The Birth of Suburbia – IELTS Academic Reading Passage

A. There is no single pivotal moment that could be separated out from any other as the conception of the suburban lifestyle; from the early 1800s, various types of suburban development have sprung up and evolved in their own localised ways, from the streetcar suburbs of New York to the dormitory towns outside of London. It is William Levitt, however, who is generally regarded as the father of modem suburbia. During World War II, Levitt served in the United States Navy where he developed expertise in the mass construction of military housing, a process that he streamlined using uniform and interchangeable parts. In 1947, the budding developer used this utilitarian knowledge to begin work with his father and architect brother constructing a planned community on Long Island, New York. With an emphasis on speed, efficiency, and cost-effective production, the Levitts were soon able to produce over 30 units a day.

B. William Levitt correctly predicted the demand for affordable, private, quiet, and comfortable homes from returning GIs after World War II and with the baby boom starting to kick in. All the original lots sold out in a matter of days, and by 1951, nearly 18,000 homes in the area had been constructed by the Levitt fit Sons Company. Levittown quickly became the prototype of mass- produced housing, spurring the construction of similar projects in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and even Puerto Rico, followed by a new industry, and soon a new way of life and a new ideal for the American family.

C. One of the major criticisms of suburbia is that it can lead to isolation and social dislocation. With properties spread out over great swathes of land, sealed off from one another by bushes, fences and trees, the emphasis of suburban life is placed squarely on privacy rather than community. In the densely populated urban settlements that predated suburbs (and that are still the predominant way of life for some people), activities such as childcare and household chores as well as sources of emotional and moral support were widely socialised. This insured that any one family would be able to draw on a pool of social resources from their neighbours, building cohabitants and family on nearby streets. Suburbia breaks these networks down into individual and nuclear family units resulting in an increase in anti-social behaviour even amongst the wealthy. Teens from wealthy suburban families, for example, are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and use drugs than their poorer urban peers, and are also more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

D. Another major problem with the suburban lifestyle is its damaging ecological impact. The comparison of leafy, quiet, and low-density suburbs with life in the concrete towers of sooty, congested urban conurbations is actually quite misleading; as it turns out, if you want to be kind to the natural environment, the key is to stay away from it. Suburbia fails the environmental friendliness test on a number of counts. Firstly, due to their low population density, suburbs consume natural land at a much higher rate than high-density row housing or apartment buildings. Secondly, they encourage the use of personal motor vehicles, often at a rate of one per family member, at the expense of public transport. It is also much less efficient to provide electricity and water to individual suburban houses instead of individual units in an apartment building. In his comparison of urban and suburban pollution, Edward L. Glaeser concluded that we need to “build more sky towers – especially in California”. Virtually everywhere, he found cities to be cleaner than suburbs. And the difference in carbon dioxide emissions between high-density cities and their suburbs (for example, in New York) was the highest. Urban residents of New York can claim on average to produce nearly 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide less than their suburban peers.

E. Another negative aspect of suburban life is its stifling conformity and monotony of social experience. It was not just the nuts and bolts and the concrete foundations of suburban houses that got replicated street upon street, block upon block, and suburb upon suburb; it was everything from the shops and cultural life to people’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Suburbia gave birth to the “strip mall”, a retail establishment that is typically composed of a collection of national or global chain stores, all stocked with a centrally dictated, homogenous array of products. The isolation and lack of interaction in suburbs has also encouraged the popularity of television, a passively receptive medium for the viewer that, in the early days at least, offered an extremely limited scope of cultural exposure compared with the wealth of experiences available in the inner city. Meanwhile, much of the inner-city “public sphere” has been lost with suburban flight. The public sphere is the area of social life in which people come together to freely discuss and identify social problems. In the city, this has traditionally occurred around newsstands, in coffee houses, salons, theatres, meeting halls, and so on. Suburbia has not found a way to replace this special type of social experience, however. Social meeting points in the suburbs tend to be based exclusively around specific interests such as sports or cultural clubs, with no broad forms of daily social interaction.

F. These points do not suggest the idea of suburbia itself is flawed, but that it has not been executed in a way that takes into account the full spectrum of human needs and desires. This likely reflects the hasty, thrown-together nature of early suburban development. With the baby boom rippling across Western countries and demand for family-friendly housing skyrocketing, developers and city planners were unable to develop sophisticated models. Now, however, we should take time to consider what has gone wrong and how we can reconfigure the suburb. How can we imbue suburban life with the lost sphere of public discussion and debate? How can people maintain their sought after privacy without sacrificing a sense of community? How can we use new technologies to make suburbs environmentally friendly? These are questions for which the developers of tomorrow will have to find answers, lest the dream of suburbia become the nightmare of disturbia.

Questions 27-31
Reading Passage 3 has six paragraphs, A-F. Which paragraph contains the following information?

27 A reason to construct taller buildings
28 Where people might discuss issues of societal concern in urban locations
29 The founder of what is broadly understood as contemporary ‘suburbs’
30 Examples of problems suffered by the youth that suburban lifestyle can make worse
31 A model for suburban development in the latter half of the 20th century

Questions 32-38
Do the following statements agree with the information given in Reading Passage 3?

In boxes 32-38 on your answer sheet, write

YES                                 if the statement agrees with the views of the writer
NO                                   if the statement contradicts the views of the writer
NOT GIVEN                if it is impossible to say what the writer thinks about this

32 A good principle for ecological preservation is to avoid human interference.
33 In some countries, suburbs are more environmentally friendly than in the USA.
34 Suburban development fosters the use of both public and private forms of transport
35 People cannot relate to each other in suburbs because their lives are too different.
36 There is not much variety amongst the goods at a strip mall.
37 Television has not tended to offer the same diversity as urban cultural outlets.
38 There are numerous of ways of communication and interaction between people living in the suburbs.

Questions 39-40
Choose TWO letters, A-E.

Write your answers in boxes 39-40 on your answer sheet.

Which TWO of the following does the author conclude?

A The very concept of a healthy suburban lifestyle is problematic.
B The speed of suburban growth has contributed to its imperfections.
C By thinking about human and ecological needs, suburbs can become better places to live.
D Developers will have to think about ways of living that do not require suburbs.
E Suburbs have their downsides, but they are the best way for parents to raise children.