Welcome to the ‘Exit Ramp’ Economy

Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University

May 13, 2001

To understand what suburbs will look like as the 21st century unfolds, we need to consider what suburbs look like as the 21st century begins.

Despite signs of urban revitalization, particularly in cities like Boston and Providence, the 2000 US Census confirms that suburbs continue to dominate our country’s economic, social, and political landscape.

Clearly, the decentralization of economic and residential life remains the dominant growth pattern in the United States.

Yet suburbs are no longer just bedroom communities for workers commuting to traditional downtowns. Rather, many are now strong employment centers serving a variety of economic functions in their regions.

The American economy is becoming an exit-ramp economy, with office, commercial, and retail facilities increasingly located along suburban freeways.

This is particularly true in hot tech markets like Washington, D.C., Austin, and Boston, where firms like America Online, Dell, and Raytheon have built large exurban campuses far from the city center.

Suburbs are also becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

For example, a recent study of the Greater Washington, D.C., area, the fifth-largest magnet for immigrants in the 1990s, showed that 87 percent of new arrivals settled in suburban communities. An incredible 46 percent of new arrivals, particularly from Asia, settled outside the area’s Beltway, traditionally the demarcation between older, urbanized communities and newer, suburban communities.

Finally, suburbs are becoming more economically and physically diverse.

At one end of the continuum lie suburbs built in the early or mid-part of the 20th century that are experiencing central city-like challenges – aging infrastructure, deteriorating schools and commercial corridors, and inadequate housing.

Like cities, these older communities require reinvestment and redevelopment. In some cases, like the southern suburbs of Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, and Chicago, they also require broader responses to the issues presented by populations that contain disproportionate numbers of working poor families and aging homeowners.

At the other end of the suburban continuum lie the newest ring of suburbs emerging at the fringe of metropolitan areas. These places – Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, Douglas County outside Denver, and the Route 495 corridor around Boston – are growing at a feverish pace. Yet it is a particular kind of growth – sprawling, low-density, and auto-dependent.

For residents in these communities, suburban prosperity has come with the heavy, unanticipated price of traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, disappearing open space, and diminished quality of life.

In many metropolitan areas, the changing face of suburbia is fueling an intense debate about the quality, pace, and shape of growth. An odd assortment of constituencies – employers, environmentalists, conservationists, religious and political leaders, and regular citizens – are taking action to address the related challenges of different kinds of suburbs.

In many metropolitan areas, frustration with this type of suburban growth is leading to important change in government regulations and programs that in the past have tended to drive development outward.

States like Maryland and New Jersey are experimenting with new ”smart growth” policies that target spending on roads, infrastructure, and schools in older suburban communities.

States like Minnesota and Georgia are creating new kinds of regional authorities to govern issues like transportation and affordable housing.

In the 1998 and 2000 elections, voters throughout the country approved ballot referendums that devote substantial resources to the preservation of open space and the redevelopment of polluted urban land.

If these reforms in states across the country continue and expand, and if localities follow through with their own land and development changes, the look and function of many American suburbs may change markedly in coming decades. Some may embrace thoughtful design and planning to revitalize compact town centers. Others may attempt to better integrate industrial and office parks into residential and commercial life.

In general, there may be a lot less sprawl and a lot more attention paid to the positive attributes of traditional communities.

In the end, the suburbs of the next century will offer Americans a greater range of community choices.

As in other aspects of our consumer lives, suburbs will be remade (or newly constructed) to meet a variety of demands, needs and desires. As America changes as we grow older, as we grow more diverse, as our economy transforms, our suburbs will change with us.