Suburbia: Homeland of the American Future
For the better part of a half-century, America’s leading urbanists, planners, and architects have railed against the growth of suburbia. Variously, the suburbs have been labeled as racist, ugly, wasteful, or just plain boring. Despite the criticism, Americans have continued to vote with their feet for suburban or exurban landscapes. These Americans now include not only whites, but also a growing proportion of recent immigrants, Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. And it’s not just people who are moving – suburbia is also snagging the lion’s share of new economic growth and jobs.
The “action” in America’s development is thus likely to remain heavily concentrated in suburbs and exurbs. Most projections show that the continued increase in the U.S. population and the projected 50 percent increase in space devoted to the built environment by 2030 will largely take place in the sprawling cities of the South and West, areas dominated by low-density, automobile-dependent development of residential, commercial, and industrial space.
For developers, builders, planners, and public officials, the key challenge will be to accommodate this growth in a way that both preserves the advantages of relatively low-density suburban living and addresses legitimate concerns about the environment and about family, cultural, and spiritual life.
Suburbia and Its Critics
Some critics of suburbia hold the wistful conviction that our lost urban past may be recovered through the imposition of planning – for many of these people, something like the Portland, Oregon, model writ large. Others have responded in flat-out denial, interpreting phenomena, such as the shrinking percentage of people living in the traditional single-family unit, the rise of a hip “creative class,” or the growth of aging empty nesters, as reversing the suburban tide.
In the most extreme cases, suburbia has been linked intimately both to global warming and America’s involvement with the Middle East. James Kunstler takes an apocalyptic approach, warning that suburban places “are liable to dry up and blow away” due to the rising energy prices. “Let the gloating begin,” Kunstler says, predicting a general catastrophe will impact the suburbs, and urges people to leave these places as soon as possible. Kunstler sees suburbia and other aspects of contemporary American life much the way an early Christian might have viewed classical Rome: “I begin to come to the conclusion that we Americans are these days a wicked people who deserve to be punished.” The dismal collapse of suburbia serves this purpose for Kunstler and others who detest the places most Americans live.
The death of suburbs and the resurgence of traditional cities have been predicted before, most notably during the 1970s energy crisis and during the dot-com boom of the 1990s. Yet despite blips in urban growth, the longer term pattern could not be more clear. Since 1950, more than 90 percent of all the growth in U.S. metropolitan areas has been in the suburbs. During the 1970s – a period of radically higher energy prices – the suburbanization trend actually intensifed as central cities went through one of their most sustained periods of population decline.
Suburbia’s Relentless Rise
Suburbs may have started as places for living, but their ascendancy has come in large part by becoming places of work. By 2000, roughly three out of ﬁve jobs in American metropolitan areas were located in suburbs. More than twice as many people in the United States commuted from suburb to suburb, where the job growth was concentrated, than from suburb to city.
Studies have shown this preference for suburbs extends to a wide range of frms. Only 11 percent of the nation’s largest companies were headquartered in the suburbs in 1969; a quarter-century later, roughly half had migrated to the periphery. The pattern of 1990s suburban job growth appears to have expanded further since the beginning of the new millennium. By 2000, in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, only 22 percent of people worked within three miles of the city center; another study focusing on areas with high levels of sprawl (such as Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit) showed that more than 60 percent of all regional employment now occurs more than ten miles from the core.
Perhaps most importantly, suburbs have gradually become the preferred location for the burgeoning science and information-based industries, the biggest growth sectors of the modern economy. Since World War II, high-tech ﬁrms have migrated to the suburbs for many reasons, including space for large, campus-like office parks, less crime, lower taxes, and most critically, the access to educated workers. Areas like the Santa Clara Valley in Northern California, northeastern New Jersey, and the suburban ring around Boston, have provided ideal locations for aerospace, computer, and information industries.
These economic trends have reordered the fundamental relationship between the urban core and its hinterland. For much of the 20th century, the city remained the prime focus of business activity, and so location close to the core was advantageous for proximity to other business activities. Today, central city living appeals more for lifestyle reasons than economic ones.
The Overstated Urban Renaissance
Although the downtown residential “boom” in some areas is heartening, it is important to keep it in perspective: the overwhelming demographic evidence suggests it pales in comparison to growth on the fringes. In a Brookings Institution study of 45 metropolitan areas spread across the country, University of Pennsylvania professor Eugenie Birch calculated that total growth in housing units between 1970 and 2000 was about nine percent, or approximately 35,000 units; in contrast, construction of suburban housing units almost doubled to 13 million units during the same period. In the late-1990s, a period in which some core cities enjoyed their ﬁrst population gains in decades, many more people headed out to the suburbs than went the other way. This pattern held even among the 25-to-34 age group, considered the prime market for urban living.
And for many urban centers – including such relatively attractive places as Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Boston – population actually declined in the ﬁrst half of this decade. Out-migration has accelerated in other cities, and in some, growth has slowed considerably from pre-2000 levels. Indeed, according to a 2001 report from the Brookings Institution and the Fannie Mae Foundation, the total projected growth for all major downtowns through 2010 is less than was the growth in the sprawling Riverside-San Bernardino metro area east of Los Angeles in 2004 alone.
Nearly every major region of the U.S. in this sense is undergoing suburbanization, even if the downtown is growing. In Houston, for example, there has been much talk about a downtown housing surge. But the entire inner ring of the city – which extends well beyond the central core – accounted for barely six percent of new units; the vast majority of the growth took place in the region’s far-ﬂung suburban areas.
The “Universal Aspiration”
The biggest reason for these patterns is not the “conspiracy” of big oil and freeway builders oft cited by enviro-activists and more radical New Urbanists, but rather what the Los Angeles urbanist Edgardo Contini called “the universal aspiration” – not only in America but in almost all rich countries – to own a piece of land, where families may live in relative comfort and privacy.
One clear indication of the vitality of the “universal aspiration” has been the surprising resilience of the single-family home market. Even in the last recession, the number of single-family homes increased. To the surprise of many forecasters and the U.S. Census Bureau itself, instead of dropping with the aging of the baby boomers, single-family home construction surged to levels not seen since the 1970s and twelve percent above those of the 1980s. Not only were more homes built in the late-1990s than expected, but the size of single-family homes actually grew, with the median expanding from 1,605 square feet in 1985 to over 2,100 square feet in 2001. Analysts such as Al Ehrbar suggest that demographers at the time had not only failed to see that many boomers would buy houses later in life, but they also underestimated the total prime homebuyer market – 25 to 34 year olds – by more than 4 million.
The “Other” Suburbanites
Perhaps the most critical shift in sustaining the single-family home, however, has to do with immigrants. More than any demographic group, they are shaping the American future: by 2015, nearly one in three children in America will be an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. Immigrants’ desire for homeownership is often overwhelming and has led a majority of them to seek homes in the suburbs. Seventy percent of minorities in the immigrant-rich Los Angeles-Long Beach area, for instance, live in suburbs. Fast-growing, sprawling markets such as Fort Lauderdale, Riverside-San Bernardino, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Orlando have particularly high rates of immigrant homeownership. The new pattern of immigration also can be seen in places like greater Washington, D.C., in economic and demographic terms the most dynamic region along the eastern seaboard. A recent Brookings study noted that 87 percent of the D.C. area’s foreign migrants live in the suburbs.
Though suburbs are often seen as all-white, middle-class bastions, many suburbs, such as Fort Bend County, Texas, and small cities like Walnut, in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles, have among the most diverse populations in the nation: these places are majority-minority, though no single minority by itself composes over half the population. “If a multiethnic society is working out in America,” suggests demographer James Allen, “it will be worked out in places like Walnut. The future of America is in the suburbs.”
Immigrants aren’t the only populations changing the nature of suburbia. Evidence from the 2000 Census also revealed that singles, non-traditional families, and empty nesters – widely reported to be moving from suburbs back to the inner city – grew far more rapidly in the suburbs than in the cities. In fact, largely due to the growth of singles and aging parents, there are now more non-families in the suburbs than traditional families.
Of these groups, the “empty nester” baby boomer may prove the most important to shaping suburbia. The baby boom generation far outnumbers its successor, Generation X, by roughly 76 million to 41 million. Due largely to this group, by 2030 more than one in ﬁve Americans will be over the age of 65. Where these people – demographer Bill Frey calls them “downshifting boomers” – end up will prove critical in shaping future patterns of new residential and commercial development.
Roughly three-quarters of these “down-shifters” appear to be sticking pretty close to the suburbs where most of them have settled, according to Sandi Rosenbloom, a professor of urban planning and gerontology at the University of Arizona. Those that do migrate, her studies suggest, tend to head further out into the suburban periphery, not back towards the old downtown. “Everybody in this business wants to talk about the odd person who moves downtown, but it’s basically a ‘man bites dog story’,” Rosenbloom observes. “Most people retire in place. When they move, they don’t move downtown; they move to the fringes.”
The reasons they are staying put vary. Some have job commitments or need to stay close to their children or grandchildren; roughly 40 percent, according to one survey, expect their kids to move back in with them at some point. These people are also used to a suburban lifestyle and its amenities. For the most part, they are not acculturated to the density, congestion, and noise of inner-city life. “They don’t want to move to Florida, and they want to stay close to the kids,” suggests Jeff Lee, CEO of a prominent Washington, D.C., real estate, architecture, and planning ﬁrm. “What they are looking for is a funky suburban development – funky but safe.”
Looking Ahead: Suburbia to 2030 and Beyond
Suburbanization – and even ever greater sprawl – must be accepted as the future. Attempts to stomp out or control outward movement, as Portland tried, have not only failed but have driven settlement even further out beyond the areas of control. By way of proof, during the 1990s over 80 percent of all population growth in greater Portland took place in the suburbs; since 2000 it has been closer to 90 percent. Mass transit, the other linchpin of the Portland “Smart Growth” legend, may also be less of a triumph than reported. Between 1986 and 2001, according to the most recent Texas Transportation Institute study, greater Portland has seen the biggest jump in congestion of any of the nation’s 75 largest metro areas. More people rode the rails, but many more, it appears, have also decided to drive alone, perhaps in large part because they are living and often working further out.
The real issue is not so much how to prevent suburban growth, but how to make it more humane and capable of accommodating an increasingly diverse population. One key solution might lie in the growth of telecommuting, which could allow more suburbanites to work close to or at home. Already 20 million people work part-time or full-time from their residences. Some new suburban developments, such as Ladera Ranch in southern Orange County, have adapted their foor plans to serve the mixed uses of residence and business – by incorporating separate entrances for business clients, for instance. Suburban historian Tom Martinson believes the Ladera plan will “be in the history books in twenty years” because it anticipates “an incredible change in the way we live and work.”
At the same time, the increasing decentralization of economic activity may spur the development of ever more self-sufficient “suburban villages.” We can see this model emerging in new communities such as Valencia, California, or the Woodlands, outside Houston, which have developed their own successful town centers complete with thriving cultural and religious establishments. Scores of older suburbs have also used new commercial and cultural amenities to revitalize old town centers, such as Naperville, Illinois; Fullerton, California; and Bethesda, Maryland. Viewed from a long-term perspective, these places may represent not so much a rejection of city life, but a redeﬁnition of what urban life is about – and where and how it takes place.
In this sense, we need to look at current suburbia not as a ﬁnished product, but something beginning to evolve from its Deadwood phase. During this evolution, our ancient sense of the city still has much to teach the suburbs, notably about the need for community, identity, the creation of “sacred space,” and a closer relation between workplace and home life. Of course, the emerging suburbs won’t be able to duplicate the forms of our great historical cities, but they will borrow from them as new public spaces are built and a sense of civic identity is established. In this, the suburbs can carry something of cities-past in their substance as they contribute to a new chapter in urban history, one that we today can play a role in forging. Autor: Joel Kotkin