The city/suburb distinction is an often referred to dichotomy in the world of local policy enthusiasts. For example, today in the Atlantic Cities, Eric Jaffe published an article critiquing a recent report showing faster growth rates in cities than in suburbs. While this distinction is widely accepted, it should be re-examined in light of the current state of localities.
Last spring, in my Local Government Law class, my professor asked the class, how many of you grew up in the suburbs? After thinking about this question, I could not come up with an answer. I lived in Jacksonville, FL for much of my childhood. My apartments were within the city’s boundaries but not in downtown. However, the part of town I grew up in was heavily populated. In fact, it was more densely populated than Jacksonville’s downtown at the time. Given these characteristics, did I live in the city or the suburbs when I lived in Jacksonville?
I also spent a substantial amount of time living in Phoenix, AZ. I lived near the Tempe/Phoenix border. The area I lived in had many multi-family housing buildings, access to public transportation, and large building complexes. It looked and felt like nearly every part of Phoenix I visited, except for the downtown core (which was mainly a business district). Furthermore, right across the border in Tempe, I noticed the same community features. Was Tempe and where I lived the city or the suburbs?
Currently, I live in Somerville, MA. Many people I talk to consider Somerville to be a part of Boston - a part of the city. In contrast, Waltham (a town 10 minutes away from Somerville) is often viewed as a suburb. However, Somerville and Waltham do not appear different. Somerville is slightly bigger in population (76,000 vs. 61,000) but it has similar style buildings, similar traffic, and similar public spaces. So, can Waltham really be labeled a suburb and Somerville be seen as the city?
My difficulty in answering these questions leads me to question the validity of the city/suburb distinction. It is true that in the U.S. there are some places that are inarguably cities and others that are definitely suburbs. But, for the most part, it seems difficult to separately identify these conceptions of the local.
The city/suburb distinction may hold if we narrowly define the city. Many indeed do this, asserting that the “city center” (i.e. downtown) is the city. However, my experiences in Somerville, Jacksonville, and Phoenix illustrate that many places outside of city centers have characteristics that are city-like, even if they don’t have a plethora of high-rises. It seems odd to label these dense places with substantial infrastructure as suburbs simply because they are not downtown.
It may be more accurate to view our localities through the lens of a metropolitan area rather than the city/suburb distinction. Cities are spilling out to surrounding areas. Areas that were formerly suburbs are more city-like and many downtowns are more suburb-like with respect to residential density, a key indicator of what is a city.
In addition to being an invalid distinction, the city/suburb divide may be harmful. These labels come with certain stereotypes and assumptions that could undermine efforts to strengthen and revitalize our localities. For example, we think of the suburb as a place filled with wealthy White people, but many places considered suburbs have a growing population of impoverished minorities (See Weir, Challenging Inequality in the New Metropolis). Stereotypes about who lives in suburbs may cause policymakers and non-profits to neglect this trend.
For the sake of our localities, I hope we re-examine this seemingly false divide.