The suburb v. city binary
“Have you ever lived in the suburbs? It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your
life, and people do not wish to waste their lives once they’ve seen New
York!”—Ed Koch, Mayor of New York City, 1982
“[The suburbs] are the future of the city; or they are the city of the future, if
you prefer.”—Renzo Piano, 2015
(Images: State Museum of
Pennsylvania, below; Wikimedia
The secret history of suburban migration
19th-century communes and phalansteries
Streetcar suburbs and self-built/mail-order suburbs
(Images: Wikimedia Commons, below left; Andrew Wiese, below center; Wikimedia Commons, below right)
The U.S. Census does not define “suburb,” but demographers estimate
that just over half of Americans live in suburbs (Frey 2010). 26 percent of
Americans describe where they live as urban, 53 percent as suburban,
and 21 percent as rural (U.S. Census).
In the 50 largest metro areas, 44 percent of Americans now live in racially
diverse suburbs, with a nonwhite population of between 20 and 60
percent. Another 17 percent of Americans live in suburbs that are
predominantly nonwhite (Orfield and Luce 2013).
52 percent of African Americans in the 100 most populous metro areas live
in suburbs (Kneebone 2016).
There are 41.3 million foreign-born
residents in the United States, 13
percent of the population.
In 2013, 61 percent of the immigrants
living in the 97 largest metro areas
lived in the suburbs. In 20 metro areas,
the suburban immigrant population at
least doubled between 2000 and 2013
(Wilson and Svajlenka 2014).
(Map: Michael Bader, Metropolitan Policy Center,
New modes of suburban living
Multigenerational and shared homes
Home as a source of income and/or site of production: accessory
apartments, small-scale farming, in-home businesses
(Images: Toll Brothers, below left; Associated Press, below center; Amanda Kolson Hurley, below right)
Accessory apartments: Montgomery
Accessory apartments, Montgomery County
Choy House, Flushing, Queens
O’Neill Rose Architects
(Images: Michael Moran/OTTO, below left; O’Neill Rose Architects, below right)
Repurposing the building blocks of
La Gran Plaza, Forth Worth, and Pacific Mall, Markham, Ontario
(Images: Mariachi Mexicanisimoshow/Youtube, below left; Pacific Mall, below right)
Transit and equity
• METRO Blue Line light-rail extension, Twin Cities: connection to
• Purple Line, Maryland: connection to other suburbs and downtown
• Transit equity and displacement concerns (Image: Metropolitan Council)
“Return to the city” or continuing
• The high cost of housing in many urban centers will keep pushing
immigrants to the suburbs.
• Some metropolitan areas may show a stark reversal of the late 20th-
century pattern, with diverse suburbs surrounding majority-white centers.
However, “vanilla suburbs” will likely persist due to resegregation.
• The redevelopment of some suburban hubs into satellite cities (e.g.
Tysons Corner and White Flint) could bring higher-skilled jobs to the urban
Where we go from here
• Fix zoning to allow for accessory apartments, “missing middle” housing,
corner stores, and home businesses
• Build bus rapid transit and light rail, especially suburb-to-suburb, but with
measures to prevent displacement
• Elect and hire more immigrants in local government
• Deliver social services in ways tailored to the suburban environment
• Prevent resegregation through mixed housing and proactive school
• Support cohousing and new forms of live/work space
• Get architects enthused about the suburbs and encourage officials and
developers to raise the bar
• Make community members feel safe. Anxiety about immigration
crackdowns may keep people indoors and deter spending, harming local
businesses and civic life
Brooklyn Park, Minn.
(Image: African Immigrant Services)