Suburban Decline

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             Alan Campbell, as Dean of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, told colleagues and students that if academics want to be listened to by public officials they need to count things. If they come up with some useful numbers, public officials also might tolerate hearing some theory and policy proposals, he counseled.

            Here we offer some numbers, because we would like to be listened to. Which numbers matter is illuminated by theories and concepts—theories and concepts here about strategic planning and the evolution of metropolitan areas. We bring three public policy themes to the table for discussion—sprawl, reinvestment, and disparities. Each theme is important in its own right. Each theme also illuminates the others. The reasons for too much sprawl in outer suburbia and exurbia are illuminated by the reasons for too little reinvestment in cities and older suburbs and large income disparities among local governments. Conversely, disparities are large and reinvestments are scarce, because sprawl is excessive. These problems and explanations are intertwined. 

            Another goal here is to frame issues that matter to environmentalists, urbanists, economic developers, and politicians so that they may see more common interests and engage in more collaborative actions. In 1994, at an organizing meeting of the Partnership for Urban Virginia, we put a coalition-building proposition to the organizers who were city managers, mayors, regional business leaders, and a few leaders of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps it would be useful, we suggested, to bring environmental groups into the organizing effort? Being committed to the Virginia version of politeness, the assembled organizers greeted this thought with dead silence—rather than ridicule. This alliance was committed, they said, to reducing income and resource disparities that disadvantage central cities and thereby encourage regional economic growth by strengthening cities. They could not imagine, as we interpreted their silence, that environmentalists would be interested either in reducing disparities or in economic development. The city managers and mayors believed they needed business allies, because state legislators and the governor might listen to business. The local elected officials did not believe they would get a meaningful hearing at the state level on their own. Nor did they believe, we inferred, that environmentalists would get a hearing, or that business would be willing to negotiate with environmentalists. We believed those attitudes were short-sighted. Indeed, in the final negotiations with the governor two years later, business’s priorities prevailed and the cities’ goals fell to the side.

            The numbers presented here have emerged in analyses conducted since 1988. The theories began to emerge in the early 1970s and first appeared in a journal in 1975 (Lucy 1975), which was ignored, appropriately perhaps, because it emphasized theories and concepts and contained no numbers. In 1988, we began analyzing city and suburban income trends for 1960, 1970, and 1980. We tried to explain as well as describe. It was a national study of 147 metropolitan areas, in which the overwhelming presence of cities declining in income relative to their suburbs was confirmed.

            In 1992, we decided to examine within-state trends, looking at governance indicators, mainly fiscal, but also social. We discovered growing city\suburb income and poverty disparities in Virginia. When we examined social indicators—the location of welfare and food stamp recipients, we found major increases in suburban recipients. These large increases were curious. We knew of no theory that would explain or predict their high rate of increase.

            We repeated the national city/suburb income ratio analysis in 1993, adding 1990 data, which yielded three decades of trends. We found more of the same. Cities continued to decline relative to suburbs. There were a few puzzles, such as, why was Newark, the worst off city, seemingly doing better in 1990 than in 1980? Why had the city decline rate slowed rather than accelerated in the 1980s? If cities’ social and economic problems were increasing, the exodus of the middle class from cities also should be increasing.

            The Reagan era devolution of many domestic policy responsibilities to the states had made more evident the key role of state policies affecting local governments, policies concerning land use regulation, finance, boundary adjustments, transportation, and elementary and secondary education. Nearly every commentary on cities included the critique that federal policies, especially interstate highways and deductions of property taxes and interest from federal income taxes, had subsidized suburbanization and, hence, the decline of cities. But this universal critique failed to discuss whether city problems varied and whether these federal policies, which allegedly affected every city, could account for variations in disparities. We extended the city\suburb income disparity analysis to all 320 metropolitan areas in 50 states. By studying 1990 data for all metropolitan areas, we obtained a sample large enough to provide clues whether state policy might have a discernible impact on city-suburb income disparities. We discovered cities were as well off as suburbs in some states and in other states, cities were nearly as well off as suburbs.  State policies, therefore, seemed more important than previously suspected.

            In 1994, Katherine Imhoff, executive director of the Virginia Commission on Population Growth and Development, asked us to analyze metropolitan population and economic trends. We discovered high rates of farmland loss. These studies overlapped with a presentation by Myron Orfield in Washington, D.C. about potential for mapping income, social, tax, and spending disparities among local government jurisdictions as part of a coalition-building process, similar to what had occurred in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.

            We thought the approach of comparing suburban jurisdictions would not work adequately in Virginia and Maryland, because counties are large, and few other local governments exist, limiting potential to gather data and map conditions and trends. We thought a census tract analysis of income and other changes was needed.  By doing that, we would discover whether some parts of suburbia were experiencing similar problems of population and income decline that for years had been familiar in central cities.  We began these analysis in central cities and suburbs in Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C.  Subsequently these analyses were extended for the Partnership for Urban Virginia.

            Research for this fledgling coalition of cities and businesses was supported by Michael Pratt, director of the Center for Urban Development at Virginia Commonwealth University.  He agreed to support our research showing how Virginia compared with metropolitan areas in other states.  Such research could buttress our belief that suburban decline had become a national phenomenon.  As such, similarities between problems in cities and suburbs would constitute a new basis for coalitions to support mutually beneficial public policy changes.  This concept led to our study of income, population, poverty, racial, and housing transitions in 554 suburbs in 24 metropolitan areas across the United States, in which we confirmed widespread suburban decline, often faster than central city decline, as well as substantial income disparity polarization among suburbs.

            In addition, the Partnership for Urban Virginia wanted to compare metropolitan economic development in Virginia with metropolitan areas in North Carolina and other states. The city officials and business leaders had been stimulated by David Rusk’s ideas about elastic cities, which included the argument that strong regions required strong cities. Our study of economic trends in 59 metropolitan areas in the South confronted this question and led to somewhat different results.

            Interspersed with these studies was consultation and then action on a strategic plan for Charlottesville. The Charlottesville City Council had been urged by City Manager Cole Hendrix to prepare a strategic plan. The Council could not come to agreement about its goals or methods. During this process, the City Manager suggested to us that Charlottesville’s excess supply of small houses was an important reason why the city was in danger of losing much of its middle class. This suggestion led to our development on our own of strategic planning analyses for Charlottesville, with special attention to the small dwelling problem and to the increase in free lunch eligible students in the public schools. These discoveries became clues that led to generic interpretations of city and suburban decline.

            A project followed for Fannie Mae about underinvestment in neighborhoods whose pattern and design characteristics seemed to make them sustainable neighborhoods, analyses of sprawl in the Washington, D.C. region for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and in the Piedmont of Virginia funded by the Sacharuna Foundation, and a study for the City of Lynchburg about connections between middle income housing purchases and perceptions of school conditions. These studies sharpened our awareness about connections between sprawl on the fringe and underinvestment in cities and middle-aged suburbs. In addition, we were influenced by transportation and development planner Edward Risse’s argument that metropolitan fringe development is much denser typically at subdivision scale than low density detached housing and by his discovery that sequential 10 mile radii contained similar housing with as much as $100,000 differences in sales prices per unit, with prices falling with increases in distance from the center of the Washington, D.C. region. Discussions about these findings and other ideas led to our concept about the tyranny of easy development decisions explaining much about excessive sprawl and too little reinvestment.

            By then it had become clear that income disparities, which we started analyzing 10 years earlier, while important, should not obscure attention to other closely related problems. Other spatial element-—sprawl on the edge and reinvestment in the center and inner suburbs—need distinct attention, along with disparities. This triumvirate of problems and policy goals contributed focus and glue that tied the analytic elements together.

            Planners, policy analysts, and social and environmental scientists need a research agenda focusing on links among these elements—sprawl, disparities, and reinvestment. We have scratched the surface of links among these important subjects. They are useful scratches supported by numbers. We have been counting some useful things. More counting is needed, more theorizing also, and more conversion of numbers and theories into viable public policies. 

            Parts of several chapters were included in reports to sponsoring agencies, as referred to above. Much of the material in Chapter 3 was published in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning 1997, 36: 259-275 under the title “The Post-Suburban Era Comes to Richmond: City Decline, Suburban Transition, and Exurban Growth.”  Major variations on other material appeared in the Journal of the American Planning Association, 1994, under the title “If Planning Includes Too Much, Maybe It Should Include More,” in Planning, 1992, as “Recognizing Reality Is the First Step Toward a Solution” and Planning, 1995, as “Why Some Suburbs Thrive,” and in Colonnade 1996 as “The Post-Suburban Era: Declining Suburbs and Exurban Sprawl.”

             Pictures are from the photography storehouse of settlement patterns by Edward Risse, Synergy/Photography, Fairfax, VA; except for photographs of Alexandria, Charlottesville, Chesterfield County, Fairfax County, and Henrico County by David Phillips.


Modified by David L. Phillips, January 20, 2000