The First Signs of Suburban Utopias: From London to America

From the quirky Edward Scissorhands to the drama of Revolutionary Road, the movie industry has made a habit of showcasing the American suburb. Regardless of genre, the picture painted is one of safety and tranquility. Yet these peaceful utopias were not created by Hollywood, as suburban communities have existed in the United States since the mid-19th century. The origins of American suburbia, however, are not homegrown.

In the early 19th century, London became the first notable European city to experience a form of suburbanization. The British believed that high densities themselves were unhealthy, as masses crowded into the city center as populations increased throughout London. As a result, at the turn of the century suburbs arose that contained tree-lined avenues and parks. These areas, considered a sanctuary from the urban decay, allowed families to separate home from work in a domesticated way of life.

The Richmond Suburb of London, 19th Century

The first unique, planned combination of rural and urban characteristics began in London in 1811. Regent’s Park was a community of isolated villas surrounded by landscaped terraces. Shortly afterwards, its influence could be seen in resorts, suburbs, and parks in the 1820s through the 1840s throughout England. This concept became the prototype for Llewellyn Park in the 1870s, and other New York City suburbs continually drew upon examples in England. Beyond the idea of shared core values, this fact shows the impact England had on American suburbs in terms of agreement in architectural planning.

The 1850s Llewellyn Park Gatehouse

The similarities that London suburbs have to their American counterparts are partly seen in the direct relationship between the two regions. As Englishmen colonized most of the United States, both English-speaking areas were originally tied together with similarities in terms of influences and ideals. The Puritan values of many Americans, which helped shape suburbanization, originated in England. While widespread immigration to the United States in later years certainly diluted the percentage of Americans fitting the Puritan mold, England’s influence prevailed.

Throughout the early years of American suburbia, ideas for recreational amenities and facilities were taken from English magazines, as the concept of city versus country coupled with that of moral corruption versus nature to become predominate themes in literature on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, by the 1840s, the term ‘”suburb” was being used in publications to promote utopian communities and a “positive union of urban and rural characteristics.”

William Ranlett’s Suburban Design

In 1847, William Ranlett published the first American design for a suburban village, with detached landscaped villas on a site not far from the existing suburb of New Brighton on Staten Island. Again, this idea was taken directly from a combination of English literature and physical examples. By the mid 1850s, the suburban concept had become an established principle in the United States, albeit not widespread in practice.

The beginning of synthesizing city and country into an American concept is thus largely tied to England. English ideas and beliefs, however, were not the sole stimulant to American suburbanization. Other factors such as available space for construction and government planning needs to be accounted for when looking at living preferences. Nevertheless, this relationship between England and the United States illuminates a set of shared values and living preferences that continues to hold true.

-Matt Milloway

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2 Comments on “The First Signs of Suburban Utopias: From London to America”

  1. Mitch
    September 2, 2011 at 6:05 am #

    I would be interested to see how other English speaking countries fit into this (i.e. Australia, Canada, etc). From my untrained observations it seems like they all have commonalities that may be lacking in other countries.

  2. Jill
    October 6, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    I just wrote a paper on this topic. Nice!

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