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History of Suburbs

Suburbs have existed in various forms since antiquity, when cities typically were walled and the villages outside them were inferior in size and status. However, the modern notion of the quiet, unspoiled outskirts as a retreat for the wealthy urbanite is in evidence as early as the 6th cent. B.C. in Babylon. In ancient Greece, the economic interdependence between the city and the agricultural communities surrounding it was given political definition by the formation of the city-state. Cicero in the 1st cent. B.C. refers to suburbani, large country estates just outside Rome.

Throughout Europe, the distinction between the city and outlying districts tended to remain sharp through the Middle Ages and Renaissance; to accommodate a large influx of newcomers, city walls were expanded, or, as with London, densely populated towns adjacent to the overcrowded city were gradually annexed to it. Generally considered a less desirable location, the urban periphery was inhabited largely by the poor.

In England, the rich who owned weekend villas outside London gradually transferred their main residences there, and the middle class soon followed. By the middle of the 19th cent., the distribution of population in metropolitan London and Manchester confirmed that popular preference for suburban living had become marked. Migration from the central city to the suburbs was encouraged by a succession of technological advances in transportation throughout the 19th and well into the 20th cent. The steamboat ferry, horse-drawn stagecoaches and railways, and the electric streetcar or trolley, all enabled urban dwellers to commute longer distances than had previously been practical.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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