Preservation and the New Suburban Reality

By Special Contributor posted 01-27-2015 15:37


By: Elaine Stiles

 America’s suburbs – from streetcar to postwar boom ‘burbs – are ripe for renewal. View of Tyson's Corner, VA | Credit: La Citta Nuova via Flickr under Creative Commons
America’s suburbs – from streetcar to postwar boom ‘burbs – are ripe for renewal. View of Tyson's Corner, Virginia. | Credit: La Citta Nuova via Flickr under Creative Commons

In 2000, the U.S. Census revealed that America had officially become a suburban nation. For the first time, the majority of Americans resided in suburban areas. Since that revelation 15 years ago, urbanists of all persuasions have been taking a second look at the urban edge. Their findings contradict many of our commonly held views on who lives in suburbs, why they live there, what they do there, and how the suburban built environment functions. The Brookings Institution has called the suburbs the locus of the new American reality, and as suburbs continue to age and remake themselves, they will become a growing part of a new preservation reality.1 A better understanding of the suburbs—both past and present—will be essential for the 21st-century preservationist. Here’s some of what you need to know, along with some thoughts on how preservation can play a meaningful role in the future of this diverse and changing historic landscape.

1. The suburbs are slated to undergo tremendous change over the next 30 years.

There are many reasons preservationists should pay more attention to the suburbs, not least of which is that all suburbs—from streetcar to postwar boom ‘burbs—are heading for what can only be termed a period of suburban renewal. Population growth and developable land shortages in denser areas will increasingly direct development to suburban zones. Change will also come about as suburbs approaching their 70th and even 100th birthdays seek to renew aging infrastructure. Suburban communities are similarly cognizant of the environmental deficits in their land use patterns, and are pursuing plans that will recentralize and even urbanize many suburban places. Much of this change will not occur in the exurbs or outermost layer of suburbs, but in older, inner-ring suburbs. The comparative density of inner-ring suburbs and their integration into existing infrastructure and transportation networks make them attractive to development interests. “America’s first-ring suburbs,” noted Urban Land Institute CEO Patrick Phillips, “could be the sweet spot for future growth.”2

This period of suburban renewal may be welcome for many, but as preservationists, it should give us pause. We recall the difficult lessons learned from 20th-century efforts to remake urban environments deemed inadequate—the limited recognition of community, the destruction of older buildings, and the disproportionate impact on minority and underprivileged populations. These concerns apply equally to suburban areas, particularly in light of recent research on American suburbs.

2. The suburbs areand have always beenzones of diversity.

 A suburban strip mall in the Chinese ethnoburb of Monterey Park, near Los Angeles. | Credit: Chris Cusson via Flickr under Creative Commons
A suburban strip mall in the Chinese ethnoburb of Monterey Park, near Los Angeles. | Credit: Chris Cusson via Flickr under Creative Commons
One of the most interesting findings in research on the suburbs from the past 15 years has been that suburbs have been more socioeconomically, racially, and ethnically diverse than existing historic narratives allow. Suburbia offered a zone of opportunity for a wide variety of socioeconomic classes, generating blue-collar suburbs, self-built suburbs, and ethnoburbs alongside the Ozzie and Harriet ideal. Many suburbs were not satellites of the city center, but economic engines and centers of employment in their own right. In Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, for example, suburban development followed industrial decentralization, office decentralization, and ultimately, jobs. 3 Even the Levittown on Long Island was strategically positioned next to a major aircraft manufacturing plant. Perhaps the most striking findings are on racial diversity. While racial covenants and endemic discrimination in U.S. housing policy closed suburban property markets to many minorities, these challenges did not wholly exclude non-whites from suburban areas. Political fragmentation and limited regulation at the urban edge ultimately undermined single-class or race exclusivity and allowed diverse groups to settle in suburban districts. In aggregate, North American suburbs were as socially and racially diverse as the cities they surrounded. 4

These patterns have only intensified over time. According to the Brookings Institution, the majority population of all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. now lives in the suburbs of major metropolitan regions. Major metropolitan suburban areas also house more than half of all foreign-born U.S. residents, many who maintain a transnational identity. Perhaps most striking, as of 2010, the majority of the nation’s poor now live not in urban centers, but in suburban districts. Other forms of diversity are also growing in suburbs. Seventy percent of baby boomers live in suburbs and their status as “the first suburban generation” signals their likelihood to remain.5 In short, when you scratch the surface, those seemingly bland suburbs have as much “place” and “story” as any other place people call home. When thinking about revamping suburban areas, it is essential to recognize the diverse cultural and social values embedded—often in layer after layer—in the contemporary suburban landscape.

3. Like all older buildings, suburban building types and forms serve essential roles in social, cultural, and economic sustainability. (Yes, even strip malls.)
  A Levittown, NY cape in its original form. Check out a remodeled one here. | Credit: Sean_Marshall via Flickr under Creative Commons
A Levittown, New York, cape in its original form. Check out a remodeled one here. | Credit: Sean_Marshall via Flickr under Creative Commons

What some preservationists, building professionals, and urbanists may denigrate as a banal, repetitive, and dysfunctional built environment has readily supported the varied social and economic needs of suburban populations for several generations. This has often occurred through a tried and true preservation practice: reusing existing buildings. Suburban building types were designed to be flexible, working landscapes, adapting to the needs of shifting populations. In the Long Island Levittown, for example, only a handful of houses retain their original cape form. Generations of homeowners have remade their affordable, flexible “little boxes” to accommodate changing families and housing tastes.6 “Bigger boxes” are also part of the phenomenon, with one of the hot spots for building recycling being the much maligned strip mall. Planners, historians, and economic development specialists, for example, have identified strip malls as epicenters of suburban entrepreneurship, attracting new business and many minority-owned businesses with low rents and flexible space.7 Perhaps the ultimate example of the power of the banal is Silicon Valley, where scholars have argued that the adaptability of its sea of inexpensive, common, and repetitive building types helped support exceptional innovation.8 When addressing the suburbs we must remember, as Jane Jacobs did, the usefulness of old buildings and slightly obsolete forms.

4. Better environmental performance is important, but some methods deserve greater scrutiny.

Discussions on the future of the suburbs invariably turn to their biggest and most widely acknowledged problem: environmental sustainability. Many talented thinkers are addressing this issue from a design perspective, pursuing increased residential densities, improved walkability and public transit access, and greater levels of land conservation.9 Many of us agree in principle with the end goals of retrofitting and repairing suburbia, but some proposed processes bear greater scrutiny from preservationists. Existing retrofit and repair strategies focus heavily on the spatial and morphological to the detriment of the social and cultural. What is “wanted” or “necessary” in these analyses often draws on a particular set of professional values that demonstrate little reconciliation with user values. Popular approaches like the Sprawl Repair Manual are lacking the needs analyses  that might capture a broad demographic profile or preserve existing use patterns. Most troubling, discussions of preservation in some key texts are either missing, or limited to natural resources. As we acknowledge the place-ness and social fabric of suburban districts, what will it mean to dramatically change or even erase them? If we are to tackle needed change in the suburban landscape, we must continue to champion a definition of sustainability that goes beyond environmental performance.

5. Preservationists have an important role in the suburban future and vice versa.

 Inner ring suburbs will be the focus of a significant portion of suburban renewal. (Inner-ring suburbs of Colombus, OH) | Credit: Credit: Pierre Metiviervia Flickr under Creative Commons
Inner-ring suburbs will be the focus of a significant portion of suburban renewal. (Inner-ring suburbs of Colombus, Ohio) | Credit: Credit: Pierre Metiviervia Flickr under Creative Commons

As a movement, preservation cannot afford to ignore the landscape that more than half of Americans now call home. The suburbs present tremendous opportunities to develop more relevant sets of tools and standards for smart preservation in places of diversity and constant change. The issues suburban landscapes present to preservationists are particularly timely given our efforts to make preservation policies and tools work for a broader range of people and places. How can existing tools help people preserve the many-layered places of the suburbs? We are also increasingly acknowledging that existing standards often fall short of embracing working, vernacular landscapes. Images of affluent, well-preserved suburbs aside, most suburbs were meant to be flexible, working landscapes, adapting to the needs of shifting populations. Should we reuse or preserve these layers, and if so, how? What will it mean for historic areas when we need to consider spatial uses, values, and practices beyond those envisioned by a historic majority that no longer lives there?10 Do institutionalized practices in preservation and planning subvert others’ ability to shape or create meaning and value in their built environments? These are big questions, but preservationists must be prepared to address them as suburban places assert themselves with greater frequency on our work, and the people who care about them grow increasingly engaged in preservation efforts.

Elaine Stiles is a Ph.D. candidate in Architectural History at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studies the history of suburban design and development. This blog is adapted from her presentation in the session “Changing Demographics: the Consequences for Historic Preservation” at the 2014 PastForward Conference.


1. Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, The State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation (Washington, DC.: The Brookings Institution, 2006), 34.

2. Brookings Institution, The State of Metropolitan America, 49; Urban Land Institute Infrastructure Initiative, Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development (Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute, 2012), pp. 5, 9.

3. See Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-century Metropolis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue, eds., The New Suburban History. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Becky M. Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); and Wei Li, Ethnoburb the New Ethnic Community in Urban America (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).

4. See Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) and Richard Harris and Robert Lewis, “The Geography of North American Cities and Suburbs, 1890-1950 a New Synthesis,” Journal of Urban History 27:3 (2001): 262–292.

5.  Brookings Institution, The State of Metropolitan America, pp. 33, 51, 65, 77.

6. See Barbara M. Kelly, Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).

7. See Timothy Davis, “The Miracle Mile Revisited: Recycling, Renovation, and Simulation along the Commercial Strip,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 7, Exploring Everyday Landscapes (1997), pp. 93-114 and Ken Benfield, “How Immigrants are Revitalizing America’s Fading Suburbs,” NRDC Switchboard, April 23, 2010,

8. See Margaret Crawford, “Little Boxes: High-Tech and the Silicon Valley,” Room One Thousand (1:1), Fall 2013.

9. See, for example Elizabeth Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009) versus a less culturally and socially sensitive approach in Galina Tachieva, Sprawl Repair Manual (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2010).

10. For a thought-provoking discussion on this topic, see Willow Lung-Amam, “That “Monster House” Is My Home: The Social and Cultural Politics of Design Reviews and Regulations,” Journal of Urban Design, 18:2 (2013), 220-241.

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