Once the key driver of the American dream, the suburbs have reached the end of a long era of cheap growth. Now their advantages to economic mobility have nearly disappeared.
During the mid-1980s, before anyone thought of the suburbs as being on a downward trajectory, the urban designer David Lewis, a Carnegie Mellon colleague of mine at the time, told me that the future project of suburban renewal would likely make our vast 20th-century urban renewal efforts look like a walk in the park.
Indeed, with their enormous physical footprints, shoddy construction, and hastily installed infrastructure, many suburbs are visibly crumbling. Across the nation, hundreds of suburban shopping malls are dead or dying; countless suburban factories, like their urban counterparts a couple of generations ago, have fallen silent.
Incongruous as it might seem, the suburban dimension of the New Urban Crisis may well turn out to be bigger than the urban one, if for no other reason than the fact that more Americans live in suburbs than cities. Members of the privileged elite may be returning to the urban cores, but large majorities of almost everyone else continue to locate in the suburbs. Today’s suburbs no longer look much like the lily-white places portrayed on sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, or Father Knows Best. More than half of immigrants now bypass cities altogether and settle directly in outskirts of larger metros. Whites accounted for just 9 percent of suburban population growth in America’s 100 largest metros between 2000 and 2010; in one-third of those metros, white suburban populations declined.
Across the United States, more than one in four suburbanites are poor or nearly poor. In fact, the suburbs of America’s largest metropolitan areas have more poor people living in them than their inner cities do, and poverty is also growing at a much faster rate in the suburbs. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of people living below the poverty line in American cities increased by 29 percent. During that same period, the ranks of the suburban poor grew by 66 percent. Seventeen million suburbanites lived below the poverty line in 2013, compared to 13.5 million urbanites. Concentrated poverty also resides in the suburbs—the numbers of the suburban poor who lived in neighborhoods of where at least 40 percent of residents were below the poverty line grew by 139 percent between 2000 and 2012. That’s triple the growth rate for concentrated poverty populations in the cities.
Once sold as havens of safety and serenity, many suburbs are now struggling with rising crime as their economies falter and populations shift. The TV series “Breaking Bad” made suburban meth dens as iconic as the urban corners where drug dealers plied their trade in “The Wire.” The current opioid epidemic has deep roots in the suburbs. Furthermore, the violent crime rate—which has been declining across the United States—fell three times faster in America’s primary cities than it did in their suburbs between 1990 and 2008. Murders actually rose by 16.9 percent in the suburbs between 2001 and 2010, while falling by 16.7 percent in cities. Many, if not most, of America’s mass shootings occur in suburbs, from Columbine to Sandy Hook.
A suburban home was once a cornerstone of the American Dream; now, sprawl has become a factor holding back Americans’ ability to move up the economic ladder. The old saying “drive ’til you qualify” reflects the reality that real estate becomes more affordable in the farthest-out suburbs, but distance levies additional high costs. The rule of thumb is that people should spend roughly 30 percent of their income for housing, but up to 45 percent including transportation. Having multiple cars and keeping them insured, repaired, and fueled up on gas can be an expensive proposition. Living closer to where one works or being able to take public transit can slash those costs considerably. For this reason, a pricier condo or apartment in the urban core or along transit lines can end up being considerably more affordable than a cheaper house in a car-dependent suburb.
Economic mobility is significantly lower in more spread-out metros today than it is in denser cities. Lower-income workers in suburbia are farther removed from centers of work and have a harder time finding and getting to jobs than those who are able to live in a city. The amount of time that low-income people spend commuting also plays a substantial role in affecting their odds of moving up the economic ladder, with low-income people with longer commutes facing lower levels of upward mobility.
While it remains true that persistently poor urban neighborhoods concentrate and perpetuate a cycle of poverty, poor suburban neighborhoods also present challenges: They isolate and disconnect their residents both from jobs and from economic opportunity, and also from the social services that can mitigate poverty’s worst effects. Even when suburbs have social services, the poor are less able to access them because they are harder to find and harder to reach than urban social services.
Suburban sprawl is extremely costly to the economy broadly. Infrastructure and vital services such as water and energy can be 2.5 times more expensive to deliver in the suburbs than in compact urban centers. In total, sprawl costs the U.S. economy roughly $600 billion a year in direct costs related to inefficient land usage and car dependency, and another $400 billion in indirect costs from traffic congestion, pollution, and the like, according to a 2015 study from the London School of Economics. The total bill: a whopping $1 trillion a year.
Not all suburbs are experiencing decline and desolation, of course, any more than all cities are. Many of the immigrants and members of minority groups who are moving to them are no less aspirational than my parents were, and many are more affluent. Although some parts of suburbia are stagnating or declining, there are large areas of affluence and growth.
All but one of the ten priciest ZIP codes in America are in the suburbs— the exception being New York’s Tribeca/SoHo. Eight of the ten are in California, including the elite Silicon Valley suburbs of Atherton, Los Altos, and Palo Alto, as well as Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego, and Santa Barbara’s Montecito. The exclusive enclave of Fisher Island, accessible only by boat or ferry, lies in Biscayne Bay just off of Miami Beach. The suburbs are the sites of growing inequality and are increasingly beset with deep class divisions of their own.
Just as in our cities, some parts of our suburbs are rich, and others are poor. Some are growing quickly, and some are in decline. Growth today is in fact concentrated in dense urban areas and at suburbia’s far-flung peripheries. Population growth is occurring fastest in the farthest-out (or “suburbiest”) parts of suburbs and in the densest urban neighborhoods, as real estate economist Jed Kolko wrote for CityLab in 2015. It’s far less expensive to build on the wide-open, undeveloped land in outlying areas than anywhere else, and it’s easier to grow fast when you’re starting from nothing. The densest urban places are attracting people and jobs because of their convenience and improved productivity. Meanwhile, the middle of our suburban geography is being hollowed out and squeezed economically: Growth is bypassing the older suburban areas that lie between the two poles of urban center and outlying new development.
When all is said and done, the suburban crisis reflects the end of a long era of cheap growth. Building roads and infrastructure and constructing houses on virgin land was and is an incredibly inexpensive way to provide an American Dream to the masses, certainly when compared to what it costs to build new subway lines, tunnels, and high-rise buildings in mature cities. For much of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and on into the 1980s and 1990s, suburbanization was the near-perfect complement to America’s industrial economy. More than the great mobilization effort of World War II or any of the Keynesian stimulus policies that were applied during the 1930s, it was suburban development that propelled the golden era of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s. As working- and middle-class families settled into suburban houses, their purchases of washers, dryers, television sets, living-room sofas, and automobiles stimulated the manufacturing sector that employed so many of them, creating more jobs and still more homebuyers. Sprawl was driver of the now-fading era of cheap economic growth.
But today, clustering, not dispersal, powers innovation and economic growth. Many people still like living in suburbs, of course, but suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.
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