Metropolitan Areas: Regional Difference

By Pack, Janet Rothenberg | Brookings Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Metropolitan Areas: Regional Difference

Pack, Janet Rothenberg, Brookings Review

The new argument in the urban research Literature of the 1990s is that the economic health of cities and suburbs is closely Linked, with the prosperity of suburban communities, in particular, depending on that of the central city. Suburbs that ignore the decline of their central cities cannot, despite their strong belief to the contrary, go it alone. The well-being of entire metropolitan areas hinges on intra-metropolitan cooperation--and on public policies that encourage city-suburb cooperation in infrastructure planning and financing, tax-base sharing, school finance reform, school district consolidation, and Land use planning.

The new focus on increased metropolitan cooperation stems from the much higher poverty and crime rates in the cities and the greater growth of both population and employment opportunities in suburbs, but also on a body of research on links between growth rates of cities and suburbs within metropolitan areas. For example, Richard Voith has shown that although the relationship between population growth in cities and suburbs of the Northeast and Midwest in the 1960s was negative--that is, as cities lost population, suburbs gained--the relationship turned positive in the 1970s and 1980s--the greater the gain, or the smaller the loss in city population, the greater the growth in their suburbs. Income growth in cities and suburbs also appears to have been unrelated in the 1960s but positively correlated in the 1970s and 1980s. These data have led many researchers to conclude that the city-suburb competition of the 1960s gave way to complementarity in the 1970s and 1980s. Going further, Voith, Anthony Downs, and H.V. Savitch believe the causality in this relationship runs from city to suburb.

Nonetheless, in most older metropolitan areas in the Northeast and Midwest, population in the cities continues to decline, population in the suburbs continues to grow, and city incomes are far lower than those in the suburbs. By contrast, in the South and even more in the West, both city and suburban areas have grown. The generalization that the fates of suburbs and their central cities are inextricably entwined seems premature.

Large interregional disparities in metropolitan development, in particular in city and suburban growth patterns, suggest the need for flexible urban policy rather than for one-size-fits-all metropolitanism. If city-suburb disparities in some U.S. regions are relatively small and if cities and suburbs are both growing, there may, for example, be less reason for urging greater metropolitan policy coordination. Even in slowly growing regions, increased coordination may reduce disparities between cities and their suburbs but may not increase city growth rates enough to reduce the disparities among regions. In short, in formulating urban policy generally, it may be necessary to heed regional implications.

Population and Income Growth

Figures 1 and 2 show the 1960-90 growth rates in both population and per capita income for metropolitan-area cities and suburbs in different regions of the United States. They show strong regional differences even though the overall relationship (shown by the dashed line), for both population and income in metropolitan-area cities and suburbs is clearly positive (with the dispersion of symbols indicating substantial variation around the average relationship).


The regional population pattern is clear from the clustering of metropolitan areas in the same region along different segments of the graph. Nearly all the cities in the Northeast lost population, as did many in the Midwest.

As the height of the regional lines shows, suburban population grew most in the West and least in the Midwest. The dispersion of the observations around the lines shows the extent of variation within regions. The South and West show wide differences in suburban growth rates, the Northeast and Midwest much less. …

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