Redefining The Suburbs

Downtown Naperville, IL
Yesterday, Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile reported on the recent Census Bureau’s release of metropolitan area population estimates for 2011.  This followed his recent article on the Census Bureau’s release of data on urbanized areas for 2010. 
The preliminary analysis from Aaron is that yes, metro area population growth slowed from 2010 to 2011, with growth particularly slowed in Census Bureau-designated “exurban” counties.  As a result, many urbanists and “back to the city” types are hailing the decline of the far-out suburbs and touting the new growth of cities.
As Lee Corso might say on ESPN’s College Football GameDay, “Not so fast, my friends.”
The truth is far more complex than that, and that leads to misinterpretations on all sides.  Urban boosters tend to believe there is a battle between core cities and exurban areas; suburban boosters say it’s the opposite.  I think it’s a false choice – the distinction between city and suburb is not one of distance from the core, but of age of development.
In older regions like Chicago, there are many suburbs that are as urban in character as Chicago neighborhoods.  Chicago border communities Evanston and Oak Park quickly come to mind; however, there are numerous others that fit the bill (Park Ridge and Des Plaines in the northwest burbs, Cicero and Berwyn in the west burbs, Blue Island and Harvey in the south burbs).  What do they generally have in common?  Although they are all suburbs, they were platted and developed prior to the Great Depression and World War II, and done so at a scale very similar to the nearby large city.  I’d even take this argument a little further and say that suburbs platted and developed pre-1960 could be considered more urban than suburban, as they also have a development pattern more similar to the large city (at least in Chicago’s case).  Take a look at many inner ring suburbs, and they are indistinguishable from the city neighborhoods on the other side of an artificial boundary.
What’s driven the growth of the suburban development pattern has been the individual desire to obtain something new, not simply to move further out.
With that in mind, I think Aaron is spot on in his description of what is happening on the suburban fringe:
“I think a chunk of the fringe migration was from very low end home builders skipping out beyond established jurisdictions into unincorporated territory with few buildings restrictions. They threw up dirt cheap homes there and often sold them to people with marginal credit and income who had no business buying homes, using a variety of gimmicks to do so. (I know someone who sold homes for one of these builders, so I heard about some of these). Loose credit policies and government guarantees fueled this. The housing crash killed this market. Now that subsidies for this type of growth aren’t available, that market is probably never coming back.”
I also agree with Aaron’s view on future city growth:
“With the difficulties of building in urban areas, there’s no way to accommodate just the new growth even if everybody wanted into the city. In other words, there’s just no way there is going to be some massive back to the city movement.”
But if I were to take a stab at an explanation of what is happening in our metro areas, I’d say a reordering has started.  A look into my crystal ball reveals the following:
·         Core cities are becoming the destination of young and educated singles and couples, and of empty-nesters – demographics with disposable incomes and a desire for city amenities.  They will largely replace the immigrant and working-class residents that traditionally populated our core cities.  Think San Francisco, Manhattan, and Washington, D.C.
·         Intermediate areas of metros – inner ring and second ring suburbs – will become the favored locale for young and middle-age families.  Their housing stock will diversify as they seek to provide more housing options for residents, and as a result they will experience an increase in density and become much more “city-like”.  Intermediate areas that have strong job centers, or good access to them, will fare better than those that don’t.
·         The suburban fringe, the areas that grew most rapidly over the last twenty years, will suffer most.  They will lose the young and middle-age families who will move to the intermediate areas, who will grow tired of long commutes and increasing fuel costs.  They will suffer from having a huge inventory of vacant large single-family homes, or – even worse – large undeveloped subdivisions that went bust after the housing crash.  The rental-homeownership mix will shift quickly and dramatically, and the strip malls and lifestyle centers will feel the pinch and lose tenants.  Again, those with a strong job center or good access to one will fare better than those that don’t.

We are beginning to see a transformation in our metro areas, and the areas we have traditionally called suburbs may be in for the greatest change.  The redefinition of the suburbs is well underway. 

2 thoughts on “Redefining The Suburbs

  1. Pete, I think this is exactly right. I can tell you from my own experience buying a home in Chicago that I moved to the NW Side of Chicago in 2009 (the core/intermediate area of the metro) to raise a family because we were priced out of the housing stock in the core neighborhoods. I've seen more young families, many of which, like myself, migrated from the lakefront neighborhoods or Bucktown.

    Yet, I don't believe that the core will be entirely populated by empty nesters and educated singles and couples. We still have, unfortunately, large areas of the city that are under-invested in for a variety of reasons. Some of these neighborhoods may turn around, some may not. I think the ones that may not are the ones with the highest barrier to redevelopment – old industrial areas with significant brownfield pollution and lack of quality transportation and job access.


  2. Thanks so much for your comment. Maybe I overstated my point or glossed over some nuance, but I tend to agree with you that the core will not entirely repopulate with yuppies (to bring back an old term) and empty-nesters, if in Chicago's case you take “core” to mean the city of Chicago's boundaries. Here's a semantic caveat — I think much of Chicago beyond the city's boulevard system would fit into what I call the intermediate area above. I'd argue there isn't much difference between areas around Midway Airport, for example, and Palos Hills, or between Jefferson Park and Niles. What I would call the core of Chicago would be the area between Western Avenue, the lakefront, the city's northern boundary and 63rd Street. My guess and total speculation is that's the area that will transform. There will be fewer people, but greater wealth.


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