Q+A: The Persistent Appeal of the Suburbs


Once racially exclusive, suburbs are now diversifying. But with renewed interest in cities, what will this mean for residents?

Bird's eye view of suburbs

Once racially exclusive, suburbs are now diversifying. But with renewed interest in cities, what will this mean for residents?

There's a realignment happening in many metro areas. The spread of poverty into previously affluent suburban communities has been documented nationally and in Houston. At the same time, growing interest in urban living has seen concerns about gentrification alongside redevelopment and reinvestment. The Kinder Institute's Kyle Shelton has argued against neglecting suburbs amid this shift. But when urban planner Pete Saunders published a recent piece on the aspirational quality of suburban life that still persists for many, particularly African Americans, he highlighted an often neglected narrative within today's urbanism.

From some previous number crunching, Saunders found that, between 2010 and 2014, the white population increased while the black population decreased, or the growth rate of the white population outpaced the growth rate of the black population in the principal cities of 12 of the top 20 metro areas. On the flip side, 19 of the top 20 metro areas saw their black population in the suburbs increase while the white population decreased, or saw the growth rate of the black population there exceed that of the white population.

Houston actually sort of bucked this trend because its white population was growing slower than its black population in the principal city. When it came to the suburbs, the black population there was booming with roughly a 15 percent increase.

The Urban Edge talked with Saunders about this shift and why it matters for city-loving urbanists. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It's so widespread, as you point out, what general phenomenon do you think helps explain why metro areas are seeing this? You push back against the idea that it's as simple as gentrification in your post, so what are the push-pull factors?

I really think that it’s the aspirational part of it.

A lot of people like to say gentrification is pushing people out. There's been research from a professor named Lance Freeman that says it's less about who’s pushed out and more about who moves in. People like to say people are being pushed out when they're talking about housing affordability, for owners and renters, but it’s not necessarily the case. There are people who stay and they benefit but many often just grow tired of the urban environment, I hate to say this as someone who loves cities.

That gets to the point I want to make, my wife grew up in Chicago in the Wicker Park neighborhood, which many peope know as one of the trendiest, upscale neighborhoods in Chicago but 20 years ago it was far from that and my wife remembers the Wicker Park from 25 years ago and she is astounded by the way it looks right now. But does she want to go back? No, we live in the suburbs and that’s in large part because that's where my wife is most comfortable. I think many African Americans feel that same way. I'm not saying they won't ultimately go back to the city but that’s how many people feel now.

You talk about the dominance of that narrative saying it diminishes the decision-making process of people of color. Is this happening mostly in media or are urbanists to some extent participating in this?

I see it in media because it's promoted by urbansists and it's promoted by people who are interested in cities. I have been pushing back on the YIMBY crowd, the yes in my backyard people. They’ve been saying more housing, more housing everywhere. I think that’s an argument that makes a lot of sense if you live in New York or San Francisco or Seattle. I think it's an argument that makes less sense in Chicago or St. Louis or even Detroit.

Say you up zone and allow greater densities in New York. They will create more housing and it will feed the demand that exists for that area. You look at other cities like Chicago where there is not the same demand and not the same high prices as on the coast. If you do the same thing, developers will meet the demand at the highest end of the market and they'll diminish demand in lower-income areas.

I think ultimately you’ll end up with cities that have greater inequality and disparity than you have now. There will be, I call them, citadels of affluence. You'll have small, high-density areas of wealthy people and large, low-density areas of very low income areas.

What do you think the consequences are of overlooking some of those pull factors to suburbs for communities of color?

Those same pull factors that existed for people a generation ago, exist for the people who are moving out there now. I've been talking mostly about African Americans because I am one myself but the same point could be made for Latinos and Asians moving to the suburbs, too and they're drawn by the same things: the perception of lower crime, the perception of better schools, the perception of more space.

The fact is that in many metro areas around the country those things are still true. There may be better schools, less crime, more space. We know the suburbs are bad, poor design or unsustainable, all of these things and you’ve got people saying we want more urban environments. I think the danger in that is that while greater and greater numbers of people of color are moving into the suburbs, whites and jobs and resources are going to be moving back into the city and that’s why I called it on the outside looking in. There's a realignment that’s happening and because of that, people are taking away their focus on suburbs and putting it on the city.

I've always liked cities. I grew up in Detroit in the 70s and there was a lot of flight away from the city. My thinking was then, why are people leaving the city, there are a lot of strengths. I really dedicated my life to help make cities better places. I'm glad to see there are more and more people who feel the same way but at the same time I feel there is some neglect. I think there are lot of people who believe African Americans in particular and people of color in general are natural allies in urban living because that’s where they live now, but that’s not necessarily true. I know a lot of whites move into communities because it's diverse, but that’s not always going to be the case.

You’re pretty clear that you don’t take this suburban move as a sign of progress really, what does it indicate to you? Issues of disparity in infrastructure, schools, etc are so often framed in urban terms but how do the suburbs fit into this?

I think they're going to struggle in part because, their small size means they're not going to have the resources to potentially deal with problems that relate to their decline.

Charles Marohn is a planner and engineer out of Minnesota who developed what he called the suburban ponzi scheme. Basically he says that suburbs were never built to be sustainable, they go through life cycles and suburbs were only maintained by continued growth. A subdivision needed more subdivisions to be prosperous and it needed the infrastructure, investment, all those things. It starts to become cost prohibitive to maintain. They can rapidly fall. He basically says inner ring suburbs are going through that phase right now.

They don’t have the resources to be able to sustain themselves and to deal with an economic environment they were never built for. My sense is that people will blame the new residents of those communities for the changing economic environment when it really was never built to be sustainable in the first place.

The social services, the public transit, we can find growing numbers of minorities living in areas disconnected from jobs. There are so many people who are urbanists who railed against the suburbs because they were exclusionary and say this is a great thing because more people of color are moving to the suburbs. Well, I don’t think that they are necessarily thinking through the impacts.

In your post you also tie this to political representation and you say it’s a gap that could intensify: “Minority political representation will continue to decline in cities and increase in suburbs — and they'll find they own a landscape few people want.” This has so many tangled implications, I'm thinking of that BuzzFeed piece on how suburban police forces are responding to changing demographics. What are some of the areas you’re watching?

I don’t know if there's any particular areas. I can point to some metro areas and see where I see greater evidence of this shift. When I look at maybe Washington, D.C. or maybe Atlanta. I see other metro areas becoming more and more suburban in orientation for minorities and they're having a greater impact on political representation in surrounding counties. The county executive of Prince George's County (outside Washington, D.C.) is running for governor. That’s somebody who is an African American in a largely African American county using it as a platform to run for governor. That may happen more. But there's also the perception that Prince George's County has been relatively stagnant while other counties have been growing rapidly. I think the same might be happening in the Atlanta area too. There’s more and more blacks making up bigger portions of the population in surrounding counties and having some influence but probably less than they would have had they stayed in (Atlanta).

I’m curious how you see Sun Belt cities playing into this. You wrote recently about the low-skill, low-wage jobs that dominate in suburban Las Vegas for example, saying even those may be under threat.

As it relates to Sun Belt cities, I think that things are a little bit different. It really is something that demands further analysis. I’m looking at the data right now, Houston is definitely an outlier, Dallas is, Phoenix is a little bit of an outlier too. There's still widespread, pretty large African American growth in those suburbs.

As it relates to Las Vegas, hospitality is a big part of their economy and tourism. When I was out there, there are just so many people working in low-wage, low-skill jobs because people want to add a human touch to their experience. I've seen research about how automation 2.0 could reach into areas where existing low-wage, low-skill jobs are when it comes to food service, hospitality and it could mean a loss of jobs at a greater expense in places like Las Vegas.

Pete Saunders is an urban planner and regular contributor to Forbes. You can also find his work at his blog.

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