The Suburb as a Legal Concept: The Problem of Organization and the Fate of Municipalities in American Law

80 Pages Posted: 30 May 2007 Last revised: 6 Aug 2012

See all articles by Kenneth Stahl

Kenneth Stahl

Chapman University - The Dale Fowler School of Law


This article argues that suburban municipalities obtained a privileged status vis-à-vis cities in American law - a reversal of the historical pattern - because the suburbs, as conceived by legislators and the judiciary, were more readily integrated as organs of the modern administrative state. In particular, where the city represented a mode of organization that emphasized autonomy from the sovereign and the rights of the collectivity as against those of the individual, the suburb was constructed as a conduit for the State to exert authority on and distribute goods to isolated single-family homeowners. This article traces the evolution of the legal concept of the municipality by situating it within the context of parallel transformations in two similar corporate organizations: the business corporation and the labor union. Beginning in the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth century, rapid industrialization caused the city, the business corporation, and the labor union to swell in size and influence. Threatened by the challenge these organizations posed to State authority and individual freedom, political elites and the courts responded by stripping them of their corporate legal powers. A more sophisticated approach appeared after the First World War, as the elites opted to reconstruct and reinvigorate organizations in a manner that served their own goals. The organizations were endowed with a collective legal status that superficially recalled the grand stature of their past while codifying their subordinate roles within the bureaucratic state. Thus, the suburb assumed the trappings of corporate personality once reserved for the city even as it proclaimed the emergence of a new legal concept of municipal organization.

Keywords: zoning, legal history, municipal government, urban law, land use planning, urban history, labor law history

Suggested Citation

Stahl, Kenneth, The Suburb as a Legal Concept: The Problem of Organization and the Fate of Municipalities in American Law. Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 29, pp. 1193-1272, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Kenneth Stahl (Contact Author)

Chapman University - The Dale Fowler School of Law ( email )

One University Drive
Orange, CA 92866-1099
United States

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