February 28, 2006

“One Fifth of America: America’s First Suburbs”

"Suburbia" can mean a lot of different things. And there's a major difference between older, more densely populated "inner ring" suburbs and newer, more spread out outer-ring suburbs and exurbs - one that some believe hasn't been adequately studied, since inner-ring communities are often lumped together with the urban areas they surround.

In a new report, One Fifth of America: A Comprehensive Guide to America's First Suburbs, authors Robert Puentes and David Warren at the Brooking Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program conclude that "although first suburbs are indeed beginning to look more and more like cities in some respects and some places, this is by no means ubiquitous. In reality, this work makes it clear that America’s first suburbs are beginning to actually become more separate from the center cities they sometimes surround, and the newer suburbs that sometimes surround them.

"While they are distinctive from the nation, they are also often quite distinctive from each other. This analysis finds that there are clear differences between first suburbs that began developing over a century ago such as places in New England and other parts of the Northeast and Midwest. These first suburbs look very different from those that suburbanized around World War II. ...

"First suburbs were once far less diverse than the nation, now they are more so. Homeownership used to be far more common in first suburbs than in the nation as a whole, now the rates are nearly identical. And while first suburbs still lead the nation in terms of housing value, educational attainment, and income, the gaps are indeed closing."

Interestingly, while in the U.S. as a whole about 19% of the population lives in a "first suburb," in Massachusetts that number is more than twice that: 46% -- just behind Maryland for second-highest percentage in the nation (Connecticut is first at a whopping 64%).

Also notable: "The percent of the elderly in first suburbs is increasing faster than the national rate. The percent of
children is growing slower."

I'd agree that older, inner-ring suburbs are definitely evolving in a different way from both nearby cities and exurbs. And as this unfolds, it's critical for such communities to take advantage of their natural strengths. One is sense of place - many newer communities fail at that. Another is being able to offer the best of "human-scale" advantages to both suburbia -- some privacy and space and greenery -- mixed with some advantages of more urban living -- walkability and retail/commercial/entertainment offerings. That's what appealed to me about living in my Framingham neighborhood: I can have a single-family home with a decent-sized yard, while I'm still able to walk to the library, post office and hardware store (alas, the neighborhood grocery store has closed, but I don't have to drive 10 miles round trip to get to one).

For numbers junkies, there are lots more suburban stats here.

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