Suburban Decline

Cover Page




Order Form



         Many parts of the U.S. currently are facing widespread suburban and exurban sprawl, little reinvestment in private and public structures and infrastructure, and large income disparities among local government jurisdictions.  In Confronting Suburban Decline, William Lucy and David Phillips explore why these outcomes are common and explain how strategic planning can help improve the situation.

          The authors examine conditions and trends in cities and suburbs from 1960 into the 1990s, and make general predictions about future prospects of cities and suburbs.  They analyze the foundation around which policies and plans can be built, and recommend ways of effectively structuring their elements and interactions.  Chapters examine:

  • tensions between individual jurisdictions and regions, and how strategic planning can help assess dangers

  • why suburban decline has become widespread

  • how some suburbs have stabilized or revived

  • how central cities in some states have maintained high income levels

  • how interactions between residential mobility and the age, size, and location of housing can help policy makers anticipate dangers and opportunities facing neighborhoods and jurisdictions

  • how the “tyranny of easy development decisions” often results in new housing being constructed where people prefer not to be

         In many suburbs, relative income of residents has declined faster than in central cities. Most middle income home buyers have avoided purchasing small suburban houses built between 1945 and 1970 that are located in auto-dependent neighborhoods.  Due to the “tyranny of easy development decisions,” developers build new housing where government regulations are permissive and local residents are few.  Developers usually avoid in-fill projects, including near public transit stations, because of protests from neighbors and insufficient support for compact development from public officials. After analyzing case studies, city conditions in all 50 states, and income and other trends in 554 suburbs in 24 metropolitan areas, Confronting Suburban Decline suggests policies, based on examples, to turn these dangers into opportunities for more compact, satisfying, and sustainable communities and regions.  The authors set forth a series of policy recommendations with federal, state, regional, and local dimensions that can achieve healthier communities and regions.  Arguing that a high quality natural and built environment has become the optimum means of achieving economic stability, the authors explain how their proposed Sustainable Region Incentive Fund could contribute to that goal.

            In-depth case studies of Richmond, Virginia and Washington, D.C. provide clues as to how localities can improve their prospects for resisting decline, and examples from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland, Oregon, Maryland, Tennessee, and other locations offer policy innovations for coping with post-suburban regions.  In addition the book offers information and statistics on income, population, and racial transitions in  554 suburbs in the 24 largest metropolitan areas.

            In their research about trends in cities and suburbs, some of the authors’ discoveries are:

  • 32 percent of 554 suburbs declined in residents’ income relative to their central cities between 1980 and 1990, up from 20 percent from 1960 to 1990

  • income decline was concentrated in middle-aged suburbs developed between 1945 and 1970

  • median size of new housing increased from 1100 square feet in 1950 to 1920 square feet in 1995, a condition that discouraged many middle income home buyers from purchasing residences in middle aged neighborhoods, creating an obstacle to revival of these neighborhoods

  • despite continuation of income decline in most cities through 1990, there were 25 states in which income in cities was as high as in their suburbs

  • in Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Washington, D.C.’s suburbs in Virginia, 60 percent or more of neighborhoods with older housing (40 percent or more constructed before 1940) rose in relative income from 1980 to 1990, from which it can be inferred that some combination of housing size and character, neighborhood convenience, and employment opportunities overcame traditional obstacles in cities and older suburbs to reinvestment and revival

             The book offers a unique and valuable look at the causes of and responses to urban and suburban decline.  Planners and policymakers as well as students and researchers involved with issues of land use, economic development, regional planning, community development, and intergovernmental relations will all find it a useful resource.

             William Lucy is professor in the department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia and author of Close to Power: Setting Priorities with Elected Officials (Planners Press 1988).  David Phillips is associate professor in the department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia.


Modified by David L. Phillips, January 20, 2000