The future of urban settlement? Look in the suburbs


Let’s look at general urban settlement and suburbia from a geographic and demographic, not a planning or ideological viewpoint. There’s really no point to the fruitless and unscientific harangues about how people ought to live or about allegedly better or poorer forms of settlement. This is really trying to understand what is happening in the metropolitan level of settlement, agglomerations of at least 50,000 and their commuter hinterlands --- where at least 80 percent of Americans live.

Definitions: I will use terms precisely. The central city is the historic, largest core incorporated place (OK, there are a few with 2 or 3 core cities). Suburbs are the rest of the urbanized area and may be usefully be differentiated between older, inner and newer, outer suburbs. Exurbia is the area of intense commuting to the urban core from beyond the urbanized area boundary, and it can be differentiated between rural territory (a.k.a. “sprawl”) and satellite towns.

As of 2000 “central cities” had 70 million persons (25 %) of the population, suburbs 120 million people (43 %) and exurbia up to 36 million (12 %). That puts the suburban and exurban share to well over 50 percent of the US total population, not even including the suburbs or smaller towns and cities.

Even worse for urban boosters, the suburbs --- and particularly the exurbs --- is where the growth is. In the Seattle metropolitan area, which is under unusually strong growth management restrictions and has a stronger than usual urban core, growth continues to head outwards, with inner, outer suburbs, as well as exurbs easily adding many more people than the central city.

The question now is whether this pattern will hold for a longer term or whether significant change can be expected. My sense is that these trends will broadly continue ---that suburban and exurban growth will continue to be greater than central city growth, despite the passing of peak oil, the passion of anti-suburb intellectual currents, the energy crisis and new urbanist planning policies. But central cities will probably do somewhat better than they have in the last 20 years. So it is sensible to ask: what are forces for and against central city, suburban and exurban growth; and, as important, how will the character of these components of urban settlement change?


The combination of many suburban empty nesters, later marriage and fewer children for generation X’ers (those born 1965-1981) should foster selective central city growth . But this appears to apply only for the subset of more glamorous cities with a well-developed amenity structure. . But these cities often suffer housing price inflation and strong anti-growth lobbies which constrain may constrain growth. Many, perhaps most, cities lack the appeal to attract population in from lower-density areas.

Older inner suburbs represent a zone of significant change between and the traditional newer middle class family suburbs and the gentrifying or stagnant central cities. Some are receiving the displaced poor and minorities; some have matured into quality communities, and, like parts of the central city 50 years earlier, are still attractive to families, with or without children, as well as many recent immigrants.

Housing prices and taxes vary greatly across the US, which will like push movement toward lower cost places, including to non-metropolitan small towns and rural areas. This may be particularly true for those with adequate retirement income. But middle class families remain a huge demographic component for far suburban and exurban living (see market forces below).

On balance, demographic forces seem to reinforce existing patterns rather than favor either central cities or suburbs, or more rapid non-metropolitan growth.

Economic factors

Economic changes are even more uncertain. The vast expansion of producer services to replace the huge decline in primary and secondary (manufacturing) jobs clearly is in some jeopardy, as evidenced by the problems evident finance and insurance sector. The key is whether American entrepreneurs can partially restore a greater industrial base. In general, suburban and exurban sites are likely to be cheaper, more politically pliable and more available than central city sites, particularly compared to more elite gentrified core cities. A partial recovery of production in some less glamorous cities with available idle plant could occur but does not seem very likely.

Energy, technology, environment, and cars

Most observers concerned with the “end of oil” and with global warming argue that these will inevitably drive people to denser concentrations of settlement in central cities and older inner suburbs. They even predict a decline in far suburban and exurban settlement. US technological history, however, suggests that if innovation and investment take place anywhere, it will likely be on alternative energy sources, conspicuously including the continued popularity and dominance of trucks and cars. Nevertheless, persistent high energy prices could yield some acceptance of moderately higher densities for housing and business, and a slightly higher growth in central cities and older inner suburbs.

Market forces

Markets refer to preferences and needs, and the willingness to pay among households and businesses. There is relatively little uncertainty as to preferences. Even in the biggest metropolises, no more than 30 to 40 percent of households prefer denser urban settings and enjoy apartment or townhouse living. For the nation as a whole, the share is only 10-15 percent! Those who prefer it tend to be younger, unmarried persons and empty nesters without children and are (or will be) more educated and professional than the US norm. But 60 to 70 percent of households, and not just families with children, prefer single family homes and cars. These households will pay or MOVE in order to act on these preferences. At the same time perhaps 35 to 45 percent of jobs thrive in dense urban settings, as downtown towers, leaving 55 to 65 percent to seek less dense suburban and exurban settings, often by logistic necessity. These are the continuing and overwhelming facts that created and will sustain suburban living.


Intellectual hatred of suburbia is a century old and has been especially fervent in the last 60 years. From the late 1970s the planning profession has embraced what has come to be called “new urbanism,” advocating urban containment, urban redevelopment, densification, urban villages, and a new wave of rail transit, now under the broad rubric of growth management. These efforts often have been strongly supported by environmental groups concerned with the loss of open space as well as by central city political and business interests.

Several metropolitan areas are becoming increasingly regulated by such planning ideology. But to date the movement has not been successful at significantly slowing suburban or exurban growth. A few central cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Portland, have gentrified, but have not grown much in population, since the mass of new housing is occupied by much smaller non-family households. Costs of growth management include displacement of minority and less affluent families, often to the older suburbs or to other neighborhoods of the core city.


Market preferences have prevailed. Businesses as well as households have resisted substantial concentration or been priced out of the gentrifying core. So the suburbs persist. But they have changed, especially in those more regulated metropolises. The older inner suburbs have become more central-city like, with more diversity in ethnicity and class. But this has not slowed the long-standing trend of net growth of housing and of jobs at the suburban edge – even in the most growth managed cities, and even in the most recent 2000-2007 period.

Richard Morrill is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Washington. His research interests include: political geography (voting behavior, redistricting, local governance), population/demography/settlement/migration, urban geography and planning, urban transportation (i.e., old fashioned generalist).

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Talking past each other

Reading this blog, I frequently get the sense that you "defenders of suburbia" and we "urban boosters" are talking past each other. Your general arguments is that the suburbs have cheaper housing, that they contain the most growth, and that people prefer them. Our general argument is that urban form is more sustainable, it provides a better quality of life, and that it provides better transportation options.

So while you generally discuss location, we generally discuss form. You don't to realize that most urban boosters are not offended in the least that suburban towns are booming with growth and economic activity. That's wonderful. We simply want to improve the form of that development so that better transportation options are available.

Another common argument, particularly from Mr. Cox, is that growth regulations drive up the cost of housing. This is undoubtedly true, and planners need to consider that as a consequence of regulation. However, this does not negate the importance of encouraging urban form. It may be time to look for other planning tools that can better encourage urban form without driving up the cost of housing.

This blog frequently frustrates me, because most posts seem so aggressive towards planners. Yet, it seems your arguments are unrelated to ours. Mr. Kotkin, please consider adding posts from "urban boosters" who may balance the tone of the rest of your authors.

thank you

thanks for your comments, we ere a bit on the suburban side, perhaps it's because we feel that pt of view has been pretty well left out of the planning debate

but wendell and dick are of course poles apart politically. we have published pieces by new urbanists like rick cole and city boosters like
paul levy. we and not anti-city at all. we just like to see what is for real.

many of our writers and editors also live in cities, as do i. but we are very welcome to frank writers who realize that city's biggest problems are social and economic, not planning oriented or aesthetic