Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Building Suburbia: Highways and Housing in Postwar America

Created June 10, 2010


The Lesson


Building Suburbia: Diebenkorn's City Scape

City ScapeThis abstract composition by Richard Diebenkorn illustrates the transformation of postwar America by automobiles and highways, as well as housing.

Credit: Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Cityscape I, 1963. Oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 50 1/2 in. (153.04 x 128.27 cm.). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchased with funds from Trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilbur, and J. D. Zellerbach. © Estate of Richard Diebenkorn.

This is the new suburbia, the packaged villages that have become the dormitory of the new generation of organization men. They are not typical American communities, but because they provide such a cross section of young organization people we can see in bolder relief than elsewhere the kind of world organization man wants and may in time bring about.”

William Whyte, The Organization Man, 1956

The postwar United States experienced a dramatic economic boom—and a dramatic reorientation of American ideals of the home. Prior to the war, Americans had lived predominantly in metropolitan areas where they could find jobs and housing. But in the post-war years, population growth occurred not in central cities, but in the suburban areas that ringed the urban core. Cities, long the heart of urban society and culture, lost jobs and population. By 1960, almost as many Americans lived in suburban areas as in city centers.

This lesson highlights the changing relationship between the city center and the suburb in the postwar decades, especially in the 1950s. Students will look at the legislation leading up to and including the Federal Highway Act of 1956. They will also examine documents about the history of Levittown, the most famous and most important of the postwar suburban planned developments

Guiding Questions

  • What were the opportunities and challenges which the growth of suburbs offered postwar Americans?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to

  • Understand the growth of suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Explain how changes in postwar governmental policies and popular ideology transformed residential patterns and family life in the center city and the suburbs of the 1950s.
  • Explain how the car and highways transformed metropolitan life.


The United States became a suburban nation in the decades following World War II. Fourteen of the fifteen largest American cities shrank in size between 1950 and 1960 while the suburbs surrounding those cities grew enormously in those same years. By 1970 more Americans lived in suburban areas than in the central cities. How did this enormous shift occur?

Housing and highways were critical to the suburban boom. About ninety percent of suburban residents owned cars. Cars and commuters needed highways which were funded largely by the federal government. In 1947 Congress authorized the construction of a 37,000 mile chain of highways. Nine years later the Interstate Highway Act, one of the largest civil engineering projects in the nation’s history, granted funds for a 42, 500 mile-long interstate highway system across the entire country, financed by taxes on gasoline and fees for commercial vehicles.

The interstate system changed cities and the countryside alike, spurring the growth of suburbs farther and farther away from the central cities. Suburban shopping malls and supermarkets drew business away from corner grocery stores as residents hopped into their cars. Downtown retail areas declined along with mass transit.

Americans suffered from a critical housing shortage after the war. Housing construction in the cities centered on public housing while in the suburbs builders concentrated on single-family, owner-occupied homes. A Long Island building contractor named Arthur Levitt revolutionized the housing market by bringing mass production techniques to suburban home construction. His company built as many as 150 homes a week at a rate of one every sixteen minutes. He built planned communities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; they were all named Levittown. Soon other developers followed his lead and bought up cheap farmland around urban areas for suburban planned communities. Many families financed their homes with mortgages from the Federal Housing Administration. The three housing developments and many of the government loan programs were almost exclusively for whites. Levittown contracts contained covenants restricting occupancy by “members other than the Caucasian race.”

The following websites will provide additional background information for teachers or for student research projects:

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout.
  • Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites.
  • Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. How the Suburbs Changed America

Step 1. As homework or in class, students should read historian Kenneth Jackson’s interview on “How the Suburbs Changed America." They should consider the following questions as they read:

  • What did returning veterans want for their families?
  • What social values facilitated suburban development after World War II?

Step 2. Hand out to students the following table from the U.S. Census: Population by Residence and Race: 1950-1970. Look at the first category: Total:

  • How does the central city population change from 1950 to 1970?
  • How does the suburban (outside central city) population change? You might want to ask students to construct a bar graph of the percentage of central city and suburban population.

Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington, DC: Department of Commerce, 1973, p. 17, Govt. Pubs. A link on EDSITEment’s Center for History and New Media

Now look at the White and African-American populations; how do those two populations differ in rates of growth in the center city and the suburban areas during those two decades?

Step 3. Place the students in three groups and have them go to the Automobile in American Life and Society website. Have them examine one of the sections of the exhibit—environment, race, or gender, reading the particular sections listed below.

As they read their section, and carefully examine at the accompanying images (larger versions with captions appear when the user clicks on the image), they should consider the following questions in their group:

  • What is the effect of the automobile on the city? On the suburb?
  • What is the role of government (local, state, and federal) in developing suburban communities?
  • In old and new communities (center city and suburb), how did family life change?
  • What was liberating about the new suburban region?
  • What sorts of problems were created and for whom?

Step 4. Each group should choose one image from their section and write a short paragraph explaining what this image reveals about the auto, city and suburb in postwar life.

Step 5. Each group should present their image and paragraph to the entire class. A class discussion should compare each of the three readings.

  • What was the role of space, race, and gender in changing urban and suburban life?
  • How did the relationship between the city and suburb change in the 1950s and 1960s? Why?
  • Who benefited? Who lost?
Activity 2. Suburbia Opportunities and Challenges

Step 1. As homework or in a computer lab, students should read the background essay Bill Levitt and the American Dream on the Biography of America website, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Learner.org.

Step 2. If you used Activity 1, go directly to Step 3; Step 2 is only necessary for those who did not do Activity 1. Building the Motor City and Moving Out. Images should be clicked to open into larger ones with explanatory captions.

Step 4. Each group should provide every image or object they’ve chosen with a title and a brief caption discussing its significance.

For each image and caption, students should:

  • Write a title for the image, as if they were preparing a museum exhibition.
  • They will write a two to three sentence caption for the image in their own words, relating the image to the larger topic of changes in housing and postwar American society.

Step 5. In addition, each group’s exhibition should have an introductory “panel.” In their introductory panel, the students in the group should answer these general questions about their “exhibition”:

  • What were the experiences of postwar Americans in your community? Why did people move or stay? What was family life like? How did the population vary by gender, class, race, or ethnicity?
  • What opportunities did urban or suburban life offer to American families in the postwar era? What sorts of problems cropped up? What sorts of solutions were available for those problems?


Students could write an opinion column or letter to the editor for a community newspaper for a particular community, one that they studied in Step 3 of Activity 2. They could choose a role such as a newcomer to the community, a long term resident, someone who just moved from the central city, or a suburban real estate developer. Their piece should reflect on the growth of the suburbs, perhaps responding to contemporary debates on the issue. Some of the issues that they might deal with in their piece would be: What are the opportunities made possible by their new suburban community? What sorts of problems might they be facing? Where could they look for solutions? What role could the local, state, or federal government play in helping them?

Extending The Lesson

1. Students could read and discuss critiques of suburban life in the 1950s from Betty Friedan and William Whyte.

2. Students could look at images from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit on ‘Rebels: Painters and Poets of the 1950s.’ They could annotate these texts and images, looking for what the authors and artists said about conformity and postwar life. Teachers might start off the activity by having students look at the Smithsonian exhibition "City and Suburb" which has an excerpt of Leave it to Beaver. The National Portrait Gallery is an EDSITEment-reviewed website.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Modern World (1500 CE-Present)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Demographic Changes
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • Cultural analysis
  • Expository writing
  • Historical analysis
  • Map Skills
  • Research
  • Using primary sources


Activity Worksheets

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