The Midwest’s Small Suburbs


I’ve been examining data lately, revisiting a topic I’m mentioned in the past, namely the smaller sizes of suburbs in Midwest cities compared to other parts of the country. This applies to much of the US east of the Mississippi as well.

West of that river, there are a number of states and regions where there are large suburbs, some of them ranking among the largest municipalities in the country. For example, here are the ten largest suburbs of Dallas-Ft.Worth:

Suburb Population
Arlington, TX 398,112
Plano TX, 288,061
Garland, TX 242,507
Irving, TX 242,242
Grand Prairie, TX 194,614
McKinney, TX 191,645
Frisco, TX 188,170
Denton city, TX 138,541
Carrollton, TX 136,879
Richardson, TX 120,981

And here are the suburbs of Denver with a population greater than 100,000. Aurora especially is large.

Suburb Population
Aurora, CO 374,114
Lakewood, CO 156,798
Thornton, CO 139,436
Arvada, CO 120,492
Westminster, CO 113,479
Centennial, CO 110,831

The Midwest just doesn’t have that many large suburbs. Some major metro areas don’t even have a single suburban municipality with more than 100,000 residents. If you pull the list of largest municipalities in these states, the top ten are frequently dominated by or have strong representation from core cities of small metros.

Those suburbs that are large are frequently what Pete Saunders labeled “captured satellites.” That is, they were established, independent cities with their own history and identities that got swallowed up by suburbanization. Hence their size results from having previously been a genuine core city in their own right.

In the Chicago area, for example, four of the five largest suburbs – Aurora, Joliet, Elgin, and Waukegan – are classified as captured satellites by Pete. Incidentally, these four, the largest of which is Aurora at 199,602, are all among the top ten municipalities in the state. Excluding these, here are the ten largest Illinois suburbs:

Suburb Population
Naperville, IL 148,304
Cicero, IL 81,597
Arlington Heights, IL 75,249
Bollingbrook, IL 75,178
Evanston, IL 74,106
Schaumburg, IL 73,509
Palatine, IL 68,053
Skokie, IL 63,280
Des Plaines, IL 58,959
Orland Park, IL 58,312

Compared with Dallas and Denver, Chicago only has one true suburb with more than 100,000 people.

Detroit has a couple of suburbs that reach this threshold. Here are the top ten in that region:

Suburb Population
Warren, MI 134,587
Sterling Heights, MI 132,964
Dearborn, MI 94,333
Livonia, MI 93,971
Troy, MI 84,272
Westland, MI 81,720
Farmington Hill, MI 81,093
Rochester Hills, MI 74,696
Southfield, MI 73,158
Taylor, MI 61,148

Detroit’s suburbs are often square shaped, as they follow township boundaries. I believe many of them are townships that incorporated. This limits the population these places can achieve at suburban densities, given the typical Midwest township size of 6×6 miles.

I believe the same township orientation is true in Minneapolis-St. Paul, which also has a lot of square suburbs, the biggest suburb is only 85,578 people. Keep in mind, MSP’s population is 700,000 more than Denver’s. Here are MSP’s ten largest suburbs.

Suburb Population
Bloomington, MN 85,578
Brooklyn Park, MN 80,610
Plymouth, MN 79,450
Maple Grove, MN 71,807
Woodbury, MN 71,306
Eagan, MN 66,527
Lakeville, MN 65,877
Blaine, MN 65,212
Eden Prairie, MN 64,334
Coon Rapids, MN 62,527

In Indianapolis, a much smaller region, the suburbs are tending to be limited roughly by township boundaries as well, primarily because those are the most logical lines for next door suburbs to agree to in mutually setting their annexation limits. Now that we are reaching these smaller metros, I’m only listing suburbs with more then 50,000 people.

Suburb Population
Carmel, IN 93,510
Fishers, IN 93,362
Noblesville, IN 63,133
Greenwood, IN 58,778

Technically Anderson could be on this list, but it’s clearly a satellite city that just got roped into the metro area through county addition to the region. It’s not really a suburb so I’m excluding it.

Thing get smaller from there. Here’s Cleveland’s suburb list:

Suburb Population
Parma, OH 78,751
Lorain, OH 64,028
Elyria, OH 53,881
Lakewood, OH 50,100

Pete classifies Lorain as a captured satellite, and Jason Segedy from Akron says Elyria is one too. So Cleveland as a very limited number of decent sized true suburbs.

Cincinnati only has one suburb with more than 50,000 people, and it is classified as a captured satellite by Pete.

Suburb Population
Hamilton, OH 62,174

Columbus doesn’t have any real suburbs with more than 50,000 people. Newark is over the limit, but I believe is similar to Anderson, IN in that it’s not really a suburb but a satellite city. So I’m excluding it. Dublin is getting close to the 50,000 person threshold in the Columbus area.

Here are Milwaukee’s suburbs:

Suburb Population
Waukesha, WI 72,549
West Allis, WI 59,492

And St. Louis, whose regional population trails Denver’s by only 100,000.

Suburb Population
O’Fallon, MO 88,472
St. Charles, MO 70,764
St. Peters, MO 57,127
Florissant, MO 51,272

Kansas City is interesting. Its largest two suburbs are in Kansas. The only Missouri suburb over 100,000 is Independence, which Pete classifies as a captured satellite.

Suburb Population
Overland Park, KS 192,536
Olathe, KS 139,605
Independence, MO 116,925
Lee’s Summit, MO 98,461
Shawnee, KS 65,845
Blue Springs, MO 57,127
Lenexa, KS 55,294

It would be interesting to know what about the laws or history of Missouri vs. Kansas may have caused this. It’s also interesting to me that KC has larger suburbs vs. its Midwest peers, and is also the city that extends furthest into the West, being well west of the Mississippi River.

Midwest cities tend to have a fragmented geopolitical landscape and relatively small sized suburban municipalities. Most of these are too small to have the scale to do a lot of things. Scale doesn’t necessarily save you, but it does open up possibilities. I think it’s interesting to think about what you can do at 50,000, then at 100,000 people, etc. Once it gets to the size of a Plano, Texas, then these places can be cities in their own right.

Again, this is not unique to the Midwest. The Northeast is very, very fragmented and has tons of small municipalities and unincorporated township areas. Atlanta is a huge metro area with only one suburb having a population of more than 100,000 (Sandy Springs at 108,797).

Please verify these numbers before using. I pulled them quickly and copy/pasted them into the tables. Also, I may have missed a suburb in some of these places, as I don’t know all the suburbs everywhere. This is just to get the conversation going.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.