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. …