Not Your Father’s Suburb — Or City

Melrose Park, IL — Suburb
Galewood neighborhood, Chicago, IL — City
Just last week I read an interesting article by Joel Kotkin, editor of the website New Geography and senior fellow of urban futures at Chapman University in California.  In it, he argues that America’s suburbs are the last uncontested ground in our nation’s broad political landscape.  He states:

Even in solid-red states, big cities tilt overwhelmingly toward President Obama and the Democrats, and even in solid-blue ones, the countryside tends to be solidly Republican.
What remains contested are the suburbs, which—despite the breathless talk in recent years of an urban revival—have accounted for 90 percent of metropolitan growth over the past decade.

He then goes on to explain how suburbs, still growing and far outpacing the growth of cities, have become diverse places, unique in their own right, and ripe for a political message that appeals to them:
The majority of foreign-born Americans now live in suburbs, and many suburban towns—like Plano, Texas, outside Dallas; Cerritos, south of Los Angeles; and Bellevue, near Seattle—have become more ethnically diverse than their corresponding core cities.
Mr. Kotkin wraps up the article by saying that Democratic efforts to “curtail suburban expansion” are misguided, because the American people have made the choice to support suburbs, and reiterates his position that suburbanites should be the driving influence in our political debates.
Mr. Kotkin is one of a few contrarian urbanists (my description, not his) who have risen in stature largely in defense of the conventional American suburban landscape.  His writings often reflect the opinion that families and homebuyers have overwhelmingly chosen suburbs over cities for the last 60-70 years because they desire the amenities and security that the suburbs can provide.  He also argues that the American public has continuously made this choice despite the fact that urbanist-pundit types and planners around the country have pushed forward a city-first agenda at the expense of suburbs, through initiatives like smart growth.  His general belief is that the market has settled the debate of city versus suburb, and the suburbs won.
I’ll leave aside the matter of who should be the driving influence in American political debates.  However, I believe Mr. Kotkin is way off the mark in his understanding of the modern American metropolitan area.  In a static environment I would say his analysis would be correct.  But in the ever-evolving and always-changing environment that is our nation’s metro areas, I have to disagree.
I’ve been formulating my own opinion of American development pattern preferences, and I don’t think it’s a choice simply between city and suburbs anymore, as Mr. Kotkin suggests.  In fact, for the vast majority of our entire history I think the choice has typically been between old and new.  Americans have usually chosen to buy into and move into new communities, rather than revitalize or redevelop the old ones.  Furthermore, as once-new, early “suburban” communities age, and the suburban periphery of metro areas continues to expand, what was once considered suburban ultimately is acknowledged to be urban.  In effect, suburban expansion on the periphery happens because of urban expansion in the interior (with or without population growth, I might add).
Urban no longer means the core city of the metro area.  Suburban no longer means exclusively the independent municipalities outside of the core.  And when that point is understood, we can all have a better understanding of the growth dynamics of metro areas today.
Cambridge, Massachusetts – is it urban or suburban?  Yonkers, New York?  Arlington, Virginia?  That’s a few from the East Coast.  What about Oak Park and Evanston, Illinois?  Or Maplewood or University City, Missouri?  Royal Oak, Michigan?  Or Pasadena and Alameda in California?  I would argue that each was initially considered a suburb solely on outside-of-the-core-city and cultural terms, but based on development patterns would now be considered urban.  Indeed, Yonkers and much of northern New Jersey developed as “suburbs”, yet are more “urban” than many major cities elsewhere in the country.
There are those who might counter that each of the communities I list above have always been suburban communities with an urban character.  However, that would not be true.  Each was initially developed as either an affordable alternative to expensive city living, or as a retreat from the crime and grime of cities.  They were suburbs first; the urban character came later.
Royal Oak, MI — Suburb
Rosedale Park neighborhood, Detroit, MI — City
Yesterday’s streetcar suburbs have become today’s inner-ring suburbs with urban character.  Today’s Levittown-style communities and split-level subdivisions are in the midst of becoming the next ring of suburb-turned-city.
That’s the heart of my critique of Mr. Kotkin.  Comparing core cities with municipalities simply doesn’t work anymore, when some suburbs are more like cities – and some major cities are much more like some suburbs in older parts of the country.  Comparing growth patterns in “suburban” areas, where there will almost always be a surplus of developable land compared to built-up cities, will almost always favor those “suburbs”.  And I would note that the phenomenon that Mr. Kotkin acknowledges is taking place is suburbs becoming more urban.
I’d also argue that another dynamic that casts doubt on Mr. Kotkin’s analysis is that it appears that the American public is shifting the balance of its overwhelming preference of new development over old, to something more balanced.  This point has often been taken as evidence of a “back to the city” movement that many urbanists have been propagating for the last couple decades.  From what I’ve seen that isn’t exactly what’s happened, so I would concede Mr. Kotkin on that point.  But it’s more nuanced than that.  However, in the absence of any data at this point to support that notion, I’ll leave that alone for now.
In upcoming weeks I’ll post more thoughts I have on American development patterns, how I think it proves suburban proponents like Joel Kotkin wrong, and how it can offer insight into what future development in America might look like.

2 thoughts on “Not Your Father’s Suburb — Or City

  1. Great post, Pete. I wrote something to similar effect earlier this week. Here's another example: check out Eastern Avenue or Western Avenue, the borders between Washington, DC and Montgomery County, Maryland. On the DC side are single-family homes on generous lots, but on the MD side are high-rise apartment and office towers in the “suburbs” of Silver Spring and Chevy Chase.

    The “city/suburb” distinction is totally played out, and is a distraction from the real issues facing our communities.


  2. Dan, thanks for your kind words. I read your post and it's remarkable how similar they are, down to the photos to make our points. Trust me, I had no idea about your post, but I thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    You are right. The city/suburb distinction is played out and hinders new thinking among urban pundits and the general public alike.


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