Diversity in Suburbia

Are the suburbs really the homogenous, sterile, and soulless landscapes as portrayed by some in the anti-sprawl community (James Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere being one prominent example)? Apparently not, according to Brian A. Mikelbank’s journal article in the latest Housing Policy Debate (hat tip: Peter Gordon):

“Suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse as they continue to comprise larger portions of the metropolitan population and employment. Former perceptions of suburban uniformity are being eroded by the variance in form and function that now characterizes them. This article analyzes data collected on 3,567 non-central-city, incorporated, metropolitan places in the United States along the dimensions of population, place, economy, and government. Specifically, a hierarchical clustering procedure, combined with discriminant analysis, identifies 10 distinct types of suburbs in the data. Level, composition, and combinations of wealth, employment, and race drive the distinctions among suburban clusters, many of which do not fit our traditional characterizations of suburbia. In fact, only about half of all the suburbs considered are strongly characterized by these traditional traits, and these suburbs contain less than one out of every three residents considered in the analysis.”

Of course, a good deal of the criticism of suburbs revolves around issues of land use and urban form (particularly in Kunstler’s work), which is not the focus of this particular study. But the issues examined in the study are just as important to understanding “what are suburbs and what do they represent?” as form and land use. And what this study reinforces is that as you dig further into understanding suburbs, they take on a strikingly complex and vibrant character:

“These numbers are especially telling from a policy perspective. The perception of a uniform suburbia must make way for the current reality of suburban places. The central city versus the suburbs mentality is less relevant, since many suburbs are facing central cityââ?¬â??like challenges and some central cities enjoy success…Treating the suburbs as the uniform benefactors of sprawl, for example, ignores the fact that many are actually its victims. Characterizing suburban challenges as merely economic or merely demographic is likewise off-target, since challenges (and opportunities) are more multidimensional. Clusters exhibiting similarities in one regard can be distinct in another, for example in the family structure and regional location of the Working Diversity clusters. As a result, blanket policy prescriptions will not resolve the challenges faced by suburbs. It is not always an accessibility issue, a housing stock issue, or a developable land issue. As studies are starting to show consistently, the situation is more complex than previously thought. While past research has demonstrated this component by component, the present research demonstrates the interactions among components.”

It’s a dense, but fascinating read. Also, check out this recent piece by Joel Kotkin, which offers a lighter, but no less compelling look at suburban cultural evolution:

“Patricia Jones remembers when, as a 20-something aspiring actress, she first arrived in Southern California from Michigan. Her friends urged her to move to the bright lights of Hollywood or the hip, arty precincts of Santa Monica. But Ms. Jones, seeking ‘peace and quiet’ instead, chose Thousand Oaks, a bedroom suburb then a 30- to 40-minute drive northwest of Los Angeles. Thousand Oaks indeed was quiet, but also, she recalls, ‘a bit boring,’ with little in the way of cultural amenities or night life. But things have changed. Twenty years later, Ms. Jones is astounded by the growth of a vital culture community smack in the middle of this land of shopping malls, high-tech office parks and ubiquitous SUVs. ‘Now it’s a place where people live, work and find their entertainment. It’s a totally different environment.’ Ms. Jones should know. She’s president of the Alliance for the Arts, a group that helps raise funds for Thousand Oaks’ sprawling $63 million Civic Arts Plaza, which over the past year can boast of the likes of ‘Aida,’ Paul Anka and Wynton Marsalis among its 400 performances. And this performance center’s development reflects a profound shift in the cultural geography of America. At a time when many cities are basing their long-term hope on exploiting their traditional dominance in arts-related industries, the suburbs are beginning to provide some serious competition for both patrons and donors. . . . . Patrons, meanwhile, are finding that the increasing time needed to commute to the city makes local venues all the more attractive. ‘Getting into the city is getting harder and harder,’ Mr. Pastreich explains. ‘The parking, the traffic, the lines are not worth the tradeoff when you can get a basically downtown-quality performance close to home.’ ‘What’s happening is that the power base is shifting to the suburbs — they have the political and economic power to get what they want,’ observes Neal Cuthbert, arts program manager for the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation. He points to a ‘quiet arts revolution’ taking place in the region’s hinterlands, including major arts developments in Anoka, Hopkins and Minnetonka, as well as a new $7.2 million arts project in suburban Bloomington, home to the massive Mall of America.”

Time to rethink your conception of the “suburb,” folks. Suburbia does have a soul, and it’s getting deeper by the day. UPDATE: Don’t miss this other Kotkin piece from The American Enterprise.