First Suburbs in the Northeast and Midwest: Assets, Challenges, and Opportunities
Puentes, Robert, Fordham Urban Law Journal
The dominant trend in metropolitan America today is the decentralization of people and jobs. This trend is evidenced by an exploding exurban fringe, coupled with slow or no growth in the urban core. The trend is mostly evident in Northeastern and Midwestern metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Norfolk, where suburbs are gaining residents and central cities are losing them. The trend is also evident in Ohio, where suburban job growth in the late 1990s outpaced central business districts by nearly 300 to one. (1) The suburbs have emerged as key players in American life: their residents constitute over half of the nation's population and their elected officials occupy the majority of congressional seats.
While much has been written about suburbs in general, there is little research relating to the conditions of older, inner-ring or "first" suburbs. What is the state of first suburbs? Are they growing, stagnating, or declining? Are they facing challenges similar to central cities and newer suburbs, or are their challenges unique? Some Northeastern and Midwestern first suburbs are finding they have more in common with central cities than newly developing suburbs. Both cities and first suburbs are coping with population and job loss; declining household incomes and tax bases; changing demographics; aging housing and infrastructure; and general instability. That being said, not all first suburbs are declining. Some of the most stable and affluent communities in the country are first suburban areas. Many first suburbs, however, missed out on the nation's recent economic prosperity and reinvestment. This has rendered some of them stagnant.
First suburbs often begin to decline as younger, wealthier residents, employers, and retail businesses move further out in search of a perceived higher quality of life. Left behind are those without the fiscal resources to contribute to the public coffers (in terms of augmenting the tax base) and the elderly, who may lack the physical ability to maintain their homes and communities. Attenuating tax bases, rising expenditures, and lack of investments make first suburban infrastructure difficult to maintain. These problems are compounded by the fact that government investments favor newly developing exurbs with new schools, roadways, and other infrastructure. (2)
Regardless of whether a suburb is healthy or declining, a new urban policy that reconsiders old notions of "cities" and "suburbs" is required. 1950s-style, Ozzie & Harriet suburbanization no longer accurately describes either first suburbs or new exurbs. Suburbs are no longer homogeneous affluent bedroom communities: they are very diverse in terms of employment, income, and racial composition.
This piece refers throughout to "first suburbs" and "first suburban areas." Since there is no national typology, many different monikers are used to describe such suburbs, such as "older" and "inner-ring" suburbs. First suburbs are older than the newly developing suburbs: they grew up before and immediately after World War II. They are the closest suburbs to the central cities, often beginning as bedroom communities for central city workers. Compared to center cities and outer suburbs, they have smaller populations and weaker governments. They have little land for development and are heavily dependent on residential taxes to provide basic services.
At the same time, newly developing communities on the suburban fringe are pushing outward at an incredible rate, taking with them jobs and wealthier central city and first suburban residents. As companies and middle-class families leave, the tax bases of first suburbs shrink, leaving them without the wherewithal to combat working poverty, disinvestment, and failing schools. But unlike central cities, first suburbs generally lack a sophisticated government infrastructure to cope with such problems. The result is that when these problems hit the first suburbs, they gain traction. Without a fundamental shift in our investment policies, many first suburbs will continue to decline.
I. ASSETS AND ADVANTAGES
Similar to central cities, first suburbs are where the issues that define our nation's future--economic growth, race, poverty, immigration, and education--are played out. First suburbs have unique attractions: established neighborhoods connected by sidewalks and interwoven with parks; easy access to downtown's commercial and entertainment districts; and the intangible benefit that accrues to places that have existed for decades--a sense of community.
Some of the advantages of a first suburb are as follows:
Functional Land Use. First suburbs in the Midwest and Northeast were developed before suburban expansion, increased automobile use, and exclusionary zoning. Thus, they often have more mixed uses. These patterns create a more functional jobs-to-housing balance and more walkable neighborhoods. They also facilitate frequent and regular transit service and the creation of civic spaces.
Established Infrastructure. Transportation, water, sewer, hospitals, and schools are already established in first suburbs. The costs of construction were borne long ago. Although the infrastructure must be maintained and sometimes rehabilitated, it provides the framework to guide future development. It is often cheaper to maintain and even expand existing infrastructure than to build new infrastructure on greenfield sites. (3)
Transportation Alternatives. Many Midwestern and Northeastern first suburbs have taken advantage of transportation investments that serve central cities in a radial format. (4) Because their densities are high, and because of their proximity to central cities, first suburbs often have good transit connections. Furthermore, first suburbs were built when sidewalks were the rule, not the exception. Pedestrian activities are not only possible, but probable. Contrast this with newly developed suburbs, which offer only one transportation mode: the automobile.
Neighborhood Design. Throughout the Midwest and Northeast, many historic districts and housing options remain in first suburbs. Since these are established communities, they often have natural amenities not found in newer developments: sidewalks, stately trees, established parks, and recognizable neighborhoods. Because of development patterns, there is also a wider, although concentrated, availability of affordable housing. Older communities are generally considered to have more character and identity. (5) For the prospective buyer, there may be more choices in housing style since housing probably does not simply reflect the design of a single developer. First suburbs already have the types of design standards that architects and developers are trying to replicate in new urbanist developments.
Elderly/Children Amenities. Schools in first suburban areas are often accessible by foot or short trips on public transit. (6) This inevitably makes children's commutes safer and predictable. Children become more familiar with their neighborhoods and more aware of their surroundings. The elderly similarly benefit from the lack of auto-dependence. Since houses tend to be smaller and at higher densities, they are more accessible and easier to maintain than those in auto-dependent developments.
Convenience and Centrality. Infrastructure and land use patterns make first suburbs in the Midwest and Northeast more convenient. Amenities are often closer together and easier to access. First suburban households can offer short commutes to the central city for one wage earner and suburban exit ramps for another wage earner. Residents can still take advantage of the benefits of a central city: universities, culture, health care, sporting events, and other entertainment. Another measure of convenience is travel time to work. In 1990, in the Philadelphia region, travel time was 26.7 minutes in the core, 22.8 minutes in first suburbs, and 24.4 minutes in the rest of the region. (7) Travel time was shortest in first suburbs because fifty-seven percent of these residents commute to jobs located in the first suburbs. (8) Research in the Philadelphia region has found higher sale prices of homes in locations with lower travel times to the central city. (9)
Redevelopment opportunities. In some first suburbs, developers are buying smaller parcels left empty when development first swept across the suburbs. While it is more challenging to build in first suburban areas, developers are pursuing these opportunities because, in most cases, new homes are sold quickly. (10) In some cases, dilapidated housing is torn down or brownfields are renovated with new housing.
II. WHY DO SOME FIRST SUBURBS DECLINE?
Recent analysis shows that many first suburban areas in the Midwest and Northeast are declining. (11) This usually occurs in conjunction with the decline of central cities. There are many complex reasons why some suburbs decline and …
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Publication information: Article title: First Suburbs in the Northeast and Midwest: Assets, Challenges, and Opportunities. Contributors: Puentes, Robert - Author. Journal title: Fordham Urban Law Journal. Volume: 29. Issue: 4 Publication date: April 2002. Page number: 1469+. © 2009 Fordham Urban Law Journal. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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