The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Perils of Inner Ring Suburbs

View of a residential block in South Euclid, OH, a suburb of Cleveland.  Source: skyscrapercity.com
Our metropolitan areas are finding themselves in some pretty interesting times.  The force that shaped metropolitan development since World War II, namely the outward push of conventional suburban development usually characterized as “sprawl”, has been tempered as a renewed focus on inner city redevelopment has risen over the last 20-25 years or so.  This is creating greater recognition of and concern for what’s been left behind — the inner ring suburban type, mostly built between the 1950’s and 1970’s.  Their future will tell us much about what our nation values and how we will move forward socially and economically.

There have been lots of words written about city revitalization and its impact, and that’s great.  There are positives and negatives, and I acknowledge that.  There are far fewer words written about continued sprawl development, but it is happening.  The status quo of local government public policy, the financial industry, and general perceptions of homebuyers means sprawl continues to move ahead, even if at a slower rate.  But what of the communities in the middle?

There seem to be two forces driving change in the suburbs, with the greatest change taking place in the metropolitan inner ring.  First, they are becoming more diverse.  Demographers like William Frey note that minorities are increasingly settling in suburban environments:

“The classic image of an American metropolis was that of a polyglot city surrounded by mostly white suburbs—the “chocolate city/vanilla suburbs” of the 1950s and 1960s, when white-dominated suburbanization left largely black minority populations stranded in many of the nation’s largest cities. That paradigm has almost entirely broken down. The rise of new minority populations, the sharp slowdown of white population growth, and the economic gains and increased residential freedom of new generations of blacks are rapidly changing the classic image of the suburban American dream.”

In more detail:

“The suburbs of all 100 (largest U.S.) metropolitan areas experienced Hispanic population gains in 2000–10. But the fastest Hispanic growth rates, all more than 150 percent, are found in the suburbs of the New Sun Belt cities of Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Provo as well as the Heartland cities of Indianapolis and Scranton, Pennsylvania. Asians also contributed to city and suburban population gains in each of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, and made substantial contributions to suburban gains in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. These new minorities and their later generations are poised to become the backbone of future suburban growth in ways that will transform the nation.

Another factor driving the diversification of the suburbs is the emergence of “black flight” from major cities with established black populations. Black population losses have been occurring in some cities since the 1970s, but the magnitude and pervasiveness of black losses in cities during the first decade of the 2000s were unprecedented. The central cities of the 100 largest metropolitan areas saw a total decline of 300,000 blacks, the first absolute population decrease among blacks for these cities as a group. The black presence, which has been the mainstay of many urban populations, is diminishing (in fact it is now Hispanics, not blacks, who constitute the largest minority group in cities).

Three of the cities with the largest black declines–Detroit, Chicago, and New York–were among the primary destinations for blacks during the Great Migration, but the losses were not confined to northern metropolises: Southern and western cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles were also among those losing blacks. Much of that population is shifting to the suburbs, moves that can be attributed in part to the black population’s economic progress in recent decades, especially among younger people aspiring to the suburban lifestyle that eluded their parents and grandparents. On the whole, 96 of the largest 100 metropolitan areas showed gains in their suburban black populations. Of those, more than three-quarters had larger increases in the past decade than in the 1990s. While delayed for decades, the full-scale suburbanization of blacks is finally under way.”

The other force driving suburban change?  Aging — they are increasingly becoming the location of empty nester seniors whose adult children take off for city neighborhoods or exurban fringes:

Most older Americans prefer to stay put in the home they’ve been in for years. And, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report on “aging in place,” most households with at least one resident over the age of 65 are in the suburbs. As Brookings Institution demographer William Frey wrote in 2011, “the suburbs are now outpacing cities in having greater growth and concentration of populations age 45 and above.” 

Yet several factors make aging in place in the suburbs difficult. 

The suburban housing stock is aging along with the population, a fact that is hardly appealing to new, younger buyers who want a different lifestyle than one in the cul-de-sac. Older Americans, even if they wanted to downsize, may be stuck in a home that is not conducive to safe aging: too many stairs, cupboards that are too high, dishwashers that are too low, and bathrooms that are a fall waiting to happen. As one researcher put it at a convening on housing in an aging society, held at the Stanford Center on Longevity, the country has a lot of “‘Peter Pan’ housing: designed for those who are never going to grow up and certainly never going to grow old.” 

The challenge for inner ring suburbs is that they typically have neither the physical, institutional or social infrastructure to deal with the forces that are now shaping them.

There are a couple of different dystopian futures that face inner ring suburbs.  One is the example of Ferguson, Missouri, which failed to acknowledge and adapt to the rapid socio-demographic changes of its community.  Even I’ve written about that.  That, admittedly, is a much more explosive scenario.  Far more likely, in my opinion, is something seen in places like south suburban Cook County, Illinois, outside of Chicago, or in Prince George’s County, Maryland, outside of Washington, DC, or maybe south Fulton County, outside of Atlanta — flatlined housing prices, a general lack of vibrancy and dynamism, fewer retail and commercial options.  All stemming from a greater marginalization from the larger metropolitan area.

There are ways that inner ring suburbs can combat the potential rot that could plague them.  Interestingly, the solutions involve moving away from the traditional suburban standards and making them adaptable.  Here are four ideas:

  • Comtemporize your housing stock.  Many communities fall out of favor with homebuyers and renters because they don’t offer the amenities that are built in to newer places in city centers or suburban fringes.  Inner ring suburbs will have to find ways to make their housing stock attractive to rehabbers interested in adding space and features to older structures.
  • Diversify your housing stock.  The days of bedroom communities exclusively consisting of single family homes may be slowly coming to an end.  More of today’s homebuyers — and renters — are seeking more diverse environments.  This means more multifamily development, more mixed use development, and even the inclusion of accessory units on single family home lots.
  • Make walkability a priority.  As residents of a community age, the ability to access places via the automobile may decrease.  However, they deserve a chance to remain mobile.  Communities can aid this by adding the sidewalks, crosswalks, trails, streetscapes, signage and other features that can connect people to places.  An added side benefit is that these changes can make your community more attractive to new residents as well.
  • Coordinate social services.  It’s likely that changing suburban demographics means changing demands from residents, and inner ring suburbs must prepare for the change.  This could mean greater reliance on assistance programs that aid low-income residents, as well as programs to physically and socially engage senior residents.  

Let me introduce one caveat right here.  Not all inner ring suburban developments are, in fact, inner ring suburbs.  In many metro areas in the Northeast or Midwest, the type of inner ring suburb I’m describing could be an actual independent municipality outside of a core city.  In much of the South or West, the kind of development I’m talking about, in the 40-60 year age range, is very much a part of the core city, and is sometimes considered to be the “old” part of the city.  This distinction may mean that some places might be able to garner the resources needed to make the necessary transition rather easily.

For the rest, however, simply waiting for a return to the glory days of suburbs past is not an option.  If there’s anything to be learned from the example the rebound of cities, it’s that once they embraced change they were able to grow and adapt.  Inner ring suburbs must be able to do the same.

4 Responses to “The Perils of Inner Ring Suburbs”

  1. Alan

    This will obviously be tempered by macroeconomic factors in other cities, but as West Coast tastemakers have been pretty much priced out of Victorians and Craftsman bungalows in big cities, they're picking up on the midcentury modern aesthetic as the new trendy thing in architecture.

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  2. Pete Saunders

    Well it stands to reason. The technical definition for a structure to qualify for historic status is to be at least 50 years old. Everything that's midcentury, modernist or otherwise, now qualifies. i just wonder if the construction quality of those buildings and subsequent ones will hold up like older ones did.

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  3. Anonymous

    Pittsburgh has several stagnant inner-ring suburbs, which generally flank the city proper to the east and south. I have more hope for the eastern suburbs because a) there is an upwardly-mobile black population present in many of them, b) some of them have street grids and grand old houses, and c) Monroeville still has a strong commercial corridor. On the other hand, if Pittsburgh ends up with its own Ferguson equivalent (hopefully not), it'll be in the southern suburbs. They're the last bastion of working-class whites in Allegheny County, and for whatever reason, the working-class whites in that area have had antipathy toward blacks. There's already a history of racial tension between blacks and the police in one of the southern suburbs too, which can't help matters.Eastern suburbs: Edgewood, Swissvale, Wilkinsburg, Forest Hills, Turtle Creek, North Versailles, Churchill, Penn Hills, Monroeville, Plum.Southern suburbs: Baldwin, Brentwood, Whitehall, Homestead, West Homestead, Munhall, West Mifflin, Whitaker, Pleasant Hills, Dravosburg.

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  4. jmaddenmass

    This challenge you highlight is the key problem. \”The challenge for inner ring suburbs is that they typically have neither the physical, institutional or social infrastructure to deal with the forces that are now shaping them.\” I wrote my thesis for my city planning degree from MIT about what happened in one such Boston suburb that has been a decade or two ahead of the trend. https://randolphma.wordpress.com/ I do wonder if these places can successfully market and capitalize on their diversity to become more resilient than the typical cookie-cutter suburb will be over the next few decades.

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