amorphous comparisons that are only relative to each and every other municipality. Once we have the specific measures to test if a municipality is indeed suburbia, then we can make the comparisons to other municipalities, if warranted.
 
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I'm not sure if suburbia can be defined in quantitative terms, but if so, please enlighten me. :) You can talk about lot size and density per dwelling unit but it may or may not differ from a more urbanized area. For me, New Orleans is THE city and everything else in the MSA is considered the suburbs, whether the area is incorporated or not. Sorry Beaner, I didn't answer your question. LOL
 

Repo Man

Cyburbian
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2,550
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To borrow from former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart:


"I shall not today attempt to further define suburbia...but I know it when I see it."
 

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
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Planderella said:
I'm not sure if suburbia can be defined in quantitative terms, but if so, please enlighten me.
That's exactly what I'm getting at: I think suburbia can be measured quantitatively. I have seen nothing out there that has attempted this. I mean, as a planner, are you satisfied with descriptions of places that merely represent stories and anecdotal statements about suburbia? That's all I see and I'm not satisfied. Are there academics out there trying this right now? If so, I bet the immediate applications are for regional planning efforts. But then again, maybe calling a place "suburbia" has no real application in the everyday planning activities of your municpal planning agency. Like you say, lot size probably has much to do with what we characterize as "suburbia."

But let's go back to the link of the thread posted on the first message of this post: "Impacts of Suburbia on Children." Some of the discussion on that thread referred to how suburbia affected children, but everyone who chimed in had a different impression of suburbia and how that affected their or some one else's childhood. So, without an agreed upon definition of suburbia, how is it possible to have a productive discussion like the one on the Children-Suburbia connection? I mean, impacts of suburbia on children? That's a great conversation, one that can have HUGE policy implications, once links are or are not found between suburbia and raising a family there. But if suburbia is not clearly defined, then that conversation and any possible academic research cannot be done. That is why I suggest we find a way to quantitatively define suburbia. Better us planners than the academy.
 

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
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3,149
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27
jtfortin said:
To borrow from former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart:


"I shall not today attempt to further define suburbia...but I know it when I see it."
Ha ha! I get the joke! ...but I'm trying to avoid these types of easy cop-outs in this thread. I do enjoy a light-hearted attitude like everyone else, but please, save the fun jokes for the Friday Afternoon Club forum!

Anyone out there with serious additions to this thread?
 

BKM

Cyburbian
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6,464
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29
To me, suburbia (S) = PA+SLU+NLC

Where PA=private automobile dominance)

SLU= a modernist planning environment of separated land uses

NLC=An economy fully integrated into the dominant structure of "non-local commerce"

(silly math formulas like in JAPA make me a true intellectual :) )

Except for isolated rural towns and certain unique, high density urban environments (downtown Chicago, Manhattan, central San Franisco, a few others), the entire developed environment in North America is "suburbia," even if you occasionally walk a block to the Seven Eleven. I think it is based on (the dominant) lifestyle and particularly transportation choices. If you primarily depend on a private automobile for your daily life, including commuting, taking the children to school, all of your shopping, etc-you are living a suburban lifestyle.

Trying to objectively quantify when a certain density of sprawl or subdivision development crosses the line into "suburbia" is pointless.
 

gkmo62u

Cyburbian
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1,046
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24
This has been one of the best discussions to date in any of the cyburbia forums...

But in the end, I come down on BKM's side...the notion of surburbia is just that, a "notion." I may be getting way to ethereal here but the definition of notion is : an individual's conception or impression of something known.

Suburbia might be impossible to quantify.

I think there is an agreed upon dynamic that suburbia is characterized by sigle family housing, auto dependent, strict segregation of uses yada yada yada...

But where do you go from there?

I do caution that those planners attempting to define or quantify suburbia are not likely to be completely scientific or subjective for the simple reason that the profession imo has over time developed an obvious and inherent anti-suburbia bias.

And perhaps I have become so offended by this pro-urban slant that folks like me who support the suburban choice cannot be subjective either.

Beaner, good job leading this discussion.
 

Glomer

Member
Messages
207
Points
9
WOW, very philisophical.

I think the defenition of suburbia is different for everyone. It's like defining hunger or stress, or paranoia. My definition of hunger, no matter how quantitative I try to be (the number of stomach growls per minute at least 3 hours since taking in food) will be different for a 450 pound sumo wrestler.

My attempt to define suburbia in a quantitative way would include adding the distance needed to drive to;
work,
nearest food store,
nearest clothing store,
nearest park
neaerest church
nearest school

take this into account and divide it by the number of people in the family and you will have a number........if that number is over a certain amount (which I haven't taken the time to figure out) then you live in suburbia.
 

Glomer

Member
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207
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9
I just read my own reply I realized a few problems.

A person may do this and come to the conclusion that they live in suburbia.........the next door neighbor, who works at home, homeschools, doesn't go to church, orders food off the internet, orders clothes from a magazine...........will score way low in will not be considered a suburbanite.

You can't do it!!!
 

Repo Man

Cyburbian
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2,550
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25
Some other considerations could be pavement widths in residential areas, average building setbacks, average building heights.
 

gkmo62u

Cyburbian
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24
No. IThat criteria cannot be employed...I think an important point is being missed. Take Kentlands, or Celebration or Seaside....for example....

Schools, stores (a few), parks, pavement width, setbacks, sidewalks etc....

The above neotrad developments may meet many of the non-suburban criteria suggested.

But they are undeniably suburban, greenfield developments, like it or not, car dominated (meaning in these places one still needs a car to get to work...)

the defining of suburbia is problematic.
 

Glomer

Member
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207
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9
One may work, eat, sleep, live, in the smack dab middle of the city and still drive a car to work. NEEDING to drive a car because you have no other alternative may work a little better, however if you are trying to figure out a quantitative method of measurement it won't work........Again someone that lives in suburbia may work at home, therefore there is no need for a car........Technology has changed the definition of suburbia over time.
 

perryair

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
Or maybe we could define urban life and then say that anything that is not urban and not country or rural would be suburban?

I mean, if anyone has been to Key West, it is mostly single family detached residences there, and people do depend on cars to get around a lot but I wouldn't consider it suburban.
 

adaptor

Member
Messages
123
Points
6
Just to complicate things, this Planetizen synopsis of a NY Times story on LA:

"Los Angeles is the only big city built on the promise of the suburban dream...the genius and fundamental weakness of Los Angeles is that you rarely feel obliged to be part of anything. Nothing short of cataclysmic events like riots, earthquakes or a Lakers championship can ignite a strong sense of civic unity...It was a suburban city decades before America became the first suburban nation... Even as Los Angeles evolved into an expansive and decentralized Western city, its cultural elite still took its cues from more traditional Eastern cities... But half-century-old stereotypes do not do justice to America's contemporary suburban reality. Once scorned for being racially homogenous, economically parasitic and culturally vacuous, suburbia is now more likely to be mixed, viable and vital."
 

Glomer

Member
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207
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9
I give up........If los angelas itself is a suburb then what is a city???

maybe there are only two designations.......suburb and rural

how do you define rural??? 1 per 40.....farmstead

then we will have to add the classification of small town community

what about a town of 5,000..........100's of miles away from a large city and serves itself and the surrounding rural area.

is this a city....a suburb of the nearest city???
 

NHPlanner

Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator
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It's not a definition of suburbia, but sprawl...

The following definition of sprawl by Attorney H. Bernard Waugh, Jr., Former Chief Counsel for the New Hampshire Municipal Association:

"Sprawl may be defined as inflation, over time, in the amount of land area consumed per unit of human activity, and the degree of dispersal between such land areas, brought about as the avoidable consequence of society's use of automobiles.

A development or change in land use contributes to sprawl:

(a) If it increases the need/demand for motor vehicle trip miles per unit in your community (that is, per housing unit, or, in the case of commercial development, per unit of economic activity);
(b) If it increases the per person or unit amount of land space devoted to cars (road surface, parking lots, etc) -- or if it, by causing congestion increases the demand for devoting space for cars; or
(c) If it otherwise increases the per person or per unit consumption or fractionalization of land areas which would otherwise be open space -- agriculture, forestry, recreation, wildlife habitat, etc."
 

Glomer

Member
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207
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9
Using that definition.........every new development (residential as well as commercial) is sprawl.

I disagree........growth is going to happen and it isn't necessarily a bad thing (however, using the term sprawl makes it out to be)
 

BKM

Cyburbian
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I actually have to agree with Glomer. Every new development is "Sprawl." That is, unless we all agree to go back to 1950s standards of living space, retail space per person, etc.

Of course, given housing prices out here in 105 degree California, that may already be happening. ($225,000 for a 1000 square foot "starter home" 55 miles from San Francisco on a "bad" block (as in lots of monster trucks revving up and down your street every night and "affordable housing" right next door and the lot fronts right on a major arterial street next to the high school.)

And, if all the new subdivisions are being built on 4500 square foot lots, is it "sprawl" anymore?
 

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
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3,149
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27
Good stuff folks! I'm holding off comment for awhile so that I can see where this discussion goes. As a sort of update, I'm having some initial considerations that yes, maybe "suburbia" cannot be measured quantitatively... but I'm not yet convinced!

In terms of housekeeping, if I may take on such a role, lets keep this discussion on topic. I enjoy healthy debates about sprawl as much as any other planner, but I think the recent posts are digressions. If you want to continue discussing sprawl, how about starting a new thread?

(As an aside, I believe the "Imapcts of Suburbia on Children" thread got sidetracked (yes, I was the culprit!) on a discussion about sprawl. I'm trying to keep this one pretty much focused on "suburbia.")

(Also, (yes! this is a digression... sorry!) do you think it's possible to think or sprawl and suburbia as seperate entities/phenomena, or are they always intertwined in these types of discussions?)
 

gkmo62u

Cyburbian
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1,046
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This was the point I was trying to make earlier...That the media and planning professions have enabled this entanglement such that both are connoted negatively.

The suburbs are not an inherently inferior place.

They must be separated. It is intellectually dishonest to state that suburbia, by definition, is sprawl and therefore should be eradicated.

The alternative would be the outright expansion of the urban core with all that characterizes it and of course then it would ALSO meet the generally accepted notion of sprawl.

I just made myself dizzy.
 

lowlyplanner

Cyburbian
Messages
69
Points
4
If it were me...

I would look at the ratios of different types of uses within a defined area, and compare them to the ratio of uses in area which is not considered suburbia..

For example, if you're looking at a housing development, draw a big circle a mile or so across around the development and see what sort of uses are in it, and how one might get to them. Then compare that to an area which not considered suburbia - either a functioning older neighborhood, or your downtown (if your downtown happens to have anything other than churchs, homeless shelters and office buildings).

As I said in the other post, in my city I see pretty large apartment or townhouse developments where the inhabitants still have to drive everywhere, and in my opinion those are suburban (and generally sprawl as well, but for slightly different reasons).

I'll fully admit to having an anti-suburbia bias, at least toward suburbia the way it's being developed currently.
 

Repo Man

Cyburbian
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After looking at these posts, I believe there is no way you can define "suburbia" using formulas or numbers. I think my early post saying, "I know it when I see it" is more on the mark than any mathmetical formula. Suburbia is more of a concept, generalization, or opinion about a place.

Milwaukee would never be considered suburbia, yet there are areas in Milwaukee that have characteristics that people associate with suburbia, such as larger lots, significant distances between homes and businesses or schools, fewer apartments, low-density industrial/office parks, etc. It is the same as "sprawl," you cannot simply enter some variables into an equation and determine if particular developments could be called sprawl.
 

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
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jtfortin said:
After looking at these posts, I believe there is no way you can define "suburbia" using formulas or numbers. I think my early post saying, "I know it when I see it" is more on the mark than any mathmetical formula. Suburbia is more of a concept, generalization, or opinion about a place.
Good point...

...but then how are the social scientists, researchers, and armchair psychologists supposed to go about research and discussions that supposedly link suburbia to social ills, i.e. mass-killings at high schools, obesity, etc, etc? They must have some clear measure, other than "we know it when we see it," in order to have relevant results. Perhaps their samples would consist of populations not in "suburbia," but rather in "recently developed towns with the majority of population gains from the past 5-10 years, that have new housing stock on lots of a specific size with a specific setback, all within a certain proximity to a major highway that provides access to a major city/employment center." Although somewhat, though not totally, subjective, the researcher could go out and select (at random?) 20 or so "towns" and start analyzing the people and their social issues. Is this a good methodology, or would the researcher need that quantitative proscription for "suburbia"?
 

Glomer

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207
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9
...but then how are the social scientists, researchers, and armchair psychologists supposed to go about research and discussions that supposedly link suburbia to social ills, i.e. mass-killings at high schools, obesity, etc, etc? They must have some clear measure, other than "we know it when we see it," in order to have relevant results

If the social scientists, researchers, and armchair psychologists had a clear measure.......they would have nothing to talk about.....their theories would be thwarted. The fact is....and lucky for them, there is no clear, measurable definition of suburbia. It is a state of mind.........One persons heaven is another persons hell.
 

JNL

Cyburbian
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2,449
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How about looking at suburbia from a more social or historical perspective? Here's an interesting quote which is a book excerpt that can be found at http://www.blackwellpublishers.co.uk/images/Content_store/Sample_chapter/0631223444\fainstein.pdf

"From its origins, the suburban world of leisure, family life, and union with nature was based on the principle of exclusion. Work was excluded from the family residence; middle-class villas were segregated from working-class housing;the greenery of suburbia stood in contrast to a gray, polluted urban environment."
 

Repo Man

Cyburbian
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I am just guessing here, but I assume that these social scientists simply take suburban cities and compare them to the large City they surround. I really doubt they actually define Suburbia using a quantitative method.
 
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"Suburbia" may be just a state of mind....perhaps it was coined as the anti-city. Just like someone said earlier - whatever is not urban, it must be suburban. Who knows???? I stand by my belief that it may not be quantifiable just as I am beginning to wonder if urban can be measured as well.
 

pete-rock

Cyburbian
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1,551
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24
I offer these criteria for defining "suburbia":

1. Beyond the boundaries of a central city, but generally accepted to be within that central city's metropolitan area.

2. Residential development at a gross density that is between 10%-50% of the gross density of the central city. This number is variable because it is defined by the density of the central city.

3. Well-defined separation of land uses (residential, commercial, industrial, office, etc.), with mixed uses (two or more uses on a single property) comprising less than 5% of a municipalities' gross area.

4. Development that took place after 1945.

If an area can meet three out of the four criteria, it can be defined as suburban.

I know this doesn't cover all aspects of what might generally be considered suburbia, but it might be a start. What is crucial to this definition is that there is much variability in it. New York's suburbs in Jersey and Long Island would be considered urban using, say, Phoenix's criteria. Also, some inner-ring suburbs that pre-date World War II (i.e., Oak Park, IL or Dearborn, MI) would lose out on several of the criteria.

Also, I suggest reading a new book called From Chicago to LA (I can't remember its subtitle) by Michael Dear. In the book the author suggests that we can no longer look to the Chicago School of sociology, geography and planning to define cities and the things that occur in them; he says that LA provides a much better model for predicting development and behavior.
 

pete-rock

Cyburbian
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1,551
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24
Sorry. My criteria #4 should be more quantitative:

4. More than 75% of the built-up area of a municipality was constructed after 1945.
 

Baud

Member
Messages
16
Points
1
I think trying to define "suburbia" will always produce multiple opinions. Whether it be a ratio of housing types to another over a specific area, or proximity to services, I think this debate will continue for quite some time...which should make for some good postings here.

I recently presented at a Green / Sustainability conference a paper which examined the differences between urban sustainability and non-urban sustainability. In addressing the differences between the two types of sustainability, we examined various aspects of a city in which the differences were evident. This included the development site, open space, density and built form, structure and order, and transportation. Within each criteria, we discussed how these differed depending on whether it was an "urban" or "non-urban" context. For instance, for density and built form, "non-urban" forms typically were lower density, FSR=1, Units per acre = 15, dominated by a single-family housing typology, and typically embraced the notion of a "complete community", that is, having a commercial area, open space, retail, etc. all within the overall development. "Urban" example, on the other hand, had higher densities, FSR=3, UPA = up to 110, residential tower typology which brought up issues of overshadowing, etc., and where the roofscape and public realm became even more important as the private realm was compacted. Additionally, as there is usually proximity to other city-wide services, the need to contain these services directly on the development site was minimised.

So....to summarise, we tried to outline a set of criteria within a greater set of issues, and then analysed them relative to each other. This may be a way to assess and defined "suburbia" - now all we would have to do is to agree on the issues, and the criteria that fall under them...
 

Jeff

Cyburbian
Messages
4,161
Points
27
Suburbia: If it was a farm 50 years ago but isn't now.

Suburbia: If the vehicle of choice is the SUV.

Suburbia: If kids take a yellow bus to school.

Suburbia: If a 2 lane road carries 50,000 ADT.

Suburbia: One of those things (like VX nerve gas) we wish we never invented.

Suburbia: A sick joke devised by malicious planners, engineers, and developers.

I'm sure I'll think of some more.
 

Lee Nellis

Cyburbian
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1,371
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29
First thought: It can't be about single family homes. There are many many square miles of attached housing that is just as auto-dependent as an single family housing in every metro area I have ever visited.

Second thought: If the data exist, and I am not sure they do exist at a fine enough level of geographic detail, I would quantify suburbia as that place where a majority (perhaps a supermajority of 60-70%) of all personal income is earned in another community. This would rock many peoples' definition of rural because so much income is from commuting to a nearby city in so many rural areas, but I think it would be a reasonably useful way to quantify suburbia, if you could get income data at a fine enough level of detail.

Final thought. There might be other definitions based on, say, travel time to work, but I am skpetical about definitions based in land use. There are too many specifics in how land use patterns evolve.
 

boiker

Cyburbian
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3,890
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26
my definition

suburbia is generally a contiguous development of low-density, low-rise, distinct land uses seperated by transportation, natural, or artifical barriers lacking a central civic or business corridor for the immediate region.


my definition isn't perfect. i already can think of instances. Anyway, the newest midwest subrubs or sprawl have curvey streets or non-intersecting streets. High speed aterials, lack of efficent public transportation, a strong seperation between neighborhoods. Subrubs almost always consist of national chain stores!
 

GeekyBoy

Cyburbian
Messages
41
Points
2
I don't know how valid a view it is - but I personally see suburbanism as a state of mind/mode of behaviour of the residents - much more so than urban form.

Suburbanism - isolative, exclusive, "me" first, wasteful, ultra-mobilty, homogenous. Suburbia as an urban form is, to me, a manifestation of such a mode of thinking - when given canvases of greenfields to paint on.

GB
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
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29
Great definition

I like that definition. Its a little harsh on the average middle class lifestyle, but its pretty accurate.

I am a prime example of hyper-mobility, even though I know better :(

You're the same GeekyBoy as at Urbanphoto? (Its not a common moniker).
 

green22

Cyburbian
Messages
101
Points
6
I think that areas are on a scale from rural to urban,semi rural,suburban are in between.You don't usually change from suburban to urban in one day ,you slide up and down on a scale.You could assign weighted points for things like density,mixture of uses,total population,auto dependance etc...
There is also the layman's definition.Streets with cul de sacs and windy dead end streets(especially without sidewalks)are the calling cards of suburbs.
 

mendelman

Unfrozen Caveman Planner
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Messages
12,743
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42
the definitional difficulty of 'urban' versus 'suburban'

I just wanted to bump this thread because I think we need to periodically re-ignite the definitional discussions reagarding 'urban' and 'suburban'.

It seems to me that Lee Nellis and to an extent GeekyBoy are on the best track as to defining 'suburban' more in terms of lifestyle/behavior rather than physical form.
 
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