Children play in a spray park in Rockville Town Square in suburban Rockville, Maryland.
Children play in Rockville Town Square in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Larry Downing/Reuters

New data shows that the majority of Americans describe their neighborhoods as suburban. Yet we still lack an official government definition of suburban areas.

The geography of America is shifting. Population and job growth are happening faster in suburbs than in urban neighborhoods. At the same time, crowded urban neighborhoods are getting richer and their housing is getting more expensive. There are clear statistical differences among Americans living in urban, suburban, and rural parts of America when it comes to voting patterns, attitudes on social issues, labor and economic outcomes, and health outcomes.  The distinction between urban and rural matters to the federal government, and there is an abundance of official federal definitions of urban and rural. And yet among these definitions, none includes a third category: suburban.

The lack of an official federal definition of suburban means that government data are not reported separately for suburban areas. That makes it hard to measure the reach and impact of federal programs and to produce vital statistics about Americans and their communities.

Much of America looks suburban, with neighborhoods of single-family homes connected by roads to retail centers and low-rise office buildings. For the first time, government data confirm this. According to the newly released 2017 American Housing Survey (of nearly 76,000 households nationwide), about 52 percent of people in the United States describe their neighborhood as suburban, while about 27 percent describe their neighborhood as urban, and 21 percent as rural.

These results echo those from a 2015 survey in which one of us (Jed Kolko) and colleagues at Trulia asked more than 2,000 people around the nation the same question. We found then that 53 percent of survey respondents described their neighborhood as suburban, 26 percent as urban, and 21 percent as rural.

Because there is no official definition of “suburban,” asking people to describe their neighborhood is the first step in formalizing a definition. Kolko showed that household density and other neighborhood characteristics are strongly associated with how people describe their neighborhoods. Others have used those density cutoffs in geographic analyses, including of the midterm elections.

Official geographic definitions should catch up with how Americans describe their neighborhoods. These definitions do a good job at distinguishing rural neighborhoods from the overwhelmingly non-rural majority of the population, but fare poorly at differentiating urban from suburban neighborhoods.

Finding the suburban in urban data

We wondered: Do existing government definitions of urbanization reveal that more than half of Americans live in the suburbs? We compare each AHS respondent’s answer to the neighborhood question with how their address is classified by two main federal definitions of urbanization: the Census Bureau’s Urban Areas and the Office of Management and Budget’s Core-Based Statistical Areas, which include Metropolitan Statistical Areas and Micropolitan Statistical Areas.

We draw two conclusions from these results pertaining to Urban Areas. First, the good news: if Urban Areas are understood to mean urban and suburban neighborhoods, they do well at distinguishing rural neighborhoods from the urban-plus-suburban majority of America. Our analysis reveals that over 95 percent of households living in Urbanized Areas (that is, Urban Areas with more than 50,000 people) consider their neighborhood to be either urban or suburban, while 79 percent of households living in Census Rural Areas (any area outside of an Urbanized Area or Urban Cluster) consider their neighborhood to be rural.

But here’s the hitch: Urbanized Areas, as currently defined, are mostly suburban. Nearly twice as many households in Urbanized Areas describe their neighborhood as suburban (63 percent) compared to urban (32 percent). Also, residents of Urban Clusters—Urban Areas with fewer than 50,000 people—are almost as likely to describe their neighborhood as rural as they are urban.

How respondents described their neighborhood, by 2010 Urban Area category (Census Bureau)

“Urban” “Suburban” “Rural"*
Urbanized Area 33% 63% 5%
Urban Cluster 28% 45% 26%
Rural 5% 16% 79%

*Rows may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.

The story is much the same when looking at Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Metropolitan Statistical Areas do well at distinguishing urban and suburban neighborhoods from rural neighborhoods, although not quite as well as Census Urban Areas do. Our analysis reveals that 86 percent of households living in the 382 Metropolitan Statistical Areas consider their neighborhood to be either urban or suburban, while 72 percent of households living outside of Metropolitan or Micropolitan Statistical Areas consider their neighborhood to be rural.

Still, Metropolitan Statistical Areas, as currently defined, are predominantly suburban. Nearly twice as many households in Metropolitan Statistical Areas consider their neighborhood to be suburban (57 percent) versus urban (29 percent).

Even central cities—the most urban part of Metropolitan Statistical Areas—are quite suburban. The slight majority of households (51 percent) living within the central city of a Metropolitan Statistical Area describe their neighborhood as urban, while 47 percent describe their neighborhood as suburban. Outside of central cities, but within a Metropolitan Statistical Area, the majority (64 percent) describe their neighborhood as suburban.

How respondents described their neighborhood, by 2013 Core-Based Statistical Area category (OMB)

“Urban” “Suburban” “Rural”*
Metropolitan Statistical Area 29 57 14
     Inside of central city 51 47 2
     Outside of central city 14 64 22
Micropolitan Statistical Area 20 29 52
Outside of Metropolitan or Micropolitan Statistical Area 12 17 72

*Rows may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.

So, looking at a national level, we find Census Urbanized Areas and OMB’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas are predominantly suburban, and even the central cities of Metropolitan Statistical Areas are quite suburban. It turns out these findings are generally true when we look individually at the 15 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the U.S. All of these are more suburban than urban. Some of the faster-growing areas, such as Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and Phoenix, are more than 60 percent suburban.

Even though central cities are the most urban parts of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, many central-city residents consider their neighborhoods to be suburban. In five of the 15 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas, most residents describe their neighborhood as suburban. The central cities of the Riverside–San Bernardino and Phoenix Metropolitan Statistical Areas are the most suburban; these, like many other large Sunbelt cities, are lower-density than older cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The central cities of the New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston Metropolitan Statistical Areas are more than two-thirds urban.

How respondents described their neighborhood in the 15 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (OMB)

Within the Metropolitan Statistical Area Within just the central cities
“Urban” “Suburban” “Urban” “Suburban”*
New York 47 49 83 18
Los Angeles 45 54 55 45
Chicago 34 61 74 26
Dallas/Fort Worth 30 61 46 54
Houston 29 63 51 49
Philadelphia 29 63 87 13
Washington, D.C. 30 62 69 32
Miami 35 64 47 53
Atlanta 20 69 66 34
Boston 34 57 70 30
San Francisco/Oakland 42 56 62 38
Phoenix 24 68 35 65
Riverside 14 74 22 78
Detroit 22 68 47 54
Seattle 29 63 55 45

*Due to disclosure rules, the suburban category also includes a small number of respondents who described their neighborhood as rural. Adding rural to suburban does not cause the suburban category to become the majority category in any of the 15 metropolitan areas.

We believe there are two conclusions to be drawn from our initial review of the 2017 AHS neighborhood question results. First, we feel there is enough evidence to promote the statement “America is majority suburban” from anecdote, or stylized fact, to fact. Second, existing federal definitions of urban and rural obscure the fact that most Americans describe their neighborhood as suburban, and this is true when looking nationally or at specific Metropolitan Statistical Areas or Census Urbanized Areas.

As producers and consumers of data products, it is clear to us that there is a demand for an official definition of suburban, so we think it is time to make the suburbs official. An official definition of suburban, distinct from urban and rural, could bring consistency to suburban measures of homeownership, transit usage, population growth, poverty, and many other topics. And we believe it is feasible.

With insights from the 2017 AHS neighborhood description data, the smallest geographic building blocks could be classified as suburban or urban using the process the Census Bureau already uses to delineate urban areas from rural America. We would at last be able to better understand the places where more than half of Americans live.

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