As America continues to sprawl out into the countryside, many consider transit-oriented development as the holy grail toward environmental and social sustainability. Many forget that most of the United States built in the late 19th and early 20th century exemplified this type of development. This research project aims to learn from the form and function of American streetcar suburbs, built in what many consider the golden age of suburbia. In this era, horse-drawn and electric streetcars began to open up a vast expanse of previously inaccessible countryside to the growing urban population of our rapidly industrializing nation. A symbiosis between the rapidly expanding streetcar networks and new housing and commercial developments on the urban fringe enabled many Americans to pursue their dream of living in the countryside while bolstering and maintaining proximity to the vitality and economy of central cities.


Started in 2012 as a student-led exercise under the auspices of Dr. Robert Fishman at the University of Michigan, a wealth of case studies has been created that compare the morphology and history of streetcar suburbs. Cartography and three-dimensional sections illustrate the variety of block and building types that can be found in the various streetcar suburbs, as well as the careful balance of public and private open spaces that constitute the ideal of living in nature.


While the characteristics of streetcar suburbs vastly differed between cities as far apart as Boston and San Francisco, their essential formula remains as crucial and relevant today as when they were first conceived. The streetcar suburbs presented here demonstrate a balance between town and country, between technology and nature and between individual freedom and collective achievement – an equilibrium that many contemporary scholars and professionals still strive to achieve.

The American streetcar suburb

Street section of Upper Arlington, OH.

While very different in form, both Roland Park (left) and Friendship (right) were streetcat suburbs with vibrant retail districts.

Upper Arlington suburb morphological comparison suburbs timeline

The progression of streetcar suburbs shows a decrease in density and walkability.