When Suburbs are Cities, and Vice Versa

After a brief hiatus, I’m back.

I’m a little slow in getting to this, but I felt it needed a comment.  Earlier this month Wendell Cox at New Geography posted an article there about 2011 U.S. Census estimates, coming to the conclusion that, despite the protestations of urbanists everywhere, people are still choosing suburbs over cities.  To which I say, yes, but no.

Mr. Cox takes a very restrictive view of cities, and a very expansive view of suburbs.  To him, cities are the historical core municipality of a metro area, and everything else is suburban.  I don’t begrudge him this, really — I think his view is generally in line with most people who give a passing thought to cities.

To complicate matters, the urbanists who Mr. Cox plays contrarian to use a fairly expansive view of cities when they speak of the “back to the city” movement, and a more restrictive view of suburbs.  To them, “cities” are all areas, historical core and other adjacent areas, that were built before World War II (to use one line of demarcation), or before 1960 or so.

What does this mean?  It means that a place like Oak Park, IL, Jersey City, NJ or Cambridge, MA, all in existence for more than a century, municipalities in their own right and with densities that rival the historical core cities they surround, could be considered suburbs under Mr. Cox’s definition and cities in the urbanist’s eyes.

I tend to side with the urbanists, but they’re going to have to be clearer to the general public on what they mean and its implications for metro areas.

Here’s a weird thought.  I’ve been thinking that tsunami research could tell us something about how urban areas grow and spread.  See this MOST model (Model Of Splitting Tsunami) of a recent Indian Ocean tsunami?  Imagine a similar process happening on land, with people.  If you look at the model you realize that geography plays a role in how far the tsunami (or growth) reaches, how it bounces back, and how far it must go out before the energy dissipates.

I’m going to look into that a little further.

One thought on “When Suburbs are Cities, and Vice Versa

  1. It really depends on the metro area. In the Boston area, Cambridge is a central city, and everyone knows this. The same may be true of Somerville, I'm not sure. In contrast, in New York people separate themselves more from other parts of the metro area, even ones that are quite urban, such as Jersey City, Newark, and Yonkers. Though, Newark will still never be called a suburb – New Yorkers look down on it for being poor, not for being sprawly.

    Old suburbs are another matter entirely. The issue with them is that they were developed as railroad suburbs in the 1920s but were quickly remade car-oriented, and so their current urban geography isn't very pedestrian-friendly or transit-oriented. Attleboro, Scarsdale, and especially White Plains all had their biggest growth spurt between 1900 and 1930 rather than postwar.


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