The Suburban Challenge

Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley

The suburb is one of America’s most treasured stereotypes. Writers can argue whether suburbs are the apotheosis of the American Dream or a suffocating nightmare of sameness, but there’s general agreement on their defining characteristics. Suburbs are middle-class family values expressed in stucco, brick and carpet grass. They’re all the things that America’s noisy, diverse, striving, poor cities are not.

But the suburbs as we think of them are vanishing.

They no longer represent a retreat from the tumult of American life, but the locus of it. What do we do now that they resemble our cities, in good ways and bad?

Suburbs now provide more jobs than cities. Only about 22 percent of jobs in major metropolitan areas are located within three miles of a traditional downtown; twice as many are more than 10 miles out. Suburbs also host more immigrants: in the largest metropolitan areas, nearly six in 10 foreign-born residents now live in the suburbs. In places like Charlotte, N.C., Minneapolis, Sacramento, Calif., and Washington, the first address of many new Americans is most likely down a suburban lane.

Then there are the downsides. Nationwide, a million more suburbanites are living below the poverty line than city dwellers. Suburban St. Louis County, Mo., has 50 percent more working-poor families than the city of St. Louis itself. The mortgage crisis only adds to the problems. The foreclosure rate in Clayton County, which encompasses many of Atlanta’s southern suburbs, is twice as high as that in Atlanta. Homes in neighborhoods close to downtown Chicago, Pittsburgh and Portland, Ore., have held their value, while prices for homes far from those urban cores have plummeted, according to new research by Joe Cortright, an economist at Impresa Consulting.

America can’t ensure its leading place in the global economy unless we grapple with the problems and opportunities of our suburbs. Nonprofits, long focused on inner cities, need to reach out to poor families and immigrants in the suburbs. The federal government should support the production and preservation of affordable housing there. Even more important, Washington needs to recognize that suburban governments are being flattened by the housing crisis—they don’t have the experience or the capacity to slow the tide of foreclosures or deal with neighborhoods strafed by vacancies. The Feds need to use some of the billions in recovery funding to help local governments buy up foreclosed properties and put that land to productive use.

The challenge goes beyond the current crisis. The mental line between city and suburb no longer makes much sense; policies need to treat metropolitan areas as a whole. Washington should support regional clusters for high-tech industries and other sectors. Such clusters foster innovation and economic growth, and they don’t gather neatly in one municipality or another. That’s why we speak of Silicon Valley and Route 128, rather than San Jose or Boston. Federal job-training funds should reflect the way metropolitan economies actually work: in clusters of firms that span boundaries.

And all levels of government need to reinvent the physical landscape. We need to create walkable communities and more public transit to link people in the burbs to jobs, schools, concert halls and sports fields that may be in the next neighborhood, the next municipality or the next county. As much as they may love their SUVs, suburbanites would benefit from lower greenhouse-gas emissions, less traffic and higher housing values (proximity to transit boosts home prices).

The federal government has a key role to play by providing funds and lowering regulatory hurdles. Certainly President Barack Obama seems aware of the challenge: he has decried the “outdated ‘urban’ agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas” and has pledged “a strategy that’s about South Florida as much as Miami; that’s about Mesa and Scottsdale as much as Phoenix; that’s about Stamford and northern New Jersey as much as New York City.” His office of urban policy promises to be the generator of that strategy.

The end of the (traditional) suburbs was inevitable. Hopeful, mobile Americans may once have thought they could leave behind the pressures, demands and compromises of city life. But social concerns inexorably follow society. Our leaders, starting with a metro-minded president, now have to make the mental jump across the urban-suburban boundary, and catch up.