The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

More on Suburbia — What Lies Ahead?

Perhaps the most threatened type of suburbia.  Source:

There may be some readers who believe that, because I write about cities and their most disadvantaged areas, I must be a resident of an very urban neighborhood.  Not so, exactly, and certainly not now.

I grew up in a black middle-class, single-family home neighborhood in Detroit proper that, despite the city’s overall decline, is one of several north and northwest side Detroit neighborhoods that have remained relatively stable.  Most neighborhoods like this, at least in Rust Belt cities, serve as a transitional buffer between impoverished urbanity on one side and leafy suburban security on the other.  People growing up in these kinds of black middle-class neighborhoods often have excellent views of, and interactions with, both sides.

Upon moving to Chicago almost 30 years ago I lived in various spots on the South Side, but mostly in the same type of black middle-class/working-class neighborhoods referenced above.  My parents moved from Hyde Park to suburban South Holland while I was in grad school and I followed, but after graduation I moved back to the city and stayed there for more than 20 years.  Since 2010 I’ve been a suburbanite in Chicago’s southwest and western suburbs.

So I’ve always felt I had an exposure to suburbia without being in it, just as I had an exposure to gritty and impoverished urban neighborhoods without being in them, either.  That, plus an intellectual curiosity of both worlds that preceded my living in either, put me in a position to understand their drivers and motivations in ways that people who were firmly rooted in one place or another could really do.

This unique perspective has enabled me to see how the suburban development type has been changing over the last decade, and what could lie ahead for them.  That’s also why I’m troubled by opinions that seem to come without much of a nuanced perspective.  Take Michael Lewyn’s account of evaluating suburban futures posted in Planetizen earlier this week.  In it, he suggests that the advantages of suburbs are immutable and will largely prevent any significant decline:

One set of advantages relates to social homogeneity—that is, a wealthy, well-educated citizenry, which usually leads to low crime and schools with good reputations (because children from privileged backgrounds tend to have high test scores and to avoid violent behavior towards neighbors). Like it or not, well-off people tend to prefer places full of similarly affluent people.

A second set of advantages relate to cost: in high-cost cities, many people escape the high costs of urban housing by moving to cheaper suburbs. Even in low-cost cities like Pittsburgh, people priced out of the most desirable urban neighborhoods might choose suburbs over less expensive (but also more socially troubled) working-class urban places. However, cheap housing alone is not enough to save a high-crime suburb such as Philadelphia’s Camden or East St. Louis, Illinois.”

Lewyn goes on to say that wealthier suburbs will have stronger prospects for continued prosperity because they are, well, wealthier.   Good schools, low crime, high education levels and high home values will continue to insulate parts of suburbia from decline.  Lewyn does acknowledge, however, that suburbs with less good schools, less low crime, lesser education levels and lower home values will not do as well.

Um, OK.

Meanwhile, Johnny Sanphillippo of wrote a more well thought out piece on a possible suburban future by examining a non-descript New Jersey suburb:

“This suburb hasn’t held up well over the years. It’s typical of places all across the country that were leapfrogged as the prosperous middle class migrated to the next new place slightly farther out or boomeranged back to the city. It isn’t a terrible place. It isn’t a high crime area. It isn’t depopulated. The housing stock is serviceable enough. It has ready access to all the same jobs, culture, and opportunity as anyplace else in the metro region. It’s just… drab.

Fifteen minutes away in one direction is a different municipality and school district where the homes are a generation newer, much larger, and the subdivisions are buffered by more nature and open space. It’s hard to find a house in this area for less than $260,000.

Fifteen minutes away in the opposite direction is a thriving city neighborhood where condos sell for north of $350,000. Hipster cafes, brew pubs, boutiques, and bicycles abound.”

Johnny continues by saying that drab suburbia would benefit from being the “best bargain around”; not as pricey as the sprawly suburban estates on the periphery or the amenity-laden city neighborhoods.  They would be viewed as affordable alternatives to either, offering the chance to actually live in a community, rather than speculate on its appreciation.

That’s reasonable, and a possible future for some suburbs.  But I think we can consider suburban futures on a spectrum.

I think existing wealth in suburbs will matter less over time.  I actually think school quality, low crime and social homogeneity or social capital will matter less as well.  What will matter?  Increasingly, I think access, location and amenities will matter — as well as the public policy response to suburban change.

Moving forward I think we’ll see suburbs prosper based on their accessibility, and I see four broad categories that they could be placed within in a given metro area.  Metros that have a comprehensive regional public transit system will have suburbs that fare best, led by access-rich suburbs: places with public transit (usually commuter rail) and interstate highway access.  If an access-rich suburb has a town center focused on either of its main access corridors, it will prosper.  Absent an interstate highway exit, transit-focused suburbs located on a public transit corridor will likely fare well also.  Transit will enable these suburbs to maintain connections with the core city and other suburbs without auto dependence.  Places without transit connections but with interstate highway connections, or highway-focused suburbs, will have a mixed future.  Existing wealth will indeed have an impact on the length of future prosperity in these suburbs.  Wealthier ones will either become enclaves or decline slowly; middle-class ones may decline faster.  Those suburbs faring worst will be access-deficient suburbs, or those with neither a transit or interstate highway connection within their boundaries.  These classic bedroom communities, often built because of a nearby factory, industrial park or office park that may no longer functioning at its peak, could be under the greatest threat.

But there are mitigating factors that could impact future suburban prosperity.  One is location.  Inner ring suburbs may be able to bask in the glow of urban revitalization in ways that outlying city neighborhoods may not.  They will offer the same housing and neighborhood commercial experience, but with greater local control of schools and police than city neighborhoods might have.  The other factor will be openness to adaptability.  The suburb that is willing to modify its built environment — increase its number of multi-family rental units, mixed uses, becoming more walkable — will prosper.  The suburb that is simply waiting for a return of the pre-Great Recession paradigm of suburban hegemony will not.

That’s largely in the hands of the suburban residents themselves, and the elected officials they choose to represent them.

Here’s a visualization of how I see future suburban prospects:

Or, for the tl;dr version:

Without thinking too hard, I think many urbanists familiar with how metro areas have developed can think of a suburb that fits any one of these categories.

This formulation also brings to light another observation.  Suburbs within metros with regional public transit may have a higher ceiling than those without it.  In fact, regional public transit could render the inner ring/outer ring distinction less relevant as well.  Any revitalization in a Rust Belt city like Detroit or Milwaukee, regions without significant coordinated regional public transit at this time, may be relatively self-contained.  Great for the respective cities, but possibly bad for the region.  The same could be said for Sun Belt metros like Houston or Phoenix.  But transit connectivity might be able to make suburban locations in New York, the Bay Area, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and other places much more palatable.

It’s quite possible that the people best able to understand the future of suburbia might be those with a certain detachment from it.  There are too many people who are wedded to the suburban status quo, or busy raging against its existence, to objectively opine on its prospects.

7 Responses to “More on Suburbia — What Lies Ahead?”

  1. Unknown

    Are you talking about areas with suburban development patterns or distinct suburbs. Because there are plenty of very suburban areas within the jurisdiction of principal cities, especially in the Sun Belt.


  2. Bob Cook

    You must not be too terribly far from me — I'm in Oak Lawn. A couple questions for you:1. Have you followed all the hubbub over Lincoln-Way closing a high school (and likely closing another one in five years)? It seems like there is a big danger for housing-centered exurbs to take it on the chin in a huge way over the next 10-20 years. New Lenox/Frankfort/Mokena do have train access to the city and ample expressway access, but they don't have high-paying jobs like their north suburban brethren that would attract people from outside the area. That area is just part of the white flight that started with, well, Oak Lawn, and made its way farther and farther out.2. As for my burb, I think we're lucky that while we hardly have the charm of, say, a LaGrange, we have the sort of access you discuss. We're also lucky that the housing bust stopped people from leapfrogging to the aforementioned Lincoln Way area. People have been stuck in their homes, and fortunately Oak Lawn was still stable enough that things didn't decline as they had in other inner-ring suburbs. (It helps that Oak Lawn has a stiff tax you pay if you sell your house and move out of Oak Lawn — hey, they remembered what happened to the city neighborhoods they left behind.)3. At least in this area, it seems the one sticking point is supporting schools. By that I mean that though Catholic school enrollment has declined significantly even in this heavily Catholic area, there are still stronger attachments to Catholic schools and a feeling that the local public schools are, well — you can guess what I mean. My high school district (my kids go to Dwyane Wade's High School) is sitting on a truckload of money, yet they've scuttled a planned arts center addition to Richards in part, I suspect, because some of the school board members don't actually have an attachment or commitment to public schools based on their own past schooling. I guess I could come right out and say that it's another case of white people dragging their feet on anything that looks like it could benefit non-white people.By the way, unlike a lot of white South Siders, I didn't grow up here. I married in. I grew up in small towns in Michigan and then later in suburban and urban Indianapolis.


  3. Unknown

    Pete, thanks for a well framed discussion on the Suburban landscape. Since 70% of baby boomers live in the Suburbs/rural, this is a national priority topic for aging in place. You've nailed it on the big 3; access, location and amenities.This article is a keeper…Best, Patrick


  4. Bob Cook

    Housing stock might be No. 3a in the big three. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law, both empty-nest Baby Boomers, live in a McMansion in the far southwest suburbs of Chicago, in a neighborhood full of people much like themselves. What is going to happen to that neighborhood in five, 10, 15 years when they all want to sell because they can't maintain their homes, or can't climb the copious amount of steps? Who is going to buy these places? Is a far-out community full of McMansions set to transition to a new generation of home buyers?


  5. Pete Saunders

    Actually I mean both. I realize there's suburban development patterns within core cities as well as distinct suburbs. Quite a bit of that in the Rust Belt also; Indianapolis and Columbus come to mind.


  6. Pete Saunders

    I'm relatively close to you. I'm actually in Naperville. Maybe a 30 minute drive on 88 and 294 from you.I didn't want to name names, but Oak Lawn is a good case study. Good housing stock, OK schools, and it does have a commuter rail station. It also has a rapidly aging housing stock and rapidly aging populace. The rail station has been underutilized (probably more Metra's fault than residents), but the Village is beginning to recognize its benefits. They're developing a town center on 95th Street. The next step for Oak Lawn will be housing. Will they be willing to allow a more diverse type of housing to broaden their appeal? More 2-3 flats, accessory units, small apartment buildings? By doing so they could appeal to more workers at Christ and LCM hospitals, two huge employers, and it could be a game changer.


  7. NickD

    Don't most suburbs have highway access though? At least within a few miles? I would say about 90% of Toronto's suburbia is within 3 miles of a freeway. So here in Toronto, I would say that the ability to retain suburban jobs and proximity to suburban jobs is more important. Housing stock and being close to Lake Ontario will probably be a factor too.Most of the characteristics Michael Lewyn described as advantages have to do with being uniformly well to do and cheap. Well if your suburb is cheap how do you prevent less wealthy people from moving in? Especially if the even cheaper urban neighbourhoods see their prices rise somewhat because people willing to put up with crime and poor schools move in?



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