September 14, 2009

Suburbanizing Rural America

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

When I was growing up, I loved going to an amusement park about 20 miles away from my home during the summer. To get there, we had to drive for what seemed like forever on a two-lane highway through what I thought was the middle of nowhere. I lived in a suburban area not too far from the mythic place Leave It to Beaver’s home was supposed to be located. The rural landscape felt foreign, someplace to drive through on our way to someplace else.

Years later, my mother moved into a new development a few miles past the amusement park. It was a big change from where I grew up, but had a retreat-like atmosphere. Similar developments sprang up in the area with names reminiscent of grand estates: Barrington, Hawthorn, and Hidden Valley to name a few. Off of two lane highways, each development features homes that are nearly identical in size, design, and color and include amenities like private lakes, club houses, pools, and golf courses. A five-star resort across the street from my mother’s development attracts corporate groups, weddings, and diners to the highly acclaimed restaurants on the property. This is a major change from an area of forests and farms and a far-flung amusement park.

I have watched this area morph into what some call “ruburbia”: a fully suburbanized community whose rural character is now more about style than substance. More commonly called exburbs, or outer-ring communities further removed from a central city than traditional suburbs. People who move there today will no longer find the small town lifestyle that likely attracted people in the past, but instead remnants of small town “charm” with all the amenities of most American suburbs: restaurant chains, fast food, big box stores, and eventually office buildings. In a region whose population has been shrinking over the last several decades, this area has seen a boom from just over 8,000 residents in 1980 to over 14,000 in 2005. While this growth has expanded the once small-town’s tax base—especially by drawing young affluent families—the shift into suburbia has brought with it some of the things residents might have hoped to avoid by moving to ruburbia in the first place.

One of the town’s initial attractions was its lush forests. When my mother bought her home, there were trees as far as the eye could see in her backyard, and realtors sold the property in part based on the serenity and privacy the trees provided. Now just a smattering of trees remain behind her house, and her view is mostly of house built a few years later. To add insult to injury, the homeowners often hold loud parties into the night during the summer. So much for serenity.

Of course, the environmental impact of cutting down trees trumps the inconvenience to the homeowners who once enjoyed looking at them. Deer with no place else to go often dart into traffic. The shade trees once provided is gone, so now people require greater use of air conditioning in the summer. And while it might seem as though the economic downturn might slow development, developers are still clearing land in hopes of attracting new business to the area. Acres once covered with trees have been cleared to make way for new developments like the one visible in the background of the photo below. For Sale signs, like the one in the foreground of the photo below, offer unoccupied land throughout the area.


Despite the signs indicating that several existing homes are for sale, many acres of land have been cleared to expand one housing development. While the housing bubble never affected this area as severely as other communities in the region, high unemployment in the state will likely make it more difficult to sell many homes, which can be significantly higher than the region’s median home price.


The acres surrounding big box stores, as pictured below, have also been cleared, leaving just a handful of trees and planting lawns in their place, which require a great deal of water to maintain. At one strip mall, two of the major chains, Circuit City and Linens ‘n Things, have gone out of business. The Linens ‘n Things store is still vacant, and yet a sign just beyond this open space advertises that the land is for sale in case retailers would like to build a new store in the space.



Before the development frenzy began, the landscape was dotted with small houses and businesses like the one pictured above, a store that advertises feed and live bait to passersby. I recently went inside the shop for the first time. It was empty and the owner was glad to have potential customers to show around.

She told us that the building was constructed in 1899, but may soon be bulldozed to make way for an office building. The owner doesn’t want to sell it, but she is afraid that eminent domain laws will force her out. I was surprised to hear that a building like this would even be considered for demolition, primarily because there were so many other areas of cleared land with no buildings, not to mention those spaces near the strip malls. Across the street from an outlet mall, the shop now seems to lend some of the rural authenticity that the new chain restaurants and big box stores do not. Even for those bent on new development, I assumed that keeping a few of these places around could add to the “small town charm” that could cynically be used to attract business.

I’m not bashing my mother’s community—I enjoy visiting and still find it a relaxing place to be (except when caught in traffic on the once rural roads now serving as major suburban arteries). What other social consequences of “ruburbia” can you think of?

Photos courtesy of Linda Sternheimer


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I enjoy this article. It was very well writen. I like this because when I would visit my grandma when I was very young. It would seem like I was in the cars for days

Your article is a great example of how suburbanization works in America. Suburbanization is defined as the loss of population of a city to surrounding areas. This seems to be exactly what is happening to your mother's development. The town is exploding with more people, and trees are being taken down to make room for more and more businesses. It is kind of sad isn't it? To see how things once were, and how serene it all was to this big change. That just seems to be America's latest trend, though. The trend of suburbanization.
Great post! Thanks!

Good post! I'm taking a sociology class online right now, and i just finished a chapter on population and urbanization. It covered suburbanization and some of the reasons why suburbs are formed and people are attracted to them. The article that you wrote was a very good example of suburbanization and made it easy for me to understand why people would be tempted to move into communites like these, or move away in some cases. I can also relate to your experience of seeing a community change because i've seen it happen too. When i was alot younger, i visited my aunt who lives out west in the country, and this past summer i visited her again for the first time since, and found that the cities surrounding her had closed in alot and that she now had neighbors....a big change within a relatively short amount of time.

I enjoyed reading this article. I think we need to start taking better care of our land. It make no since to be trying to tear down, or force out small, local business owners, when there is plently of open land and spaces already available.

I read this article and thought that it was quite sad that we are needing to change rural America to accommodate more people and more business. As a small town girl, it’s sad to think that one day there could be so much business and so many people in America that the small town feel and true “community” may vanish from our country. It’s interesting, though, that the government is somewhat controlling movement with laws like eminent domain.

I understand how moving back to that area only to find it is suburbanized would be very disheartening. These days everyone is moving to cities. Which is leading to us having overpopulated cities. These cities are cramming thousands of people in to small living quarters. Our world relies on cities to much and it will lead to many problems in the future.

This article is a great example of how places are suburbanized. My sociology text defines suburbanization as the loss of population of a city to surrounding areas. The article illustrates some of the downsides to the suburbanization of an area, even when the initial intention is to convenience more people. I think that the article really shows how suburbanization can make communities more efficient, but can also negatively impact the environment.

Your article is a great example of how suburbanization works in America. I am reading about suburanization in my sociology class right now, and this was a very nice blog. It made me think about a lot of things. Suburbanization is defined as the loss of population of a city to surrounding areas. This seems to be exactly what is happening to your mother's development, right now. In your town its been exploding with more people, and trees are being taken down to make room for more and more businesses. It sucks to see how things once were, and how weird it all was to this big change. That just seems to be America's latest trend, though. The trend of suburbanization.
Amazing post! Thanks, for making me realize suburbanization is something very big!

I dont think I would be able to handle moving away then coming back and everywhere around my house being suburbs. This was a very good article.

I hate when things like this happen. I'm afraid this might happen to my small town. Sometime in the future it's probably going to turn into a city just like your mothers community did. The two lane high way we have will eventually be a 6 lane high way. Unfortunately there isn't much we can do about this. Our world is turning into a world of cities. Soon there will be hardly any country and it will be mostly cities.

I liked this article. It really makes you think about the suburbanization of America and what the possible consequences of it are. Are future generations going to have any idea what our world likes today?

That's very interesting becuse there's actually a study going on called 19.20.21 that isn't exactly on this, but on how more and more people are moving to cities. I find this interesting because it appears that many people in the US and the rest of the world are wanting more and more to live in urbanized areas.

I agree that this article that you wrote was a very good example of suburbanization and made it easy for me to understand why people would be tempted to move into communities like these, or move away in some cases. Thanks for sharing this.


Very interesting. I read this for my Sociology class.

I find this funny because we are from the same place. I recognize the pictures of the grain and supply company which is only about 5 minutes from my home. I related to the amusement park reference said early in the article and wondered if you were talking about the same place.

I think the article was a wonderful example of how cities are losing their population to surrounding areas. It also opened my understanding of why people move to the suburbs. Its interesting how people are moving or wanting to move into areas like these.

I liked this article. As the country is growing we have to find new places to build and that means the cutting down of forests, which isn't exactly the best method.

The counrty is growing more and more and we are going to need to build more buildings and that means we have to cut down more of the forrest and that is getting rid of animals habitats.

suburbanization is happening all over the country and world. As our population keeps increasing we have to adapt our environment to fit demands. More people, more trees cut down, more skyscrapers and office buildings....its that simple. Is it right? i don't know, is it necessary? with our growing population..yes.

Interesting post. In my sociology class we covered suburbanization and some of the reasons why suburbs are formed and people are attracted to them. The article that you wrote displayed a very good example of suburbanization, making it easy for me to understand why people want to move into communities or somewhere else. I too can also relate to the experience of watching a community change. When I was alot younger, I visited my Cousins house. They live down south and this past summer I visited him again. We found that the cities surrounding his had closed in alot and that she now had neighbors, showing just how quickly his town changed.

Its just amazing how suburbanization can change small town into larger town. I feel as if with all the suburbanization going on we never get to take time to our selves and life is just do hectic with all the fast moving things. I live in the country and we lose a lot of that when large building, housing units, and businesses go up. I love it out there in the county, its a nice break from being in a large city all day.

In my sociology class, we have been learning about urbanization. It's ironic that the individuals that had moved away from the city and the suburbs are now being confronted with them. It defeats the purpose of living away from the suburbs. This suburbanization seems to be ridding small areas of their small town charm. It's an odd mix of rural areas and the suburbs. It's another form of gentrification. Small town business and home owners may be forced out by professionals and larger businesses. The environmental effects seem horrible. Many individuals move to small towns for the trees and the lack of pollution. This kind of urbanization may result in the elimination of rural areas.

The article that you wrote made it easy for me to understand why people want to move into communites like these, or even why people would want to move away from the growing size. I can also relate to your experience of seeing a community change because i've seen it happen too. I currently live in a medium sized community but it used to be a lot smaller. since since the school system has grown the town has exploded as well with new neighborhoods and a whole new downtown shopping and eating area. I can relate with how weird the change was for you as well.

I found this article very interesting. I'm taking an online Sociology class, and this article helped me understand the concept of suburbanization a lot. I find your descriptions and thoughts about 'ruburbia' very intriguing. It helped me understand why people would either move to the area or away from the area.

In the chapter we read this week, we learned about demography along with the migration and changes of population in the United States. One of the major changes has been our shift to the suburbs. Many people who once lived in rural areas are now moving into suburban areas. Or, like in the case you stated, rural areas are being transformed into suburbs and people are forced to change with it. This movement to the suburbs can be explained by a few different factors. One is the fact that we live in a postindustrial society today. People are moving into suburban areas because its often closer to where a lot of the work is. Demography is the scientific study of population, which includes studying the migrational patterns of people. Thank you, this article was very helpful for my class!

I believe that people are begining to move back to rural areas because of the high population density of cities. Since population grows exponentionally the city populations are continually rising. Because of this high population jobs in cities are becoming more scares. Thus people are moving to rural areas to find working, additionally when inner city schools to fail the best options is thus to move to rural areas where school are smaller and provide a better education.

It's weird that we're moving out to rural areas while the rest of the world is moving into urban areas.

In my sociology class we are learning about urbanization and the differences of people moving. I think your actual connestion of how different it is to move closer really brings this to life. I enjoyed you bringing back what your mother was used to as well. Thank you for a great connection reading!

I easily find myself agreeing with this post. I really liked the point that was made that now we only can find "small city charm" and small remnants of what we grew up with. There is much change going on around us. Trees are being cut down to build big buildings and newer and bigger neighborhoods. Its actually sad to think about how everything seems to just turn into childhood memories. I also feel that as time goes on, the cities will become too dense with population and people will return to the little towns. The population will begin to spread out again and therefore the work force will expand outside of the big cities. Thanks to all of the technological advances we have seen, that will also help people be able to work from home and not have to travel into the city to simply sit in the office. I highly enjoyed reading this article and even being able to relate to it from my childhood experiences.

I thought this article was very well written and shows the problem that urbanization can cause. People for the most part like living in a small rural town, it's a calming feeling living in a place that's not the big city. When a small town becomes urbanized, you're losing a good thing. Not every city needs to be urbanized because we need a change of scenery.

It must be sad seeing the place you lived and knew for such a long time all go away. I know I hate visiting my grandparents in Alabama and they used to have such a nice trail that you can walk and then they took it away to build condos for people to live closer to the water. I go up north to get away from all of the development and just go to wear they have not touched and that is up north with all the beautiful trees that make it so peaceful and relaxing to be. I think that they need to stop developing and leave some trees for the people that want to have trees or land that has no houses or a business that will have a lot of people coming. The cities are having way to many people living in it and that is causing pollution and other problems...we need to find solutions for those problems.

This article is a great example of what is happening to our country. Towns become crowded so they have to start tearing down forests, and old buildings that arent being used so more people can cram into the cities. Suburbanization is ridding small areas of their small town charm.

Your mom's town is a great example of suburbanization. It is quite interesting to see how much we have in common. My hometown use to lavish in the city. The older generation would always talk about the wonderful events that happened in the city, but it's crazy to see that the city is now a little run down and pretty empty. The township/suburb is where you can find most people, shops, and the festivities. It'd be really cool to actually feel the change from the past to now. Instead, I can only see the present.

Your definition and process of "ruburbia" was very interesting. Normally you only think of the urban areas, rural areas, and then suburban areas but it's interesting to add another category. Obviously it should be characterized as something different from the three previously mentioned. Although the environmental impacts are stated and your reaction to all of the changes taking place, are there any changes in social interactions or roles in the community as it changes to a more suburban setting?

Suburbanization is an important concept to understand when it comes to population trends. The town I live in is going through the shift between a rural community into a suburban community. In its history my town consisted of one small center population (the town itself) surrounded by a plethora of farmers and their fields. When I moved there housing deveolpments were starting on a once open plain or an old plot of land a farmer used to work on. Now after a few short years the area has expanded in reflection to the town and other suburban areas close by which are also growing.

If there are now almost no trees, and the area is filling up with offices and chain stores, could it still even be refered to as any kind of suburb? I thought suburbs were supposed to allow people to live outside the crowded city, not to have people living on top of each other.

this was a great article about the suburbanization going on in america today. and how fast it happens.

I experienced a similar sort of suburbanization. A few years ago, I lived in a more rural town in Indiana. Two years after living there, my family and I moved again. I remember that there wan't much in town besides the basics. A grocery store, gas station, barber shop, etc. Last year we revisited our old town and came across massive amounts of new businesses, stores, and so on. It's crazy how quickly this change took place and how drastic it was! Great post by the way, thanks for sharing.

I hate how America is losing it's "small town" charm.. hopefully the big bad city won't capture all of us. Perhaps the circles of urbanization/suburbanization need a little bit more space between them.

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