The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Toward a Clearer Definition of City and Suburb

If there’s one thing that really bothers me in urbanist circles, it’s that there’s no real agreed upon definition for what exactly is “urban”.  This is a fundamental problem, because it leads to differing sides always talking past each other, often using the same data to drive home vastly different points.  Could astronomers and astro-physicists talk to each other if there were similar debates about what “space” is?  I’ve been working on a development typology, based on my earlier “Big Theory” on American development, and it’s time for us to stop being confused or misled about what’s urban and what’s not.
Take for example two recent pieces on city and suburban growth.  Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institute wrote last week about the recent trend of big city population growth rates exceeding that of suburban areas since 2010:

“On the positive side for urban boosters, the numbers show that many cities have gained more people in the three-plus years since the 2010 Census than they gained for the entire previous decade. This includes three of the five largest cities, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago (which lost population in the previous decade). Among the 25 largest cities, nine are already ahead of their previous decade’s gains, including Dallas, Denver, Memphis, San Francisco, San Jose and Washington, D.C. (See table)  

Still another positive indicator for big cities is their growth rates. For each of the last three years, cities with populations exceeding 250,000 grew at rates exceeding 1 percent—far higher than their average annual rate of 0.49 percent over the 2000-2010 decade (Figure 1). Among the fastest growing, with rates exceeding 2 percent are Seattle, Austin, Charlotte, Denver and Washington D.C., each with new knowledge based economies and high amenity downtowns.”

Yet demographer Wendell Cox writes at New Geography that the recent trend is an isolated event, and that Americans are clear in their preferences for a suburban built environment:

“On a percentage basis, the historical core municipalities of the 52 major metropolitan areas (more than 1,000,000 population) managed to grow 3.4 percent between 2010 and 2013, more than the suburban rate of 3.1 percent. This is probably the first time this has occurred in any three year period since the end of World War II.

But the core municipalities now contain such a small share of major metropolitan area population that the suburbs have continued to add population at about three times the numbers of the core municipalities (Figure 2). Indeed, if the respective 2010-2013 annual growth rates were to prevail for the next century,  the core municipalities would house only 28.0 percent of the major metropolitan area population in 2113 (up from 26.4 percent in 2013).”

Here’s how I see it.  Irrespective of local political boundaries, most people recognize three types of development patterns in America — pre-urban (mostly areas platted and developed before 1860 and relatively scarce), urban (platted and developed between roughly 1870-1935, and often linked to transportation networks), and suburban (platted and developed after 1945, and generally car-oriented).  I connect the pre-urban, urban and suburban periods with the three development eras I’ve come up with since the formation of our nation — the mercantile era, the industrial era, and the auto era.  In a table, it looks like this (click pic to make bigger):

The problem as I see it is that many East Coast cities, like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, first were settled in what I call the mercantile era and had a growth explosion in the industrial era.  However, growing along with these primary cities were quite a few smaller municipalities that established the same development pattern — like Cambridge or Somerville near Boston, virtually all of Hudson and Essex counties in New Jersey across from Manhattan, and large parts of Montgomery County outside of Philadelphia.  They are, in essence, as “urban” — in terms of the time of their development — as the primary city itself.
Conversely, there are many cities whose growth explosion came after World War II, and their development pattern is as “suburban” as anything far outside the city boundaries of the three cities listed above.  A city like Charlotte, or Houston, or Phoenix, may have a core that was established in the industrial era, and developed accordingly.  But its growth exploded in the auto era, and each shares little of the urban character of the older cities to the east.
Look at it this way.  Boston may be 100% from the industrial era, and many of its adjacent suburbs may approach that figure.  You may have to continue outward from Boston for some distance before you find a suburb outside of the city whose development makeup is more than 50% from the auto era.  Meanwhile, in Phoenix the urban core may represent less than 10% of the innermost portions of the city, and the balance of the entire metropolitan area is comprised of auto era development.
Wendell Cox seems to recognize one part of this — he realizes that many Sun Belt cities are suburban in orientation.  However, it seems he neglects the opposite of this, that Jersey City or Arlington, VA are urban suburban places.
I hope to get more people thinking along these lines, and put an end to questionable characterizations of cities and suburbs.  Please let me know what you think.
Update: I think there’s a solution to this.  If the U.S. Census can gather data and make distinctions between urban areas and rural areas, using a baseline definition of contiguous areas with greater than 1,000 people per square mile, then maybe the Census should define urban, suburban and rural areas similarly.  Perhaps a dense urban, or hyper-urban designation is needed, maybe with densities greater than 5,000 people per square mile.  A suburban delineation would by default be areas between 1,000-4,999 people per square mile, and rural areas would exist as they currently do.  It would be vastly better to gather data and conduct analysis along those lines than leaving it open to spurious interpretation.  

4 Responses to “Toward a Clearer Definition of City and Suburb”

  1. SFB

    'Urban' is greater than 5 units per acre, and 'suburban' is less than that. It's pretty much that simple.


  2. Jaja

    Would it make more sense to consider 7,500 or 10,000 as the cutoff point? There are lots of suburbs such as Oak Lawn that have a <5,000 density but are still more auto-oriented.


  3. Pete Saunders

    SFB and Jaja, I would push back just a little. First, 5 du/ac works out well as urban at a neighborhood scale but perhaps not at a metro scale. That would work out to about 10,000/sq mi in gross terms and many reasonably urban areas would still fall short of that. Like the Oak Lawn example raised by Jaja. I personally would err on the side of \”urban\” for an Oak Lawn and similar places even though they are auto-oriented. They are more similar to outer portions of primary cities than more recently built burbs, and are more adaptable to future transit options (heavy or light rail expansion, BRT, etc.)


  4. D Holmes

    I think there is need for an even more in depth system for classifying different types of urban and suburban areas. It's something I struggle with in trying to understand and describe the Milwaukee metro area. The City of Milwaukee itself probably has 15 or more distinct neighborhood types. Almost every inner ring suburb seems to fall into some separate category: Shorewood (high quality, high density, residential – largely 1920s-1950s in character); Whitefish Bay – similar to Shorewood but with lots of small tract housing dating to 1940s and 1950s; West Milwaukee – industrial suburb dominated historically by large industrial plants; West Allis – industrial intermixed with dense residential neighborhoods. There are historic port cities (Pt. Washington). There is a vast high quality sprawl suburb – Mequon – in which more than half of land is rural. There are 1960s-80ss sprawl suburbs (Brookfield) and a whole series of far western suburbs that are organized around lakes. The largest suburb – Waukesha – 25 or so miles west of Milwaukee – is a smaller version of Milwaukee, with historic core dating to mid-1850s, dense historic residential neighborhoods, large industrial areas, and suburban sprawl areas.The trend that I see is that the hot areas in terms of all of these various city forms appears to be in the most urban areas. In the City of Milwaukee, it's in the downtown. In Shorewood, its along Oakland Avenue – the main commercial corridor. Even in Mequon – perhaps the most sprawling suburbs – development is focused on the two main commercial roads and a new urban center being created at the intersection of Mequon and Green Bay Roads. This all supports your point – but I think there is need for recognition of a much greater range of urban forms.



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