The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Cities and Suburbs — In Name Only

Downtown Evanston, IL.  Beyond downtown, Evanston is walkable, transit supported, includes a wide range of housing types and mixed uses and houses a diverse population.  It’s a SINO (suburb in name only).  Source: 
About six weeks ago I wrote a piece here called Welcome to Mount Greenwood, an overview of a little-known neighborhood tucked into the far southwest corner of Chicago.  In it, I wrote about how Mount Greenwood’s physical characteristics created a different kind of city neighborhood:

“I’ve written a lot about how a lack of understanding about the South and West sides limits their investment potential, or even any empathy toward their revitalization, but a case could be made that communities like Mount Greenwood suffer from this as well. But more realistically, Mount Greenwood might relish its relative anonymity. If there is one word to describe this community, it’s “enclave”. Separated from the rest of Chicago by several cemeteries on its eastern boundary, and from several suburbs by cemeteries to the south, Mount Greenwood is set apart. It’s a community of modest 1950s Chicago-style ranch bungalows…

Mount Greenwood is one of many Northwest and Southwest side neighborhoods that hold large numbers of city workers, particularly police officers and firefighters, who must maintain their city residence. Joining them in the neighborhood are well-off skilled laborers — plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, and the like. Despite the modest homes, Mount Greenwood is fairly wealthy. The median household income in 2014 was nearly $90,000, almost double that of Chicago’s.

Mount Greenwood might also be one of the whitest communities in Chicago. In a city divided almost equally between whites, blacks and Latinos, Mount Greenwood is about 87 percent white — rivaling the high percentages of black residents seen on the South and West sides.

Mount Greenwood is a classic modest yet mature bedroom community. It’s home to solid single-family residences, very few multifamily complexes, wonderful Catholic schools to supplement the public neighborhood schools, and a strong sense of community. It’s been able to hold onto that status far longer than most communities.”

The Mount Greenwood description prompted a comment from reader John Carlisle, in which he pointed out the existence of suburbany city neighborhoods like Mount Greenwood, as well as city-like suburbs:

“My friend and I have a running joke: We have two lists, “CHI-NOs” (Chicago in Name Only) and “SINOs” (Suburb in Name Only). I probably don’t have to say they’re modeled after RINO and DINO. Anyway, here are our lists:

Edison Park
Norwood Park
Forest Glen / Edgebrook
Mt. Greenwood

Blue Island
Oak Park
Forest Park

Debatable: Elmwood Park, Maywood, and several of the budding ethnoburbs of inner Cook County, of which there are a bunch.

This isn’t meant to be intense, deep planning analysis or commentary, nor is it meant to pass judgment on communities, but it’s just a couple of fun groupings to point out that the city-suburb chasm in terms of lifestyle is a lot more fluid than many would like to believe. You could probably come up with some kind of data-driven index based on things like density, transit access, diversity (or a lack thereof), urban challenges, but we haven’t. Feel free to add to the lists or steal this for your own use.

I suppose New York could have NY-NO neighborhoods, Philly could have PHI-NOs … every major metro could have SINOs.”

Well played, Mr. Carlisle.

He’s right — there’s nothing especially deep about these groupings, but it does meld our understanding of what exactly is “city” and “suburb”.  In a region of the country where the split between city and suburb might be at its starkest, there are still plenty of exceptions.  There are neighborhoods within city limits that are full of split-level single family homes built on an auto-oriented system, and there are suburbs beyond the city limits that are diverse, developmentally complex with a mix of uses, and have a significant reliance on public transit where available.

Here’s an idea: I’d love for the U.S. Census to refine their urban area parameters.  Some readers might be familiar with the fact that the Census identifies contiguous areas within metro areas that house in excess of 1,000 people per square mile.  What if the Census did a similar identification of areas with populations in excess of, say, 5,000 people per square mile?  If so, we might be able to define areas as “urban” (>5,000/sq. mi.), “suburban” (1,000-4,999/sq. mi.) and “exurban” (<999/sq. mi., but still within the metro area).  Density is hardly the only thing that distinguishes city and suburb, but such a change would force us to look at all places a little differently.

In closing, here’s what I would say are a “hot take” of top CINOs (City In Name Only) and SINOs (Suburbs In Name Only) spots in the Chicago area:

Forest Glen
Edison Park
Norwood Park
Mount Greenwood
Beverly (maybe)

Harwood Heights
Elmwood Park
Oak Park
Evergreen Park
Blue Island

Many southeast Cook County suburbs might fit the SINO profile, but I left them out since there are so many.

What say you, readers?  Chicago people, does this make sense?  For those across the nation, I’d love to see your takes on CINOs and SINOs.

3 Responses to “Cities and Suburbs — In Name Only”

  1. Alon

    Is 5,000/mi^2 really enough to define an area as urban? In Boston, it might – Newton, which is the best example of a favored quarter inner suburb, is 4,600. Brookline, the second best, is 8,600, and is a mixture of urban in the north and suburban in the south. But in New York, I'm more skeptical. Fully suburban places, with little multifamily housing, go well over your threshold: Great Neck is 7,000, South Orange is 5,700, NYINO Tottenville is 5,400, Lynbrook is 9,700, Mineola is 8,500, Levittown is 7,500.


  2. Pete Saunders

    You know, I thought about this after I wrote it. The 5,000/sq. mi. number was pretty arbitrary, and I recognize that number could vary from metro to metro. I did a quick check of the Mount Greenwood neighborhood I cite as a CINO neighborhood, and it's at 6,800. Another CINO I mention, Edison Park, is at 9,600. In retrospect the city/suburb threshold might be 10,000 in Chicago, maybe even everywhere.The only downside I see with that is with obviously urban inner city neighborhoods whose depopulation brings the per square mile figure way down. Take greater Englewood on Chicago's South Side, the Englewood and West Englewood communities. Today those two combined have 61,569 people within 6.22 square miles, or 9,899 per square mile. That's a decent number but just below the 10,000/sq. mi. number I just threw out. But if you know anything about greater Engelwood, it's one of the city's poorest neighborhoods and has huge numbers of vacant buildings and vacant parcels. I did a neighborhood plan for this area 10 years ago, and in 1950 this area had 157,000 residents — 25,200/sq. mi. Something would have to account for the fact that some urban neighborhoods are not quite as urban as they used to be.


  3. alai

    Agh, I clicked \”Add comment\” when I should have clicked \”Publish\”, and my comment just disappeared. Bad design. Anyway.I wonder if you do have to account for that fact. I think there are formerly-urban neighborhoods that have actually transitioned to suburban– ones where you can see a lot of parking lots which clearly used to be buildings, where freeways have wiped out scores of houses and businesses, and where any new development is in a suburban model (combining several old lots to put up a detached building surrounded by parking and some patches of green). I think it's safe to say that these are now \”genuine\” suburbs.There's also another reason for the drop in population. I was interested to find out that in some of the old \”streetcar suburb\” areas of San Francisco, population is also down from the peak around 1950. It's not because of any significant abandonment or demolition, obviously–quite the opposite. But houses and apartments which used to be considered suitable for a family of five are now considered suitable for a couple, or even a single person. So the same buildings in the same areas house a lot fewer people– much of the missing population may be children in large families.



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