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Suburban Legend

from the magazine

Suburban Legend

Contrary to the media narrative, an urban resurgence has not come at the expense of other communities. Autumn 2019
Economy, finance, and budgets

For more than a decade, leading urbanists and their media disciples have touted the idea that a resurgence of cities was occurring at the expense of suburbs, a trend that amounted to a historical reversal of American living preferences. The revival of some central business districts and the gentrification of old industrial neighborhoods into hip new urban enclaves fed a back-to-the-city narrative, while an exodus of the poor into nearby suburbs and a Great Recession–era plunge in housing values sparked conjecture that the classic suburb was in decline. Much of this narrative is anecdotal, however, or relies on selectively chosen data. Comprehensive research on hundreds of urban and suburban neighborhoods over the last four decades, published earlier this year, tells a different story. While the demographics of cities and suburbs are changing, the suburbs have continued to outperform urban neighborhoods on multiple economic and demographic variables, solidifying their hold on American wealth and status. The good news is that the urban revival in many places is real. The better news is that it hasn’t come at the expense of other communities.

The terms “city” and “suburbs” are often used imprecisely. To get at the heart of the way communities are changing, Harvard researcher Whitney Airgood-Obrycki examined the nation’s 100 most populous metropolitan areas in detail—classifying census tracks within each area as either urban, inner-ring suburb, or outer-ring suburb. She also subdivided suburban communities based on when they were developed: pre–World War II, postwar, and modern. Airgood-Obrycki then graded each neighborhood on factors like income levels, education, occupations of residents, and housing values, and tracked communities’ progress over time.

What the data yield is illuminating. Most of the nation’s “high-status” communities—neighborhoods in the top quartile of economic and demographic performance—are suburban. And the suburbs’ advantage over cities has increased over time, from 68 percent of the top-performing neighborhoods in the 1970s to 74 percent by 2010. Incomes are considerably greater, moreover, among suburban communities that rank among the highest-status neighborhoods than among city districts that also fall into that category. At the same time, the suburbs have done a better job of holding off decline. Among areas that have seen average household incomes shrink, the declines have been deepest in city neighborhoods, not struggling suburban areas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the suburbs maintained their advantage to some degree because of development. Some of the biggest gains recorded in the study came in newer suburbs. By contrast, older suburbs—typically, inner-ring areas closest to cities—accounted for fewer gains.

Many observers would consider the period from the 1970s through 2010 one of great turmoil in America’s community landscape. Airgood-Obrycki’s research shows that more than half of all communities saw their economic status change over that time, with about a quarter rising in rank while another quarter declined. Still, the economic profiles of some 47 percent of neighborhoods remained essentially unchanged.

The data also show that the stereotype of rich, white suburbs surrounding declining cities is changing—but not always as the media suggest. No doubt, gentrification of some central city neighborhoods occurred, but the changes haven’t been as widespread as commonly thought. Today, instead, cities are often made up of a mosaic of demographic areas, including wealthier districts alternating with urban poverty. University of North Carolina researcher Elizabeth Delmelle has illustrated the new geography in maps that display cities like Los Angeles as an assortment of economically dissimilar neighboring districts. And increasingly, well-off suburbs include educated Asians, blacks, and Hispanics.

The data, then, seem at odds with the typical media narrative. Gentrification of some city neighborhoods by young hipsters fostered an idea that educated millennials were rejecting their suburban upbringings to reclaim the city. But as they age, millennials are turning out more like their parents than previously thought. As demographer Wendell Cox has shown, even when these young people gravitate toward major metropolitan regions, they’ve been more likely to live in outlying areas than in central cities. Similarly, anecdotal stories of retirees ditching the ’burbs for city living exaggerate the trend.

When considering the fates of cities and suburbs over the last half-century, it’s wise to keep in mind the adage that anecdote and data are two different kinds of evidence.

Photo: Mark Lucey/iStock

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