One Fifth of America, A Comprehensive Guide to America's First Suburbs

One of the more encouraging metropolitan policy trends over the last several years is the increased attention on America’s older, inner-ring, “first” suburbs. Beginning generally with Myron Orfield’s Metropolitics in 1997, a slow but steady stream of research has started to shine a bright light on these places and begun to establish the notion that first suburbs have their own unique set of characteristics and challenges that set them apart from the rest of metropolitan America. Since then first suburbs in a few regions have assumed a small, but significant, role in advancing research and policy discussions about metropolitan growth and development.

Home to nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, first suburbs are, and have always been, important. They are generally defined as those places that developed first after their center city, before or during the rapid suburban expansion right after World War II, and before the newly developing suburbs of today. They are usually in the first ring of communities very close to the metropolitan core and often began as bedroom communities for professional, white, downtown commuters—think the Levittowns or, from television, Rob Petrie’s New Rochelle, NY and even the Brady family’s Studio City, CA home.

For many years, first suburbs fit this model of the traditional 1950s style suburb. The simple demarcations that divided “city” and “suburb” were crystal clear to most. However, a generation or so later it is apparent the old notions of cities and suburbs no longer work. For one thing, now first suburbs are highly racially diverse—more diverse than the nation as a whole—and growing more so. They are also home to more and more foreign-born residents. By 2000, about 29 percent of all immigrants in this country were in first suburbs. They are also home to some of the most expensive housing, the most highly educated residents, and those with the highest incomes. And yet, despite these positive trends first suburbs are staring down a set of looming challenges that threaten their overall stability. Expensive housing presents mounting struggles regarding affordability, especially as poverty increases in these places despite a decrease nationally.

There are also tremendous racial disparities in first suburbs, and the high incomes and education levels found there are not shared equally among all residents. In short, first suburbs are highly complex, and, in order to compete for residents, jobs and investments, they need policies that respond to their individual circumstances. Unfortunately, the interests of first suburbs appear underrepresented at the federal and state level. First suburbs often remain absent from coalitions that represent the interests of municipalities or, if they are represented, they are lumped in with larger “suburban” interests.

This general lack of appreciation of the differences between inner and outer suburbs fails to recognize their diversity, their variable assets, and the different challenges they face. The special concerns of small, first suburban jurisdictions rarely receive a fair hearing from state legislators and agencies. The lack of a common definition for talking about first suburbs and the relative shortage of empirical, quantitative information about either their current condition or what kind of changes have taken place in first suburbs over time contributes to this silence.

Additionally, the lack of a clear definition for first suburbs helps reinforce the notion that these places are caught in a policy blind spot. If we have no way of talking about these places on the national or state level how can policies respond to their particular challenges? To aid these efforts and extend the research, Brookings initiated a multi-year effort to explore trends that are occurring in first suburbs, identify common problems that may be hindering their advancement, and promote policy approaches and working alliances. This includes regional and national convenings of first suburban leaders, filling the information void on first suburbs through a series of publications, development of a policy agenda for first suburbs in the Midwest, and continued outreach and support to these places—particularly in the area of coalition building among first suburbs.

The purpose of this latest effort is four-fold: to develop a practical definition and framework for identifying first suburbs; to compare the demographic, economic and social experience of first suburbs over the past several decades with that of cities, newer suburbs and the nation; to compare these generational trends across first suburbs, giving these places their first chance to benchmark their trends and challenges against similarly situated places; and to provide an empirical foundation for federal, state and local policies geared to the particular needs and experiences of first suburbs. This document is a policy brief based on a voluminous collection of data on first suburbs. A much more detailed distillation of the trends discussed here can be found in an accompanying data report along with a deeper recitation of the methodology used herein.

Through this work, it is our hope that this information will help advance the discussions and debates around first suburbs. What is more, we hope that as important national concerns continue to play out in first suburbs—concerns such as immigration, race, poverty, governance, and housing—first suburbs will provide important lessons for the future.

Mr. James Moore

Mr. James Moore

Related Practice

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