Mark Clapson. Suburban Century: Social Change and Urban Growth in England and the USA. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2003. ix + 235 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-85973-648-7.
Reviewed by Nico Larco (Department of Architecture, University of Oregon at Eugene)
Published on H-Urban (September, 2005)
Looking Past the Myth: The Sociology of Suburbia
In spite of decades of loathing by professionals, critics, and theorists, suburbia continues to thrive. Individuals and families have flooded into suburbia, seemingly oblivious to the purported evils located in these areas. Mark Clapson's book, Suburban Century: Social Change and Urban Growth in England and the USA, seeks to address this contradiction and aims to recast the realities of suburbia.
Clapson employs a two-pronged approach to dispelling suburban myths. First he mixes histories of suburban development with sociological studies on suburbia. These studies, spanning the twentieth century, act as a corrective to the volumes of entrenched negative conjecture on suburbia. The studies represent some of the actual voices and attitudes of residents in contrast to the conclusions overwhelmingly accepted by critics, planners, and designers. Clapson draws from well-known works such as Herbert Gans's The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community (1967) and David C. Thorns's Suburbia (1972) along with a large number of smaller-scale and specific studies of both American and English suburbs. Clapson's focus on the sociology of the suburbs is a welcome shift in a field that has historically based critiques on externally generated standards to evaluate suburbs. His approach helps clarify why suburbia continues to grow and supports a more discerning analysis of suburbs that gives weight to residents' views.
A comparative analysis of English and American suburbs is Clapson's second prong, used to tease out the larger theories and tendencies of suburbia. According to Clapson, England and the United States share such phenonmena as leapfrog growth, emptied industrial cores, and intellectual and popular cultures. While the cross-cultural comparison is at times fruitful, one wonders why other countries such as Canada and Australia are only marginally discussed given Clapson's broad criteria.
In the first three chapters of the book, Clapson puts forth the basic "how" and "why" of suburbia. Emphasizing the automobile and telecommunications, Clapson presents technological advances and economic dispersal as key to expansion into the suburbs. He does not attempt a comprehensive description of the mechanisms of suburban development as this has been a topic of many scholarly studies.
Clapson does highlight some interesting differences in suburban form in the early chapters. For example, he describes how U.S. suburbs quickly incorporated shopping and employment centers around the initial bedroom communities of suburbia, while England, even up to the 1970s, had a stronger attachment to the original city center, with sparse shopping and employment in suburbia. Clapson attributes this difference in part to lower automobile ownership rates in England. Less car ownership and specifically less second-car ownership meant increased reliance on public transit, preserving the importance of accessible city centers and reducing the numbers who could visit a shopping center on the periphery. This pattern of mobility was especially true for women in England who generally did not have access to a second car.
Throughout the book, Clapson emphasizes planned, government-sponsored developments, such as the new towns of England and the greenbelt towns of the United States. This emphasis overshadows the ubiquitous unplanned and/or privately financed suburban developments. Further, despite the attention given to government-run development, Clapson overlooks stronger forces of institutionalized dispersal. For the United States, little mention is given to key programs such as the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 and the National Housing Act of 1934. Both of these were publicly funded programs that were critical to the development of suburbia, financing roads out to the suburbs and creating an exploding market for mortgages and home ownership.
In the chapter, "The Suburban Aspiration," Clapson asks why individuals choose to move to the suburbs. He aptly explains that "people caught buses and trains to the suburbs, buses and trains did not catch them" (p. 51). In Clapson's view, the twentieth-century "suburban aspiration" was fueled by three underlying issues. First was an effort to avoid the overcrowded, unsanitary, and racially- and class-mixed city; second was the desire for a house and garden; and third was the preference for a "high-quality residential environment" composed of well-maintained, landscaped streets (p. 52). Clapson is quick to point out that the distaste for the city was not universal, and that access to city employment as well as cultural and commercial amenities was highly desirable and kept suburbs in close proximity to central cities. In contrast to other studies that have tackled this topic, Clapson makes clear that describing suburban aspirations as "anti-urban" is inaccurate, "obscur[ing] more than it reveals" (p. 51).
Clapson directly confronts many of the critiques of suburbia that posit the suburban dweller as a victim. Drawing from a number of sociological studies and surveys, he paints a picture of the suburban dweller as an enthusiastic participant in the move away from central cities. Clapson's overview is especially pertinent in light of the current move to reurbanize suburban development. This reurbanization, combined with Clapson's historical descriptions, begs the question of whether suburbanites' views are changing and, if so, for what reasons.
The book extensively analyzes changing popular styles of housing and the desires for a "traditional" aesthetic. Clapson's review of style unfortunately does not include a discussion of housing typology. A comparison between the semi-detached houses typical of England and the detached single family homes of the United States would have been especially interesting. This said, his description of the garden in both countries is thorough and includes a discussion of the garden's role as an indicator of social status, a promoter of interaction, and a ground for self-expression.
Beyond the immediate house, suburbanites wanted a "nice" neighborhood: quality housing, pleasant streets, and a connection to rural or natural areas. Underlying these traits was a desire for a certain "social tone," "based upon the perception of the types of people who lived in a given suburb" (p. 69). In England this translated into a separation by class while in the United States it included class but was weighted much more heavily on race. Clapson points out that a vast range of social classes, rich and poor, aspired to live the suburban life even as that life furthered social divisions.
The next section of the book considers blacks, Asians, and Jews in suburbia in both England and the United States. Clapson argues that these minority groups, in both countries, share the same suburban aspirations of the dominant white population but are hindered by social and economic discrimination. Examination of suburban development in relation to immigration, social cohesion within particular minority cultures, and the geographic movements of a specific group over time are ripe topics for exploration, but are only marginally addressed here. Instead, the author over-generalizes racial categories, missing instructive distinctions between ethnicities.
Clapson uses the powerful appeal of the suburbs to explain the persistence with which African Americans overcame and continue to overcome the well-documented discriminatory practices in suburbia. Further, he argues that suburban dispersal in both the United States and England has been a solution to ghettoization and thus "a major contributory factor toward the stabilization of American and English societies in the late twentieth century" (p. 99). While there may be a correlation between stabilization of these societies and the suburbanization of blacks, it might be argued that these are both caused by an increase in economic power.
The author tells a similar story of shared suburban aspirations among Jews and Asians. Clapson argues that in both countries, as these ethnic minorities rose in occupational mobility and economic power, i.e., became more middle class, they also became increasingly suburbanized. While suburbs have commonly been described as and may have initially been "white," by the end of the twentieth century, because of the influx of minorities, they had become largely multi-cultural and multi-ethnic.
While his central message as to the resilience of the suburban aspiration across ethnicities is clear and well argued, Clapson's categories for minorities and reasons for comparison are somewhat problematic in a cross-cultural study of this nature. His comparison of African Americans (comprising more than 10 percent of the U.S. population and with a history of slavery and the civil rights movement) with blacks in England (comprising 1.6 percent of the population, mostly of Caribbean descent, and largely arriving in England of their own volition after 1948) is made on the questionable grounds that these two groups, in both countries, "historically resided in just a few streets of poor housing" (p. 80). Similarly, his categories of Asians, described as Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Asian-Indian in the United States, and Asian-Indian and Pakistani in England, also raise questions about the validity of comparing such different groups. It should also be noted that Hispanics, the largest minority group in the United States, are virtually unmentioned by Clapson, ostensibly because there are few Hispanics in England.
Clapson then turns to the experience of women in suburbia. He aims to dispel the myth of "suburban sadness" that was widely reported in both countries in the latter half of the last century. By looking at long-range sociological studies of both established suburbs and new suburbs, Clapson correlates women's feelings of disempowerment and depression with moving and adopting a new lifestyle far removed from supportive family and friends. While "too much 'home,' and too little access to the life beyond it, was courting sadness" (p. 137), it was not grounds for neurosis, and much of this dissatisfaction reportedly dissipated over time. Clapson speculates that some of this improved mental outlook might have been due to increased mobility of women in later suburban developments and to the phenomenon that, for second-generation suburbanites, the suburban lifestyle did not represent a great change. Studies of women who have resided in suburbs for some time showed that most of them adjusted well to the suburbs, were happy there, and when asked, preferred their homes in the suburbs to the option of moving back to the city. This type of observation, based on sociological studies, sheds light on suburban lifestyles and explains the steady increase of the suburban population.
Clapson similarly reshapes perceptions about the formation of community in suburbia. The dearth of community life in the suburbs has long been a topic of both academic and popular publications. Clapson critiques these descriptions of suburban life, noting that they have not understood traditional community formation or that the definition of community is fluid. In many of the early suburbs, Clapson explains, community was initially created through a shared "pioneering" feeling among the new residents which was later supplanted by informal neighboring and the establishment of more formal clubs and groups based on shared interests, causes, or beliefs. While these forms still exist today, Clapson notes that proximity is no longer a prerequisite for community. Communities of interest, via the telephone, internet, and increased mobility, have displaced the traditional image of community based on propinquity. The suburbs, therefore, are an embodiment of this fundamental shift in the form of community in our society.
While Clapson skillfully describes the look of socializing in suburbs, there are a number of issues that he does not address. He never defines what he means by community, equating membership in national organizations such as the Red Cross with more localized give-and-take. In addition, he does not speak to the notion that socializing in suburbs was often perceived as shallow and motivated by social climbing instead of a genuine interest in community. While this does not undermine his general argument that there is more social interaction in suburbia than has typically been recognized, questions persist as to the nature of community that these interactions create.
Clapson next overturns the myths regarding the conservative political leanings of suburbia. By a powerful use of cross-country comparisons, Clapson demonstrates how the suburbs of both countries are predominantly centrist and how vital they have been in defining political debate. The myth of conservative suburbia is traced back to postwar conservative victories in both countries where suburban votes were instrumental. This view of the suburban political climate merged well with the suburban image of conformity and new affluence. As the suburbs have aged and become more diverse, this image has shifted. Both the Democrats in the United States and the Labour Party in England recognized this shift and adopted a more centrist agenda, de-emphasizing high taxation in lieu of social responsibility and communitarian volunteerism. The "New Democrats" and "New Labour" of the 1990s took control of their governments largely through the support of suburban voters. While Clapson's analysis ends in 2001, his analysis remains true as suburban voters continue to be almost equally split between the right and left.
A broad critique of the book is that Clapson uses "suburbs" as an overarching term to be equally applied to all growth outside of English and American central cities. Some of the English suburbs Clapson describes would be considered quaint, dense towns compared to much of the sprawl seen in the United States. I wonder not only at this broad definition of suburbia, then, but also whether one can generalize from specific sociological studies across suburban typologies. If anything, this points to a need for more sociological studies across varied suburbs.
Overall, Suburban Century is a breath of fresh air in the debates on suburbia. Its emphasis on the sociological aspects of the suburbs helps clarify some of the persistent myths that have clouded our understanding of the suburbs and of their continued growth. The comprehensive and wide range of studies described and referenced throughout the text is a strong point of the book. While some of the descriptions of the studies are far too brief, this book will be an excellent reference for other authors wanting to understand the breadth of sociological studies regarding the suburbs of England and the United States.
. See Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987); and Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).
. For a study of African-American suburbanization, see Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
. For a recent analysis of Hispanic suburbanization, see essays in Bruce Katz and Robert E. Lang, Redefining Urban and Suburban America: Evidence From Census 2000 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press, 2003).
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Nico Larco. Review of Clapson, Mark, Suburban Century: Social Change and Urban Growth in England and the USA.
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