Did the government create the suburbs?

South San Jose, Photo by Sean O’Flaherty

Is one piece of legislation the root of the modern suburban landscape? Writing in a series about laws that shaped Los Angeles Jeremy Rosenberg argues that yes, one law led to the suburbs. The law? The National Housing Act, which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934.

How did this one law create the suburbs? The FHA is important in the history of the suburbs because it was the agency that established the design guidelines that qualified subdivisions for federal financing. For example, some of these guidelines include;

  • Layout should discourage through traffic
  • Minimum Width of a residential street should be 50 feet, with 2.4 feet of pavement, planting/utility strips and walks
  • Cul-de-sacs are the most attractive street layout for family dwellings
  • Minimum setbacks for houses should be 15 feet
  • Front yards should avoid excessive planting, for a more pleasing and unified effect along the street

These guidelines set the standard for suburban design across North America. To illustrate, it is not difficult to see how the same guidelines are still visible in the new San Jose suburb pictured above.

While I agree with Rosenbergs premis that the FHA guidelines had a significant role in codifying the design for the modern suburb, is this one law the root of the suburbs? I would argue no. Why?

First, because suburbs are not a modern invention. I am sympathetic to Robert Bruegmanns’ arguments in Sprawl: A Compact History that suburbs are created as part of a process ‘that affects every part of the metropolitan area.” As cities grow and become wealthier they expand outward. This process is generally limited only by the geography of a place, the available means of transportation, and the affluence of residents.

Second, the FHA did not invent the design of the suburbs.  As Robert Fishman persuasively demonstrates, the suburb, as we picture it today, emerged in 18th century London. It was at that time and in that place that the nuclear family originated  and along with it the idea of creating a domestic home and community separate from working districts. As a result, the first middle class residential districts emerged at the edge of the London and were designed to emulate the lanscape and homes of upper class British estates and country houses.

Therefore, I do not believe one law lead to the suburbs. The process of suburbanization was well underway by the 1930s and the design principles of the modern suburbs, codified by the FHA, had already existed for nearly 200 years in England and North America.

Suburban Ideal 1839 – Photo from Jane Austen’s World

The Suburban Ideal 1882 – Photo from London Architecture


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