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Cities and Suburbs

Christopher Sellers
Department of History
State University of New York at Stony Brook
©National Humanities Center

Trees dominate the view of my backyard as I type this essay only thirty miles from New York City. Tucked between the maples and yews, the house roofs look crouched and shadowy. Only an occasional murmur of a truck or plane disturbs the refrain of birds and cicadas. The uncluttered abundance of greenery and creatures before me makes this place seem worlds apart from any city. Yet, were I to wander just a few hundred yards away, the clamor of traffic, the clumping of buildings and people, the hard surfaces of parking lot and sidewalk would overwhelm any hint of the pastoral setting outside my window.

This landscape could just as easily belong to a subdivision in any smaller town or city across the East Coast, or, with some species variation, the entire United States. The most familiar name we have for these kinds of places is “suburbs,” implying their “sub”-ordination to the “urbs,” or city. Such a word fails to capture the hybrid nature of these places. Environmentally, they are marriages of city and countryside, in unsteady and often rocky bond. 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.”

As the Latin derivation of the word suggests, however, “suburbs” in the broadest sense have been around a while, as long as cities themselves. Across time and place, the make-up and meanings of suburbs have varied tremendously. To understand these variations, we need also to look at the history of the cities of which they have been a part.


The first cities arose some millennia before the Roman Empire, around 3000 B.C., in the Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia. Uruk is generally thought to be the very first. Its edges, like those of many of its early as well as later cousins, consisted of defensive walls. It has been suggested that at least one early Mesopotamian city did not have a wall and grew through additional settlements along its suburban outskirts. However, throughout urban history, cities grew in part because of the military advantages conferred by the city wall, a physical barrier that defined the edges and “suburbs” of the metropolis until well into the modern period.

Still more fundamental to why cities arose is their connection to what was happening on land further beyond their bounds. In what geographers would define as urban “hinterlands,” the Sumerians, and other early urbanizing societies, had given up the mobility of hunting and gathering to farm, to tend to those plants and animals they had domesticated. Scholars disagree about whether cities or farms came first, but not on the larger pattern. Where and when agriculture became productive enough not just to feed cultivators but to generate surpluses, from Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley, from China and Europe to the Americas, cities, too, coalesced. As minorities became capable of living off what others grew, cities sprouted hand and hand with a developing countryside. Starting in the early 1800s with the work of the German Von Thunen, geographers and other social scientists elaborated economic theories about just how cities organize surrounding lands into urban “tributary” regions. As market centers, they encouraged a more settled and intensive agriculture closer in, where transport of goods was less expensive. Farther out, the difficulties and expense of travel made extensive crops more economical, along with trees, ores, or wild game without cultivation costs.

Archeologists debate whether early cities were centers for religion and the supernatural more so than for markets. But clearly, a long-standing economic segmentation of urban regions into extractive, agricultural, and marketing zones has nourished some familiar cultural divisions and associations. The idea of city dwellers as a civilizing force on the land and its inhabitants dates back to the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. Equally ancient are questions about whether this influence has been ameliorative or alienating, a distancing from nature. Answers have depended on time, place, and the eye of the beholder.

Among the determinants of the city’s meaning across time and place, has been the sheer size of urban populations in a given society. Through most of urban history, those living in cities made up only a tiny if influential minority of the larger societies of which they were a part, those traders, artisans, and political and religious leaders who lived off the work and wares of hinterland dwellers. Though Rome in its heyday may have harbored as many as a million residents, though Alexandria and then Bagdad may briefly also have approached this mark, cities during these early millennia were generally much smaller. Only with the rise of international trade over the 16th and 17th centuries, but especially with the industrialization in the 18th and 19th, did city populations in some nations, starting with Britain, finally rival those of the countryside. The growing scale and productivity of factories, prodded by new corporate organization and technology, also spurred many new city-bound alternatives to farming. Whereas around 1800, only London and Peking, China, had arrived at the one million mark, by 1900 some seventeen cities had, most of them in North America and Europe. The rise of industrial cities in the United States offers an exemplary, if foreshortened version of what was also happening in other industrializing parts of the world by the end of the nineteenth century.

A predominantly agricultural nation over most of this century, the American republic nevertheless grew four such million-person cities over its first century and a quarter. First New York then Philadelphia and Boston swelled rapidly, but the most meteoric rise of the period was that of Chicago. Settled by whites only starting in the 1830s, by 1900 it had surged to become the nation’s second largest city and the fifth largest in the world.

Population of the 25 Largest US Urban Places
1800 Population 1900 Population
New York city, NY 60,515 New York city, NY 3,437,202
Philadelphia city, PA 41,220 Chicago city, IL 1,698,575
Baltimore city, MD 26,514 Philadelphia city, PA 1,293,697
Boston town, MA 24,937 St Louis city, MO 575,238
Charleston city, SC 18,824 Boston city, MA 560,892
» See the complete table. (PDF)

America’s newly burgeoning cities were the beneficiaries of innovations like canals and then railroads. They hiked up the speed, volume, and distance of shipments and accelerated the flow of wheat, ore, and lumber into urban markets. City growth also hinged upon how many more people settled out from them to exploit their “hinterlands,” most prominently, the American West and South. Rural but reachable lands out from cities were where crops could grow, metal ores lay buried, and forests awaited cutting. These places thereby provided the goods whose trading, shipping, manufacture, and marketing formed the occupational core of urban life. At the same time, ways in which travelers from, and dwellers in, America’s cities altered these many raw materials, transforming them into marketable commodities, stripped them of signs by which people recognized their earthly or ecological origins. Inside the city, after wood had become apartment walls, after ore had become steel for a streetcar rail, after cattle had become steak on a dinner plate, they seemed far less a product of nature than of human hands. Not just the size of industrial cities but their material make-up evoked a dramatic contrast with the more natural but distant hinterlands on which they depended.

For other reasons, as well, most nineteenth-century Americans harbored even more reservations about city life than many of their early twenty-first century counterparts do now. These industrializing centers became what the British historian Asa Briggs termed “shock cities,” places where the new and modern erupted, often to devastating effect. Out of them emanated huge pools of capital, and fluctuating prices that determined whether a farmer or merchant would turn a profit. They seethed with foreigners, from merchants and shippers to cabinet and dressmakers to the newly arriving immigrants, who lifted bales and toted barrels and staffed the lower rungs of factories. Epidemics like that of cholera struck cities first. Until the sanitary revolution of the late nineteenth century, sewers were rare, contamination of water supplies was rampant, and housing especially for poorer urban dwellers increasing dense and packed. Way stations for traffic with America’s extractive frontiers, these cities became alleged hotbeds of double-dealing, corruption, and disease. At no time has the contrast between city and countryside seemed starker, or the American city itself more unnatural, than at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth.

Beyond the sheer size of urban populations, over this industrializing century the material texture of American cities underwent some wrenching changes. Streets were no longer dirt or cobblestone, but concrete or asphalt. On the strength of steel girders, buildings had spiked upward, from a mere three or four stories to a dozen or more. Not just the brown emanations of wood fires but also the darker smoke of coal wafted through the air. Coursing through the streets were not just people, carriages, and horses, but mechanical conveyances—streetcars, even a few early automobiles. At least in the better parts of town, pigs and chickens no longer roamed the streets, and garbage collection had begun.

Some of these changes stemmed from how American cities had joined European counterparts in giving birth to new scientific, legal, and administrative tools to cope with pressing yet soluble urban problems. Public health and sanitary measures, from sewers to animal and mosquito control, remedied problems of infectious disease. These and other strategies, from the engineering of public works to housing and factory regulation to land use zoning, made American cities safer and healthier places than they had been. Many of these efforts sought to address the more dangerous or obtrusive consequences of earlier alterations to the urban environment. In these, as in other cities, nature was easiest to notice when it ran amuck: the spread of germs in packed sweatshops, or the flooding to which riverside dwellings were prone. Many reforms in this “progressive era” of American cities sought a further domestication of urban nature, one that would allow city residents to put it out of mind.

At the same time, a nagging sense that vital contacts with “nature” were missing or vanishing from urban life led to self-conscious cultivation inside the city of places where a wilder “nature” was visibly recognizable. Beginning with New York’s Central Park, established along the northerly edge of that metropolis in 1857, more naturalistic or pastoral visions for urban parks successfully vie with other, more visibly built or cultivated schemes for public lands. Of course, the hankering felt by many urban dwellers for closer contacts with the natural world also had less local or collective solutions. By the turn of the twentieth century, many left the city, either periodically, for vacations to nearby lakes and forests, or more permanently, for residences in the neighboring countryside.

The kind of growth visited upon American cities in this industrial era, especially since World War II, has arrived in many parts of the developing world. There, also in the less prosperous economies of Eastern Europe, mega-cities have arisen, peopled by millions fleeing the industrial transformation of agriculture in a surrounding countryside. Though New York became the world’s first city to surpass ten million people, of the twenty cities bigger than this by 2000, all but Tokyo, New York, and Los Angeles were in the Third World. If not among a privileged elite, residents in these mega-cities face dilemmas similar to those of America’s late nineteenth-century urbanites: poor sanitation and housing, poverty, and political and social marginalization. By 2006, these burgeoning agglomerations had brought the world to an epic milestone. For the first time in history, more of humanity now lives in cities than in rural areas.

In 1920, the U.S. had reached this same milestone. Since then, American cities continued to grow, but in a manner different from the mega-cities of the developing world. Shifting to Sun Belt cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta, growth has come, ever more centripetally rather than centrifugally, through what in the 1950s was christened “urban sprawl.” While growing cities have always “sprawled” in one sense, by spreading urban land uses and activities into neighboring countryside, what distinguishes this twentieth-century version in American and other wealthy, industrialized nations, is that this spread has been steadily more de-centralized and dispersed. Leap-frogging of houses and stores into the countryside has given rise to hybrid landscapes like my own on contemporary Long Island, where “open spaces” of trees and greenery coexist with dense traffic, malls and freeways.

We may understand this process, from the perspective of downtown residents, as a story of urban flight. New York’s core offers a case in point: Manhattan’s human density peaked around 1910 and has since steadily declined. Admittedly, business centers like Wall Street have continued to prosper, even rear skyscrapers anew in downtowns of rapidly growing cities like Los Angeles. Gentrification, redevelopment, and tourism have also more recently returned some wealth and businesses to many urban cores. However, the twentieth-century trajectory of America’s downtowns was, predominantly, one of decline and “urban crisis.” For the most part, those with means moved out to where the new housing, markets, and jobs lay. Those who could not relocate, mostly the poor and minorities, faced declining tax bases, eroding infrastructure, and, in recent decades, a neo-liberal preference for market forces over the ameliorative power of the state.

Consequently, when the long-standing domestication of nature in American cities broke down or was overwhelmed, inner city residents suffered the most. Katrina, the disastrous hurricane that struck New Orleans in 2005, killed over 1,800, demonstrating the worst of what could happen. When most of that city’s levees were breached and 80% of the city was submerged, those who were trapped and died were mostly poor and black. They were victims twice over, first of their ghettoization, then of the hurricane itself.

Important as the stigmatizing of downtowns was to the changing shape of the American city over the twentieth century, however, the migration process was not just one of flight, white or otherwise. Also driving it were pull factors, including a search for countryside and the “natural contacts” it beckoned.

Suburbs and Nature

Already before the Civil War, America’s urban edges had begun to draw out nature-seekers. Henry David Thoreau in 1845 resolved to live a year as an urban-edge squatter at Walden Pond, not 30 miles from downtown Boston. That he was not himself a property owner, that he supplied his own provisions literally off the surrounding land, made him representative of many other urban edge dwellers in his own time. Over the next hundred and fifty years, after the rural isolation that Thoreau celebrated there quickly erode, the migration to America’s urban edges would become ever more prosperous and permanent. Suburban builders and residents’ own self-consciously cultivated flora and fauna, the wilder nature they sought around them, reveal how the quest for nature emerged as a powerful force in American cities’ growth.

By the early twenty-first century, upper and middle classes gravitating toward urban edges have appeared not just in the United States and other more Anglo nations, but also in French, German, and other European cities, also in many in the Third World. The trends suggest that once people come to possess sufficient wealth and cars—that is, once the opportunity arises—the attractions of urban-edge living might even be universal. Perhaps some species-wide instinct kicks in, what E. O. Wilson describes as “biophilia”—a hard-wired preference for the rolling grassland of the African velt, scattered with trees, and etched by meandering streams, where homo sapiens first evolved. Then again, your students may not be so impressed by the resemblances between the velt and suburban landscapes in different parts of the United States, much less the rest of the world. From the historian’s perspective, it is clear that the current ubiquity of this peculiar “marriage” between city and country that we Americans see as “suburban” today reflects just how dramatically our urban edges have evolved over only a tiny slice of eight thousand years of urban history.

Individual quests for rural surroundings and “country” residences date back at least to Roman times. Urban elites in some nations began systematic searches for more natural, “pastoral” retreats, abandoning city walls. However, they had to choose carefully. Throughout the nineteenth century, city perimeters across the Western world were places of poverty and factories.

In the U.S. of this period, cheaper urban-edge land and laxer policing of its uses drew those who worked within city limits but could not afford to live there. Cities in this as well as earlier eras depended on the land around their edges for water, perishable food, waste disposal, and the placement of unseemly industries. As railroads and other newer modes of transport reinforced local advantages in producing vegetables and dairy products, urban-edge manufacturing also grew in scale and variety. By the late nineteenth century, market farms, orchards and dairies, as well as those industries considered too “noxious” for an urban setting, all made up prominent slices of urban-edge life. Suburbanites in this time ranged from the executives in Garden City who worked in New York City offices, to farmers who worked the wide stretches of land on which they lived, to itinerant squatters such as the African Americans driven out during the making of Central Park. Not surprisingly, Andrew Jackson Downing, Frank Scott, and other early American popularizers of what historians retrospectively christened the “suburban ideal,” of single-family homes tucked among greenery, spoke of their preference not so much for “suburban” as for “country” houses.

Only over the first half of the twentieth century did American suburbs acquire their modern reputation, as a haven of the middle class. Place meanings of “suburbs” solidified as more and more of the well-to-do moved there. By 1940, Americans who lived out from the urban cores comprised a third of metropolitan dwellers; over the next three decades, they would become a majority. By the century’s end, most Americans lived in what the U.S. Census categorized as “suburban” places.

The great changes that brought so many Americans to the urban edge over the twentieth century started with transportation. Electric streetcars and especially the automobile facilitated faster, cheaper, and more regular circulation of people as well as goods across the land. They stimulated a progressive re-envisioning of urban geography, further enhanced by the technological impact of the car. As more and more people drove cars, smaller roads fanned out from the main routes; the automobile and its courses enabled an unprecedented dispersion of human settlements across hill and dale. As earlier, economics also played an important role: land tended to be cheaper outward from urban cores, so these places as well as newly urbanizing areas became prime terrain for the more dispersed housing that cars made possible. Following the Depression-era collapse of home building, New Deal and then World War II veterans programs lent federal support to markets for suburban houses, via liberal mortgage guarantees. In many metropolitan areas, builders and developers combined, professionalized, and collaborated with local bankers to provide increasingly generous and long-term mortgage loans especially for suburban homebuyers. New settlements arose at a considerable distance from established ones, “leap-frogging” far into farmland.

Over the post-WWII decades, urban-edge residence became “suburbia”—a tame and grassy haven of America’s [white] middle class. In many depictions of this new mass suburbia, nature seemed little in evidence. Yet these kinds of landscapes—among them, the Long Island locale mentioned at the first of this piece—were precisely those out of which the modern environmental movement emerged. From the first public stirrings against DDT and on behalf of “open space” and “nature” parks, to innumerable polls on environmental issues, suburbs, even more so than cities, have proven themselves a political bulwark for environmentalism. To understand why, we need to consider the contradictory role of nature in such places. Unlike those moving to cities in this as in earlier times, many who moved to modern suburbs expected to find a visible nature nearby. As suburban home-ownership came to set the terms for American middle-classness over the middle of the twentieth century, these expectations were at once whetted and frustrated.

Most obviously, suburbanization itself involved environmental destruction. Consider just what it took to build the 17,000 that made up a huge development like Levittown, NY, on Long Island. Levittown’s builders razed much of what was left of the only naturally occurring prairie east of the Alleghenies, the Hempstead Plains. Houses and lawns replaced natural topsoil, plant life, and vegetation—at least those not already converted into potato farms. Moreover, to provide wood for the houses, the Levitts bought a timber company in Northern California. Levittown’s construction thereby had a significant hand in the stepped up destruction of old-growth redwood forests on the far side of the Continent.

Once people moved into places like Levittown, collectively they imposed huge new burdens on the local environment. Like those of their species in any urban agglomeration, they generated sewage, and, with more voluminous abandon than their urban predecessors and contemporaries around the globe, they exuded tons of garbage. Somewhere and somehow, these wastes had to be disposed of, whether through the septic tanks in the first Levittown or through the sewers with which homes were later connected, which funneled the out-flow into the sea. Cars, so vital in navigating the new “spread cities,” pump vast loads of new pollutants into the sky. So did the de-centralizing industries that continued to provide suburbanites with jobs, as well as distant electric plants on which they relied to power their televisions, refrigerators, and toasters. It is a small wonder that many environmentalists argue that suburbia is nature’s nemesis.

Yet the park-like private spaces from neighborhood to neighborhood marked a significant environmental contrast with earlier versions of the American city, including those many Levittowners left behind. This new suburban landscape only became possible not just through home building, but through step-ups in cultivation and planting. The apparent uniformity of grassy lawns from the British Isles to Levittown to the sprawling cities of the American Sunbelt came only through considerable adaptation. Hardly any American lawns enjoyed as humid or rainy a climate as England. To keep their lawns green, Americans had to water them in the hot summer months, even in Northeastern suburbs such as Levittown. Outside the northeast, differences in climate forced lawn researchers and aficionados to find substitute species for the bluegrasses and fescues that composed the classic English lawn. Bermudagrass, Bahaigrass, and St. Augustinegrass, from subtropical species, made postwar lawns possible around warmer cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta. Suburban lawns, gardens, and landscaping spawned lucrative businesses and industries after WWII, from national firms like Scotts and Toro to turf and nursery products that many urban-edge farmers turned to growing. A postwar rage for pets, led by suburban dwellers, also stimulated nationwide markets for dog and cat food and other supplies.

The mowing, clipping and feeding undertaken by suburban homeowners made it difficult for them to recognize these flora and fauna as “nature.” Most preferred to linger, instead, on the tameness of the suburban landscape they had achieved. Yet, as anyone knows who just lets their grass grow for a summer month, lawn work protects yards from a natural susceptibility to unwanted species. In the absence of mowing, fertilizing, and brand name “treatment systems”, weeds and pests thrive. Thereby, even in the most thoroughly suburbanized of neighborhoods, nature can take on a life and agency of its own. The ubiquitous and best-known lawn weeds, such as crabgrass and dandelion, exemplify a “generalist” level of adaptation. Give them an inch of open soil and they will take your entire yard.

Fostering the success not just of weeds but “weedy” creatures (usually “generalist” animals or insects that can move aggressively into new habitats), rapid building and rebuilding in suburban settings continually disturbs the local ecological fabric. A patchwork of vacant or untended lots, roadsides, golf courses, and occasional farms makes many urban-edge lands into “edge” zones like those between forest and field, where “generalist” species have long thrived.

Exotic generalists, but also those from the native fauna and flora, may flourish. A cultivated biological uniformity has inadvertently made the twentieth-century urban edge into a royal road for invasive species, from the Japanese beetle to the fragmites reed. On the other hand, some categories of species may diversify and prosper more along urban-edges than in rural places dominated by industrial agriculture or forestry. More butterfly species have been counted in Atlanta’s Fulton County, for instance, than in any other Georgia county. Over the latter half of this century, the rise of tourism and second homes out from many suburbanizing areas has, along with the abandonment of farm- or grazing land, paved the way for a return of many bird and animal species chased away by agricultural clearing and conversion. Deer populations have exploded out from metropolitan areas around the country, from the white-tailed variety in the east to the mule deers in the west. With them have come predators not seen locally since the early twentieth or even the nineteenth century: mountain lions around Los Angeles, bears in New Jersey. The reconfigured urban edge has also created new niches for disease-vector species from deer ticks bearing Lyme disease to mosquitoes carrying West Nile Fever. Suburban nature is re-known for tameness has thereby given way in many places, to a more unpredictable and threatening sense of the urban-edge wild.

That so many environmental supporters have chosen to live along the urban edge suggest that the human migration to urban edges over the last century has meant more than just environmental destruction. If anything, in comparison with life among the skyscrapers, suburban living has often ushered in a closer acquaintance with open space and sky, with non-human flora and fauna. Abundant plant life, both trimmed and weedy, and a ubiquity of pets and wilder creatures, from deer to songbirds, has kept many urban-edge dwellers alive to those aspirations dreamed by Rachel Carson in the opening of Silent Spring:

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings…The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields…”

Environmentalists’ visions often follow Carson’s in straying away from any urban ties or features of such places, to rivet more on their rural side.

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. We either focus on what is “urban,” from sanitation to freeways to electronic connections. 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.

Guiding Student Discussion

Depending on your students’ own backgrounds, the biggest challenge may lie in convincing students that cities or suburbs have much to do with nature at all. So deeply ingrained is our current inclination to think of nature as other than, distant from ourselves, especially those of us who are urban or suburban dwellers, that many students may scoff at the plants and animals you point to under their noses: That’s not nature!

You might show your students pictures of different landscapes and ask them “where is nature?” in each. Showing a photo of Manhattan’s skyline alongside one of Yosemite, you can get them to think about how nature might be as ubiquitous in each, though more disguised in the latter. Then you can get start nudging them toward a more reflective question: “why is nature more visible to us in some places than in others.” Another approach is to poll students about where they prefer living: in a city, a suburb, or a more rural area. In getting them to explain their rationales, you might find some openings for broaching how the seemingly more natural aspects of suburbs distinguish them from cities, and if you have a vocal wilderness advocate on hand, how unnaturally crafted suburbs seem.

A further step is to get students to thinking about just how much the nature of cities and their edges have changed across time. Here I have found it useful to put up photos of downtowns like that of Manhattan in different periods, say, the 1820s, around 1900, and again around 1970 and today. Ask them to think about the different manifestations of nature they see in which; make clear that you mean nature not just as visibly “natural,” but as transformed from natural resources. This exercise can easily demonstrate how dramatically urban environments, and the material make-up of city life have changed over the last century and a half. Adding pictures of different kinds of suburbs can bring out questions about the different mixtures of city and country that have comprised them.

On a larger scale, Google Earth offers a powerful tool for exploring differences in the material life and layout of cities across space and place. You can use differences in cities like New York and Los Angeles or Atlanta to bring up the importance of timing in city growth: how New York’s denser core was a product of nineteenth century urbanizing, very different from the more dispersed growth of Los Angeles and Atlanta during the automobile era. Easy map-making tools available free at the National Atlas can help students explore the nature of modern metropolitan areas they know. Centering the mapmaker on the region surrounding a nearby city, they can create cartographic depictions of its natural features as regional forest cover, watersheds, and distributions of endangered species.

A local field trip is another excellent way of shaking students’ inclinations to avert their eyes from the nature of urban or suburban landscapes, especially if you live in or near cities or suburbs (as most Americans do). Meet your students for a session at a local park or vacant lot. Witnessing the local flora and fauna first hand should stir them to thinking about the dynamics of climate, habitat, and food supply that sustain many wild and semi-wild as well as domesticated species in urbanized landscapes. Beforehand, if you are like so many of us, you may have some preparatory work ahead of you in educating yourself about what trees, shrubs and animals are there, and about the land use history through which this parcel remained undeveloped. However, likely, you will uncover ample material to bring home to your students how nature’s hand has continued to shape even the most urbanized of land. Another approach is to arrange a tour of an urban-edge farm, guided by someone who actually cultivates the land, in an area your students more like associate with subdivisions and malls. Farmers who have hung on in such places may well offer a surprising perspective on this land, one that takes its soil, creatures, and climate much more seriously than your students are accustomed to doing.

Teaching the environmental history of modern cities and suburbs, making the historical nature of urbanized places more palpable to your students, should open the door to discussions about the ethical implications of this awareness. Does knowing more about the environmental history of cities and suburbs foster a greater sense of care for it? Reading Aldo Leopold’s essay of the same name, you and your students might conclude by pondering whether there is a distinctly urban-edge version of his “land ethic.”

Scholars Debate

Urban history itself became a major field in historical scholarship over the mid-century as many pronounced our arrival as an “urban nation.” Interestingly, both its tradition downtown focus and a later interest in suburbs have tended to ignore questions about nature or environment, especially when it comes to the twentieth-century city.

Classic historians of the city included Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and Lewis Mumford. Suburbs emerged as a major topic of historical–as opposed to sociological or geographic—research only in the 1980s, most prominently through Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier (1985). If Jackson’s book signaled the arrival of suburbia as topic of study, his approach viewed suburbs almost exclusively as an “anti-urban” extension of the city. Other historians soon came along to explore suburbia more on its own terms, and debates arose about just what those terms might be. Those such as Robert Fishman, John Stilgoe, and Margaret Marsh brought out the “country” or “borderland” aesthetic that shapes so much of suburbia. Fishman joined others such as Joel Garreau, Rob Kling and Mark Poster in arguing that later twentieth-century urban-edge landscapes took on distinctly urban features that rendered older notions of suburbia obsolete. Recently, Greg Hise and others have argued that industrial de-concentration was a driving factor in suburbanization. Scholars of working class and African American suburbs, such as Richard Harris, Andrew Wiese and Becky Nicolaides have brought out a new appreciation of the economic and racioethnic diversity of suburbs before World War II, as well as in the postwar era. A special issue of the Journal of Urban History (March 2001), as well as Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000 (2003) encapsulate their arguments. More recently, urban historians have turned to the history of sprawl itself (Robert Bruegmann, Sprawl: Compact History (2005) and Owen Gutfreund, Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape (2004)). Even these historians remain curiously oblivious to, or dismissive of, environmental perspectives and questions.

Environmental history, a young field to begin with, has only begun to devote more attention to city or suburb. Until the 1990s, urban environmental historians such as Martin Melosi (The Sanitary City (2000)), who studied garbage and sanitation, and Joel Tarr (The Search for the Ultimate Sink (1996)), who looked at historical problems of pollution and waste, remained exceptions. William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (1991), arguing for interdependencies between exploitation of fields and forests and city growth, helped stir greater interest in the city among environmental historians. Over the last decade and half, the environmental history of the city has become a flourishing subfield. New Orleans provided the inspiration for Ari Kelman and Craig Colten, even prior to Hurricane Katrina; Mike Davis’s and other work has come on Los Angeles. Harold Platt offers a comparative look at “shock cities” in England and the U.S., while Matt Klingle looks at role of nature in the making of Seattle. The environmental justice movement, a critique of “mainstream” environmentalism from the standpoint of minority and lower income communities has inspired and steered much of this work.

More belatedly, suburbs have also begun to receive some attention from environmental historians. Adam Rome’s Bulldozer in the Countryside connects postwar suburban homebuilding to the open space movement. Jenny Price has written on suburban lawn ornaments and shopping malls, and Ted Steinberg, on the history of the lawn industry. This work has joined by other approaches to urban-edge history, focused on its agriculture (Marc Linder and Lawrence Zacharias’ Of Cabbages and Kings County and Brian Donahue’s partly autobiographical Reclaiming the Commons), on the New Urbanism (Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation) and on the suburban culture of nature (Virginia Jenkins and Georges Teyssot). From a very different corner, ecological scientists have also taken up problems of city nature and sprawl in a more serious and systematic way (Elizabeth Johnson and Michael Klemens, eds., Nature in Fragment: The Legacy of Sprawl). These diverse veins of inquiry are bound to yield further insights about just what the nature of today’s metropolitan landscapes has been and should be.

Christopher Sellers is Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is the author of Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science (1997), as well as many articles on environmental and industrial history. Currently he is working on an edited collection, Dangerous Trade: Industrial Hazards and Globalization in the Twentieth Century, developed from conferences in 2006 and 2007. He is also completing a manuscript entitled “Unsettling Ground: Suburban Nature and Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America.”

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To cite this essay:
Sellers, Christopher. “Cities and Suburbs.” Nature Transformed, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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