The Changing Demographics of America’s Suburbs

A great deal of attention has been paid to the revitalization of cities and urban areas, and the decline of rural communities. In fact, the very idea of a growing divide between urban and rural America has become a defining narrative of our time. But what about the suburbs? A majority of Americans live in them, after all.

The suburbs are in the midst of dramatic transformation, too, as they are buffeted by the very same forces—globalization, technology, deindustrialization, and the rise of the clustered knowledge economy—that are transforming urban and rural areas.

Not so long ago, tens of millions of middle- and working-class families headed to the suburbs to fulfill the American dream. But the past couple of decades have brought substantial changes to the suburbs. Some term it the “end of the suburbs” as the affluent and the educated head back to cities. Others call it a great inversion as the older pattern of rich suburbs surrounding poor cities is reversed with poor suburbs now surrounding rich cities. One writer for The New York Times described a decline so deep his observations were titled Slumburbia.

Not so fast. Just as urban America is defined by an increasingly winner-take-all geography, with a defined group of winners and losers, so too is suburbia.

There is no doubt that many suburbs are increasingly economically challenged and suburban poverty is rising. Now, more poor people live in suburbs than in urban centers, though this is partly a function of the fact that more people in general live in suburbs. And concentrated poverty has grown faster in suburbs than in cities, as well.

But, the suburbs remain the most affluent economic aggregates in America. Consider places like Greenwich, Connecticut; Rye, New York; Potomac and Bethesda, Maryland; MacLean, Virginia; and Newport Beach California, as I wrote in CityLab. And all but one of the ten priciest ZIP codes in America are in the suburbs—the elite Silicon Valley suburbs of Atherton, Los Altos, and Palo Alto; Beverly Hills and Santa Monica outside Los Angeles; and the exclusive enclave of Fisher Island, off the coast of Miami Beach.

The aforementioned combination of globalization, the decline of the old manufacturing economy, and the re-urbanization of the knowledge economy, is redefining the role and function of the suburbs.

Many suburbs are seeing their historic functions as bedroom communities or as homes to industrial or office parks being challenged. Bur others with particular characteristics—more urbanized and closer-in, walkable; connected to vibrant urban centers by public transit; home to knowledge institutions like universities, colleges, or major R&D labs; surrounded by unique amenities like coastlines, mountains, or parks; or those that have developed new economic functions and connections to the knowledge economy like the Silicon Valley suburbs I mentioned—continue to thrive.

These changes are so profound that Karyn Lacy of the University of Michigan has called for a new sociology of the suburbs similar to the original urban sociology pioneered by Robert Park and the Chicago School of urban sociologists of the early 20th century. Political scientists see the sweeping economic transformation of the suburbs, and in particular the rise of economically distressed suburbs, as defining the new fault-line of American politics.

In addition to these fundamental economic transformations, there are two key demographic trends that are acting to reshape suburbia today.

The first is the suburbanization of immigration. This is a reversal of the earlier 20th century pattern where immigrants packed themselves into inner-city neighborhoods, like my own grandparents who resided in the Italian district of Newark, New Jersey.

Today, immigration is increasingly suburban, a key characteristic of what Brookings demographer William Frey dubs 21st century immigration. As of 2010, more than half of all immigrants (51 percent) resided in the suburbs. Today’s suburban immigrants are also more highly educated than those of the past. One reason they choose suburbs is for access to their schools.

The second trend is the racial and ethnic transformation of suburbia. Part of this is due to immigration, but another part is the suburbanization of African Americans. Between 1970 and 2000, the share of African Americans living in suburban Atlanta increased from 27 percent to 78 percent; while in greater Washington D.C it rose from 25 percent in 1970 to 82 percent. Those trends have continued to accelerate, according to the Lacy’s research. There are two parts to this African-American suburbanization. On the one hand, it is the result of low-income African Americans being pushed out of gentrifying parts of cities. And on the other, it involves the black middle class choosing to move to more upscale suburbs. Taken together, they add up to considerable shift.

But it is not just African Americans who are headed to the suburbs: other minority groups are, too. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution has documented the dramatic growth of “melting pot suburbs,” where minorities constitute 35 percent or more of the population. As result, today’s suburbs no longer look much like the lily-white places portrayed on 1950s and 1960s sitcoms. Whites comprised less than ten percent of growth of the suburban population in America’s 100 largest metros between the years 2000 and 2010.

This all adds up to a thorough transformation of suburbia. No longer are the suburbs homogenous bedroom communities; they are far more demographically diverse. At the same time, their economic functions are being jostled and realigned.

The ongoing transformation of the suburbs, like the transformation of urban America, is multidimensional. Just as some cities are thriving as others struggle, some suburbs remain among the most successful, fastest growing, and most affluent areas in America even as others face growing poverty, mounting economic dislocation, and in some cases, even economic decline.

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