What is the best single marker of being a suburb?

Spurred by yesterday’s post on Alaska’s changing suburbs, I put together a list of the most important markers that indicate whether an American community is a suburb roughly in order from the most important to less important:

  1. Proximity to the big city. If you are within the social and economic orbit of the big city (and this can differ based on the city as well as on the size of the big city), the community is a suburb. This is more vague on the outer edges of the metropolitan region.
  2. A physical layout dominated by roads and relatively spaced out single-family homes. (This may describe some urban residential neighborhoods but I would suggest the homes there are typically closer together and there are often additional transportation options.)
  3. An exclusivity toward undesirable residents and businesses. Suburbs have different socioeconomic levels but there are typically groups that are not as welcome and there are a variety of techniques to keep them out.
  4. A moral order built around the autonomy of individual residents as long as this doesn’t hurt the property values of other residents and a lack of social conflict because neighbors generally leave each other alone (unless they choose to interact through common interests – such as kids in school).
  5. A community emphasis on middle-class family life. This may be more aspirational than reality (whether it involves wealthier residents who claim to be just middle-class or working-class or poorer suburbs who distinguish themselves from poor urban neighborhoods).
  6. Additional physical markers including roads lined with shopping malls, strip malls, fast food restaurants, and big box stores as well as a lack of walkability.
  7. Homogeneity across residents. There are plenty of suburbs today that are not this way but American suburbs are still often perceived as white and wealthy.
  8. An emphasis on local government as community members seek to control their own lives.

It is hard to separate out these factors as many can be found in other geographic settings or are traits of American culture at large. Yet, the combination of these factors leads a unique social setting that can be defined and measured.

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