The Suburbs Aren’t Dying — They’re Growing Differently

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group.

(data: 1990, 2000, 2010: Metropolitan Area Planning Council, 2013 Census estimates: UMass Donahue Institute)
In the Boston region, the fringes are still growing, but not like they used to. 1990, 2000, 2010 data: Metropolitan Area Planning Council; 2013 Census estimates: UMass Donahue Institute

Sommer Mathis said much of what needed to be said about the recent round of “the suburbs are back, baby!” stories on housing trends, including this analysis from Jed Kolko, housing economist at Trulia.com, and the related commentary from Matt Yglesias at Vox. Mathis argues that the concept of a battle for supremacy between cities and suburbs is fundamentally silly, especially at a time in history when the terms “city” and “suburb” each represent a wide variety of built forms and socioeconomic conditions.

There is another problem, however, with these stories, which is that they play into the narrative — recently championed by the likes of Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin — that when it comes to housing trends, little meaningful (other than the recession) has really changed in the United States in recent years. Kolko, for example, states that, after a brief period in which urban population growth outpaced that of the suburbs, “old patterns have returned,” while Yglesias states that “the trajectory of American housing growth is still all about the suburbs.” But the “old patterns” have not returned. Far from it.

The old pattern of development, which prevailed during the second half of the 20th century (and the first few years of the 21st), was one of rapid suburbanization characterized by the universal spread of a particular kind of segregated-use, automobile-oriented development known colloquially as “sprawl.”

As Kolko notes, suburbs today are adding population a wee bit faster than cities, a shift from earlier this decade when cities were growing a wee bit faster than suburbs. But for most of the 20th century, suburbs weren’t just beating cities by a nose in the hypothetical growth contest, they were trouncing them like Secretariat at the Belmont.

Above is an illustration from my home region of greater Boston. In the 1990s, population growth in the region was almost, in Yglesias’s words, “all about the suburbs.” During that decade, according to data compiled by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, more than 60 percent of the region’s population growth took place in the suburbs, and only 15 percent in the “inner core” of Boston and its neighboring cities. And Boston had it relatively good — some other older cities across the country continued to lose population during the 1990s. By the 2000s, however, the pattern had begun to shift.[1] The share of the region’s growth taking place in the “inner core” doubled compared to the previous decade, while the share taking place in suburbs fell to barely more than half. And since 2010, the inner core has accounted for 39 percent of population growth, nearly twice the share of the once-booming “developing suburbs.”

To conflate today’s mild and tenuous suburban growth advantage over cities with yesterday’s rampant suburban sprawl is to lead people to believe that the post-recession future of development is going to look very much like the last decades of the 20th century.

Is there a chance that we could return to the sprawling days of yore? Perhaps. But, as a quick glance at the single-family housing market will show, it hasn’t happened yet. And with the impending, Baby Boomer-led “Great Senior Sell-off” of suburban housing, the improving quality of life in many cities that makes urban living a perfectly rational decision for at least some young families, and the emerging models for successful revitalization of existing suburbs (see Arlington, Virginia), I have my doubts.

The future, I suspect, is going to defy easy generalization. In some rapidly growing metros that still have room to sprawl, you might see renewal of the postwar pattern of new, sprawly suburbs being built at the metropolitan periphery. In other areas, you’ll see reinvestment in “inner ring” suburbs. In still other cases, especially in slower growing metros, you’ll see growing suburban decay and decline, a scenario that should give anyone who cares about the environment, social equity, the fate of seniors, or wise use of public resources a case of the howling fantods.

As someone who believes in the potential of cities and wants to see them succeed, I want there to be smart suburban development that enables Millennials who choose suburban living (and there will be a lot of them) to get what they need for themselves and their families, while hopefully not replicating the mistakes of the sprawling past. Which brings us back around again to the point of Mathis’s piece: the increasing uselessness of our binary “cities versus suburbs” discourse.

The 21st century has not yet been, and is not likely to be, a mere continuation and extension of the 20th. “Old patterns” have not returned, and in many places, they never will. With the aging of the Baby Boomers, the maturing of the Millennials, and the important changes afoot in both suburbs and cities, we are heading somewhere new and fascinating in the years ahead. Now, we just need a better language with which to talk about it.


[1] There’s another issue with Kolko’s analysis, which I’m perpetuating a bit here, which is treating the period from 2000 to 2010 (or 2013), as though it is one homogeneous block of time. In reality, it was two periods: a period from 2000 to roughly 2007 in which debt-fueled exurban real estate speculation abounded, and a period from 2007 to 2013 of recession and tight credit. Are trend lines that extend across those two periods relevant or useful?

  • I have to say, I have always thought this “suburbs are dying” idea didn’t really apply to Cleveland, where I live. The city and inner ring suburbs here are still losing population fast. The good news is, I guess, greenfield housing sprawl has probably slowed to a trickle (not job sprawl though), and infill development has picked up again. So things have changed some, but the suburbs are a long way from dying here. The opposite is more true.

  • Bolwerk

    Zoning laws in much of the USA still de facto restrict or ban infill. Until that changes, there really is nowhere to go but out.

  • Jonathan Krall

    I think we’d both agree that there is a big difference between infill suburban development and greenfield suburban development. The last thing I want to see is suburban retrofitting and urbanization be mistaken for renewed sprawl. Instead of “suburbs are dying” it may be “suburbs are urbanizing.”

    Perhaps suburban land area would be a better measure of suburban growth than suburban population.

  • Tom Radulovich

    There can be a certain arbitrariness in the suburban/urban designation. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. It’s quintessentially suburban, but was part of the City of Los Angeles, so part of the ‘central city’. The San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles is similar in character and built form to the San Fernando Valley, but because it is divided into two dozen smaller cities it’s generally considered the suburbs. In both valleys, much of the new infill is attached houses and apartments, and considerably denser than what surrounds it.

    I wonder if there’s a practical way of quantifying housing growth by either the built character of the new housing (walkable urban vs. drivable suburban), perhaps using a proxy like density or Walk Score value, rather than just the polity in which it is located.

  • Fakey McFakename

    Actually, the SFV is a great example of maturing suburbia–even the older construction is still fairly dense, unlike the uber-sprawl of exurban Atlanta and Dallas. Even places like Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley are built more densely than suburbs in the South.

  • Fakey McFakename

    Yes! This is the biggest barrier to sustainable development today. If you can’t build at the densities necessary for transit and walkability, you can’t solve sprawl.

  • C Monroe

    First can we stop calling Arlington a suburb. It was originally to be a part of DC and it is basically part of the urban center of the metro area.

    Take a look at Southfield, MI an inner ring suburb of Detroit. It has served as the thriving alternative to Downtown and midtown Detroit for being the central office district of the metro region. The last few years though many of the office towers are being abandoned for new remoldeled digs in downtown and midtown Detroit. There has even been an building implosion of an office tower in the last few months.

  • John Schneider

    I think a more interesting question is, “Where are households growing the most?” To the extent that families move to suburbs for many reasons such as better schools, larger yards and presumed safety, suburban households will always be larger. And so their populations will often grow faster than urban areas. I suspect if you looked at households as proxies for determining housing preferences — counting each small urban household equal to larger suburban households — you might get a different picture than what Cox & Co. are saying.

  • Alicia

    suburban households will always be larger.

    Households are not the same as families. Households are all the people living in the same residential unit. A group of roommates is a household, even if they’re not a family (i.e. a household whose members are related by blood, marriage, or adoption). 3 roommates sharing an apartment are an equal-sized household to a couple with one kid. So no, it’s not true – or at least, not automatically true – that “suburban households will always be larger.”

  • John Schneider

    Yes, should have said “will almost always be larger.”

  • Maggie

    I’m curious, have you lived in Arlington? I grew up there (in the days of Erol’s Video and Brenner’s Bakery, brand new Ballston Common and Pentagon City, and walking half an hour to catch the metro). I’ve always thought of it as an especially great suburb.

  • tach1

    It is kind of a mixture.

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