Re-Framing Suburbia

Kurt Nelson
20 min readSep 2, 2019

As part of my final year at PennDesign in their Master of Architecture program, I was able to spend time completing a thesis on the near-future possibilities of suburban form, thinking about how it could respond to the changing economic and cultural conditions of the next generation of homeowners. What follows is a condensed version of the results of that thesis.

The suburbs have played a central role in the growth of the United States for over a century, and in that time they have become the place where a majority call home; the culture and economics of the country have become inextricably linked with the suburbs. Even though they almost uniformly promise a life in concert with nature, open space, and privacy, the reality of the suburbs has changed considerably since the first rail lines connected streetcar suburbs in Westchester county to New York City around the 1900’s. As economic and cultural shifts happened, the form of the base unit of suburbia, the detached single family home, responded in kind to accommodate those hoping to achieve what was offered by suburban life.

Up to the present day however, the typical single family home remains largely unchanged from the 1970’s. Square footages have grown significantly, but the form of the homes and plots of land themselves have not yet responded to a changing economy and culture. Looking forward, the changing circumstances of those moving into home-buying age provide a new lens through which to view future possibilities of the suburbs, addressing many of the current shortcomings along the way.

This project aims to explore how the suburban plot of land could redefine itself in response to the changing social and economic landscape that the next generation of homeowners exist within, forgoing the traditional single family home and land ownership model to create a structure that still retains the benefits that have made the suburbs a desirable place to live. This re-framing of the suburbs allows for the opportunity to not only make them more accessible to this upcoming generation of home owners, but to many that have not yet had the opportunity to achieve a suburban lifestyle.

The result is a series of scales of interventions investigating how these changing ideals play out on the suburban lot, the cul-de-sac, and the neighborhood.

A Short History of the American Suburb

Before exploring how the form of suburbs can change to better reflect today’s economy and culture, it is worthwhile to consider how they arrived at their current state. Throughout its long history, suburbia has been shaped by the economic and social forces that exist within it, and this was no less true when it made the jump across the Atlantic and took root in the industrializing cities of Boston and New York. Responding in turn to shifts in society and the economy, the form of the suburban neighborhood and home are a product of their context. Throughout its history in the U.S., there are key moments that have shaped the suburbs into what they are today. Just as this has happened in the past it will continue into the future, and trends that exist today have the opportunity to open these communities to a new group of inhabitants while giving them a neighborhood to shape and addressing the ills of the places they are moving from.

Currier, Nathaniel. “American Country Life.” Digital image. Springfield Museums. 1857.

Pre-War Emergence

After re-emerging en-masse in London, the concept of suburbia that had been around since Roman times began to expand in the United States as commuter lines started to emerge, making longer daily commutes possible. Viable primarily in larger cities like New York and Boston, prominent “streetcar suburbs” like New Rochelle and Scarsdale of Westchester County began to emerge, catering to upper class Manhattan businessmen. These homes aligned themselves with the commuter trains connecting them to the city but were relatively limited in their proliferation because of the railway system.

Pre-War Suburban Culture and Aesthetics

Alongside economics shaping suburban form, the culture of suburbia has played a role as well. From its inception as a refuge for the elite to the democratizing force of the condominium and equal opportunity housing laws in the 1970s, the culture of suburbia has been continuously changing since it made its way across the Atlantic in the early 20th century.

The Jacobs House by Frank Lloyd Wright, an example of a Usonian home

Without the scale of post-war housing developers, the aesthetics of the pre-war suburban home was much more location specific and varying in style than the corresponding post-war home. The houses situated themselves along rail lines, but also often came into close proximity with a variety of other functions like farms and small shopping centers. As these homes were being built at a relatively slow pace, the suburban house was seen more as a means of land preservation and a benefit to its environment than a blight on it. Designs by Frank Lloyd Wright and Frederick Law Olmsted before him show a connection to nature being of the utmost importance. Wright pioneered the Prairie School and the Usonian home, both putting the relationship to nature at the forefront of the design, but in different ways. Olmsted, working at the neighborhood and town level on plans like Riverside, Illinois turned away from any inclusion of sharp corners and allowed for numerous open spaces to emerge as parks and other public gathering spaces.

Riverside, Illinois town plan by Frederick Law Olmsted

The small size of these towns led to a culture of exclusivity, with many moving out to the suburbs looking to set up their own private estates. Experimental developments that attempted to forgo ownership in favor of lease agreements that were more like those found in company towns failed, eventually becoming privatized and being bought up by affluent families. With nearly half of the population living in cities in 1913, these single-family homes outside the city grew in popularity as they signified wealth and sophistication. The country club was the locus of this suburban social life, and it was where many spent increasingly large amounts of time devoted to leisure and interacting with their neighbors.

Homes in the new development of Levittown

The Economics of Post War Housing

The Great Depression, WWII, and the corresponding recovery brought forward a new class of suburbs, supplanting the Westchester model. This new generation of homes was most prominently represented by Levittown, NY. During the war and the Great Depression, housing was being built at a slower rate, meaning that as troops came home there was a distinct shortage of available homes for them. This was remedied in part through low cost loans offered by the Federal Housing Administration as a part of the GI Bill, along with the technologies of mass production and standardization (what was so useful for the war effort had turned towards the home), allowing for houses to be built faster than ever before. Mass production in combination with the stipulations of the FHA loans also affected the appliances, utilities, and form of the house in its own way with the instituting of the “minimum house” model, specifying certain dimensions and materials along with included appliances and utilities. This not only made the homes more modern than their pre-war counterparts, but also prioritized their application primarily in suburbs as opposed to cities. In places like Levittown, the minimum house was the standard for development. Even though it could get fairly cramped, the single family detached home provided more room (they were typically built on 75’ x 100’ lots, compared to the 15’ x 100’ row home standard in cities) for families that tended to consist of a husband and wife along with three children. Responding to a lack of home-building during and shortly after the war, entire new towns were constructed at a blistering pace, leading to the suburbs holding the largest share of the U.S. population by 1950. This had the byproduct of elevating the single-family home to a financial instrument of sorts. The industry of home building had become inextricably linked to the economy. As such, the houses began to take on a second function, acting almost as a currency, that they had not before. Despite this rapid proliferation, the regional nature of the home-building companies ensured a certain level of specificity in design to their contexts.

In addition to FHA loans, the second facet of the suburbs that enabled their growth throughout the U.S. was the automobile’s surge in popularity as the main form of transportation, bolstered by the creation of the interstate highway system. No longer reliant on centralized transportation systems and timetables, a developer needed only to build roads and connect to the larger highway system for people to be able to access the neighborhoods whenever they pleased. This massive shift to suburbs in combination with the skyscraper coming into prominence and increasing urban real estate prices caused an ever larger, more distinct daily migration between city and suburb. The city became less and less populated during the night, while the suburbs were empty during the day.

For those that were able to move in, the suburbs were a unifying experience like no other. They largely cut across ethnic, religious, and professional/occupational differences, at the expense of a growing racial divide. Age and gender roles were still notably uniform in this era, with places like Levittown being made up almost exclusively of 25 to 35 year olds with families and male breadwinners with stay at home wives. A surprising level of community engagement was present at this time, with residents forming many different clubs and groups within any given town. Both children and housewives played a large role in this, as the housewives were typically home all day and there were many children of the same age nearby without any fences or busy streets to separate them. Moving forward, around the 1960s suburbs began to become more defined by the income level of their inhabitants, who sorted themselves into distinct communities that reduced their contact with those not in their own social class.

A suburban development outside of San Francisco by Joseph Eichler

Post-War Aesthetics and Culture

After WWII, a suburban lifestyle became much more financially achievable and consequently, homes were built at a much larger scale than they were previously. Because the scales of the developments were so much larger, the aesthetics of the houses shifted towards more standardized features, as the speed of construction and compliance with FHA regulations were of paramount concern. Even as some developments employed material strategies that emphasized the natural, economies of scale forced the replication of these homes up and down the street and across the neighborhood. The Case Study Houses operated within this paradigm, with examples like the Eames House depicting the possibilities of the assembly line and its effect on housing, but these models were not widely adopted. The work of developer Joseph Eichler draws parallels with the aesthetics put forth by many of the Case Study Houses. These Homes put a priority on interior comfort, but they still succumbed to the trade-offs imposed by tightly packed tract housing.

This concept of detached tract housing contributed to the displacement of the home from other functions of a community. Without this connection, the automobile became even more prevalent. Displacing the home from the activities of its occupants affected the culture of postwar suburbia, with many portraying it as “conformist, drab, and isolationist”. This worry about social and physical isolation has continued into the modern day, however, this was not necessarily the case. In suburbs like Levittown, NY and Park Forest, IL, there was documented existence of vibrant community participation across all ages and genders. Open yards without fences encouraged connections between children, homeowners bonded over sharing tips about yard work among other things, and families shared responsibilities in raising children. Key to all this participation was shared experiences and amenities like the lawn. Devoid of any partitioning, this open space had the possibility to become a forum for the community, with many activities relying on an open expanse of maintained grass and streets. Families got together in the yard to have cookouts and help each other with housework, while the children rode bikes in the street and played football across backyards. Whereas the park was something one had to travel to in cities, in places like Levittown it was all around.

Satellite View of Irvine, CA

Deregulation and Suburban Housing

As the deregulation of the early 1970s took hold and the home began to tie itself ever closer to the financial industry through mortgage-backed securities and real estate investment trusts, the development of suburbs began to balloon in scale. Towns like Irvine, CA set the tone for how suburban sprawl is perceived today. Following the success of the home builders of the post-war era, larger firms that acted as an even stronger standardizing force with national as opposed to regional reach began to appear. As a byproduct of deregulation, boom and bust housing cycles emerged that had not been seen before, coming first in 1974 and leading to significant price swings for both renters and owners, along with a larger general recession across the country. To continue to make suburbs an affordable place to live for those who had grown up there, people turned to riskier credit arrangements in the face of increasing home prices. This also had the effect of pushing new home buyers further away from the cities around which their suburbs were located, reinforcing the central role of the automobile and leading Americans to spend even longer lengths of time in their cars and away from their homes.

Just as the firms that built homes were changing, the types of homes that they were building changed as well. Now, condominiums and attached homes were becoming popular as they provided a more affordable version of suburbia in the face of rising land and home costs. By increasing the density of the units but maintaining the large green spaces they sat within, the builders were able to preserve certain aspects of the suburban experience while keeping it as affordable as possible. These developments also resulted in the prominence of the gated community, seen to ensure lasting property values for those investing in new homes, pushing neighborhoods to become more insular and disconnected from their surroundings. These new types of communities often implemented strict requirements on their design in an attempt to create more and better green spaces, but the statistical nature of the rules they put forth led to many being implemented not as an integral feature to the designs, but as more of an afterthought and marketing tool.

The type of family that was living in the suburbs began to diversify in the 1970s as life there became more popular with those who did not have children, working women, and single or divorced adults in general, just as denser developments like the attached home and condominium came into prominence. The low-income population in suburbia had also grown significantly, in part due to federal programs like Section 8 vouchers allowing them to turn to the open market to find their housing instead of relying on government options. Reflecting a shrinking middle class overall, those that had called suburbia home since its post-war inception began leaving as more neighborhoods trended towards either low or high-income residents, providing a physical manifestation of the inequality resulting from de-industrialization in the ’70s and ’80s. Despite this suburbia only continued to grow, to the point where in 2000 52% of Americans called it home.

The Culture of De-Regulation

As the nation began to coalesce around the vision of the suburban house as a form of utopia, the economy that made this dream achievable began to weaken. With increased pressure to bring down the price of homes, new models of what a suburban home could be started to emerge while the scale of the developments expanded. Instead of the detached single-family home, condominiums and attached homes began to emerge. Inhabiting these new developments was a more diverse crowd from every perspective. This was due to new policies stopping housing discrimination and the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which caused an influx of Asian and Hispanic migration. As certain communities diversified, others adopted strategies to avoid it. Towards the 1990’s gated communities became more and more numerous. These developments emerged in response to a re-emphasis on privacy, but also excluded others from the community, resulting again in a much more homogeneous neighborhood.

The daily routines of people living in the suburbs became more and more spread out, with commutes stretching across multiple towns that further contributed to a decline in any local sense of community. California was a leader in this sort of dispersion, where a resident may work in Irvine, live in Garden Grove, take shopping trips to Santa Ana, and have a dentist appointment in Anaheim. At the same time, the automobile was becoming the primary way people experienced public space. Even funeral homes and banks began adding drive-through amenities. All the while fencing became more widespread, leading to an overall decline in the vibrant participation culture that had arisen in postwar suburbs.

The new model of a denser, larger development led to even more uniformity in housing and shrinking lot sizes. These cut away at the connection to nature that suburbs had emphasized. Thus, the culture of leisure began changing in response. The interior of the house, once a place geared mostly towards maintaining a family and sleeping, became a place to spend one’s idle hours as well. Enabled by technology, one could find entertainment without ever having to engage with the outside world. These advancements had a strong effect on the houses they enhanced, with the TV becoming the focal point of every living room and the telephone making trips to talk to others unnecessary. The utility of the porch, front yard, and the street had now been stripped down to spaces only experienced fleetingly compared to the large amounts of time spent inside. This was even more true for the newly prominent condominiums, where the inhabitants did not own any private land, and frequently were only leasing their apartments. The distinction between the backyard and front yard vanished, and much of the dominion that residents felt over it disappeared as well. At the same time, these suburbs stressed an even stronger relationship to nature, which they were increasingly devoid of. Developments changed their names and renamed streets to invoke bucolic, peaceful imagery, which increasingly betrayed the reality that they had bulldozed over any such natural features.

A selection of street signs from suburban neighborhoods

The aesthetic of a development like Irvine also became decoupled from nature. Much less prominent were the ideals put forth by the Case Study Houses and by developers like Joseph Eichler; instead, standardization was pushed even further by national developers. Breaking away from detached single-family homes had allowed for the testing of new street layouts, but differences between homes shrank further. Stucco abounded, with slight changes in its color to differentiate one complex from the next. Since ownership did not lie with the residents but was instead managed through a corporation in charge of all the buildings within a development, the corporate entity minimized the effect of personal expression and taste on the appearance of the homes. Themes began to materialize, acting as selling points to differentiate one development from the next. Spanish colonial was a common trope, but Italian villas also popped up with streets like Grand Canal and Piccolo. Curiously, the forms of the houses responded very little to these changes in style, instead they were merely re-clothed to create a semblance of differentiation.

Montecito Apartments in Irvine, California

Current Day Suburban Forms

The viewpoints of movements like New Urbanism and Smart Growth have permeated the planning community, but current developments often do not reflect these principles. Houses are built in much the same way they were in the 1970s: sprawling out in large developments. The environmental impact of sprawl in combination with a weaker financial state for the upcoming generation of homeowners is contributing to the inaccessibility of a suburban lifestyle, but this does not have to be the case. Since houses are still built primarily for an older generation with vastly different cultural tastes and economic situations, suburbia runs the risk of becoming largely vacant as its current inhabitants move out or pass away.

An example of a typical model of suburban development in Nampa, Idaho

“We can no longer afford the luxury of sprawl. Our demographics are shifting in dramatic ways. Our economy is restructuring. Our environment is under increasing stress.”

By taking the existing development strategy of suburbia as a starting point and considering how new economic and social factors could push the form of the home, yard, and neighborhood in a different direction, suburbia can continue to be a viable option for the upcoming generation of homeowners.

What can the next generation of suburbs become?

As the millennial generation ages into home ownership, they are poised to head to the suburbs in large numbers; they view the suburbs more favorably than both Generation X and the Baby Boomers, and they also value home ownership more as well (Infinite Suburbia, 68). However, the suburbs as they are now have not adapted to the unique circumstances of this generation. Suburbs are at a point where they have an opportunity to once again change, better reflecting and highlighting the current cultural and economic era.

This change can begin with the two most enduring elements of suburbia, the family home and the lawn. From them, all of the qualities we associate with suburban life (privacy, nature, space, etc.) find their roots. Suburbs have long emphasized a connection to nature, but recently this has become less central to the mission of developers, even though it remains one of the main selling points of suburbia. Lawns remain, but the form they take continues to become less natural, private, or spacious due to a variety of factors. However, by breaking out of the current typical manifestations of suburban lots and homes these benefits can once again reassert themselves through shifting the form they take. Lawns and homes have the opportunity to interact in new and different ways, working together to meet the today’s challenges and make for a more attainable, livable model of suburban development.

An example of the new form suburban homes could take

The suburban home exists now as a single-use structure, more often than not occupied only during the mornings and nights, laying dormant otherwise. This opens up the door to a variety of problems not the least of which is a consistent flow of customers throughout the day for any businesses that could locate themselves in the community. Filtering this through the lens of a millennial home-buyer, a few design guidelines come to the front. In terms of mixing programs, the number of people working from home has been growing, and it is even more prevalent in the younger, college educated demographic. Including a certain amount of flexible space that can be used as a home office, or possibly even rented out to others as workspace can provide both an economic benefit and a time-saving opportunity, cutting out the ever-growing commute into work. Taking that same idea and applying it to the principal of income diversity, allowing for a variety of shapes and sizes of homes to fit different incomes and family sizes instead of the typically homogeneously scaled suburb can also address the common critique of suburbs being “cookie-cutter”. While the design of these units must be carefully considered to maintain the privacy and freedom that set living in the suburbs apart, they are no doubt an asset that can help make the purchase of the home more financially feasible to an increasingly economically precarious millennial generation.

The negative space of the lawn that exists between the homes becomes just as important as the homes themselves. The varying sizes and shapes respond to the different needs of the families that inhabit them.

Looking at the work of Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, we can find an elaboration on these principles of successful suburban planning. The cause of many suburban woes, indiscriminate sprawl and the creep of restrictive zoning ordinances have cut into the ability to provide a successful suburban model of living. Instead of the vibrant small towns of centuries past, we are trending towards strange amalgamations of housing shaped by abstract market forces and indiscriminate regulation. One prime example of this abstraction of the town is the prominence of residual space. The desire for lawns and open land has caused houses to distance themselves from one another, but the result has been featureless land that no one feels ownership over. Fences spring up here and there, helping achieve some sense of privacy but there is always a negotiation between neighbors. The yard is never used to the full potential that is achieved in rural settings. Adding to this issue of inefficient land use, the placement of the house and the garage contribute to a waste of the usable lawn that does exist. By shifting the placement of the house on the lot in a configuration that emphasizes the need for a private lawn while respecting the resulting public space shaped around the street, both a more lively public and private space can be crafted, playing up each of their strengths.

A speculation on the form that a new suburban neighborhood could take, responding to the concerns of a new generation of home owners

As a picture of what this project can address both publicly and privately comes together, three guiding principles become clear. The house should strive to be affordable, using program and land efficiently and uniquely to make the house as much of a source of income as possible for the owners. Second, it must uphold the ideal of what the suburb can be, offering privacy and freedom to its owner, while maintaining an economical footprint. Lastly, the house must ingratiate itself to the public realm, offering up communal necessities to create a more active and long-lasting community.

As our world continues to evolve and change, the question of how to address suburbia will only become all the more pressing. The urban has long been posed as a solution, but it continues to run into the problem of people decidedly not wanting to live there for one reason or another. While a suburban lifestyle is inherently unsustainable now, this same current situation presents an opportunity for architects to envision a sustainable community that maintains the key benefits of suburban life. Facing the litany of economic, social, and environmental issues we are now, the ability to enact meaningful solutions to any of those problems has to run through suburbia; it is simply too large and too popular to ignore.

More than providing a model for suburban living to the next generation of homeowners, this project aims to shed light on the possibilities of suburban development. More so than represented in popular culture, the suburbs have been embroiled in significant change throughout their existence in the United States, for better or worse. There is a rich architectural tradition there in dealing acutely and sensitively with nature that seems to have fallen away in the past decades, but this re-thinking of how we live in the suburbs provides an opportunity to inch closer to the utopia that suburbs were often marketed as.


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Thank you to Kutan Ayata for advising me throughout this process.



Kurt Nelson

Recent graduate from University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Architecture program, currently working at KPF in New York City.