Policy Study

Older Suburbs

Crabgrass Slums or New Urban Frontier?

Executive Summary

Since the 1950s, suburbia has represented middle-class success and the fulfillment of the “American dream.” More than three-quarters of America’s new population growth has occurred in the suburbs. Indeed, more than half of all Americans now live in suburbs, a higher proportion than any other industrialized nation. More than 80 percent of all demand for office space and new jobs occurs in the suburbs. Between 1988 and 1998, office space in suburbia grew 120 percent, eight times the rate in traditional center cities.

Recently, however, older suburbs-like the urban core before them-appear to be the victims of an everexpanding metropolitan periphery that lures away residents, workers, and high-tech companies critical to growth in the new information age. In response to this perceived pattern of decay and decline, pundits tout regional government-oriented approaches as the solution.

Although parts of this analysis bear some truth, the older suburb, or “midopolis,” is in fact evolving and, in many cases, thriving. These communities are far more diverse than commonly perceived and, while some are clearly in decline, many are thriving, both demographically and economically. Indeed, in many ways, the rebirth of the suburban community-like the earlier rebirth of the urban core itself-testifies to the changing nature of the new economy and the remarkable ability of people to find new uses for older things. For example,

  • Asking rents for office space are projected to increase faster than regional averages in midopolitan areas such as Dekalb County near Atlanta and the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California;
  • Vacancy rates for multifamily residences are expected to be lower than regional averages in Bellaire/Harwin area of Houston, Santa Clara County, Dekalb County, and the San Gabriel Valley;
  • South Pasadena, just 15 miles east of Los Angeles, saw assessed property valuation increase by 20 percent from 1995 to 2000, significantly higher than the countywide average of 16.5 percent;
  • The distribution of investment and population growth in the inner suburbs is uneven, calling into question the idea that investment and population inevitably migrate to the periphery; and
  • An analysis of 82 cities in Los Angeles County found no significant relationship between the distance from the center city and the growth in urban property values; several cities had high growth rates in assessed property valuation but were in the mid-range of distance from the downtown.

An analysis of the San Fernando Valley, a middle-class suburb north of the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles County, provides a case in point. Developed as a bedroom community beginning in the early 20th century, the Valley is the archetype of midopolis. After a period of decline, vacancy rates for prime office buildings have fallen from 18 percent to 12 percent, and net occupied office rental space has increased by 400,000 square feet. By the end of the 1990s, job creation in the Valley outstripped the rate for Los Angeles County as the Valley employed more than half of the region’s media and entertainment industry. More than 5,000 small, specialized creative firms service the region’s “cultural-industrial complex.” As a result, the residential market remains strong as apartment vacancy rates have fallen from the double digits in 1996 to under 5 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, home prices have remained relatively modest by Southern California standards, ranging from $200,000 to $300,000.

The Valley also mirrors the growing social and economic diversity of modern suburbs. While the San Fernando Valley was almost 75 percent Caucasian as recently as 1980, ethnic and racial minorities made up more than half the population by 1998. In the 1990s alone, the Latino population increased by 39 percent and the Asian population increased by 31 percent as more and more minority households migrated to the middleclass lifestyle available in the Valley. Similar ethnic and racial diversity has become evident in suburban and midopolitan communities as diverse as Queens County in New York, Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties in northern California, and Fort Bend County in suburban Houston. Much of this diversity is fueled by foreignborn immigrants who have transformed suburban areas such as Coral Gables outside Miami into ethnic and global business centers. Indeed, the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California has emerged as the nation’s largest concentration of Asian-Americans.

The key to securing a thriving economic and social future for midopolitan suburbs is developing a distinct identity and sense of place. Older suburbs with low quality housing stock and deteriorating infrastructure may continue to struggle, but the fate of midopolis does not need to be dismal. Their success will depend mostly on local entrepreneurs, government, and volunteer groups who can shape the future of these communities.

Examples of midopolitan places that have made this transformation are

  • Burbank, California, an aging older suburb that has recast itself as a post-industrial urban village, with an expanding central core and a rich array of high-tech businesses; and
  • Hempstead, New York and the Bellaire area of Houston, aging older suburbs revitalized by new waves of Latin American and Asian immigrants.

When older suburbs across America are studied, much of the gloom predicted for their future is overstated. Additionally, many of the remedies that are promulgated to reverse this decline-most notably stronger regional government-ignore the realities underlying community renaissance. Ultimately, it is the quality of a community, and the commitment of local people to enhance that quality, that proves to be the critical difference between the success and failure of the evolving midopolis.