Cities and Suburbs | National Humanities Center

TeacherServe Essays

Cities and Suburbs

By Sellers, Christopher C. (NHC Fellow, 1999–00)

Environmentally, “suburbs” are marriages of city and countryside. Only in the twentieth century did such places acquire such geographic and cultural centrality in Americans’ lives, to become where most of us live, shop, and work. Not surprisingly, they also had seminal impacts on our modern notions of “nature” and “environment.” If the overlaps between America’s cities and its countryside have grown over the last century, our own ways of seeing have only partly adapted. We still tend to see places either as full of nature, or as emptied of it. Alternatively, our eyes fixate on their surrounding features of flora, fauna and open space, and we call them countryside, or more recently, “ex-urbia.” Modern notions of nature as inhering only “wilderness” have steered environmentalists away from the places they actually dwell, as William Cronon has argued; the same is true of modern notions that city and suburbs are so exclusively “built.” Historically, it is thus important to remember just how much the modern “environmental” movement itself owes to our fraught dealings with those suburban hybrids, at once city and country, that most of us now call home.

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History / Environment and Nature / Education Studies / Environmental History / Cities / Urban History / Suburbs / Agriculture / Industrialization /