What to Do With a Broken Suburb?

April 27, 2011 By Riordan Frost, Policy Associate

Suburbs aren't emptying at any rapid pace, but their growth in Minnesota has significantly slowed. While the latest suburban counties' census maps indicate major increases, this was mainly due to rapid growth in the past decade's early years. Population growth slowed significantly in the later years. Some suburbs within those counties even lost population while the suburban poverty rate rose.

Now that the decennial census data has been released, we can compare growth rates in the aughts (2000s) to those in the nineties. The changes are impressive, and the Pioneer Press crafted an infographic charting them in the east metro. Having a decreased population growth still means that the counties are growing. Still, some first-ring suburbs have actually declined in population for several reasons, which MinnPost's Steve Berg examines.

This is all happening in the landscape of increasing suburban poverty rates. According to a Brookings Institute report, "by 2008, suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country." "The Suburbanization of Poverty" tracks trends from 2000-2008, finding the Midwest home to the country's largest increase in suburban poverty rates.

This combination of slowed suburban population growth and increased poverty rates is not good news for the suburbs or the people below the poverty line. Suburbs are largely designed for and dependent upon cars. Having a car carries a great deal of costs, from maintenance to (steadily increasing) gas prices, and this makes them a large burden for impoverished people. The fact that far-flung suburbs are designed for cars means that they're typically under-served by transit.

The lack of diversified suburban transportation systems is not only a problem for getting to work. In Theresa Everline's piece, "Surviving Suburbia," in the Next American City magazine's Summer 2010 issue, Everline profiled a social service agency in a northwestern Chicago suburb. Due to the recession, the agency saw its clients served increase sevenfold from 2001 to 2009. A significant barrier for the agency's clients is how to get to the building.

Many suburbs were designed with the assumption that their residents would always have the ability to commute. While some suburbs emphasized extensive commercial development, others were content to stay primarily—if not entirely—residential. 'Bedroom communities' are a perfect example of this type of development. The big problem is that these communities have little to no amenities for their residents. For people without cars, this translates into food deserts—potentially much larger than the food deserts in cities—and limited access to necessary public services and health care.

All of that paints a rather gloomy picture. So what should we do to improve these suburbs? One good suggestion is presented by Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. In an interview with the New York Times, she expressed excitement at the prospect of suburban shopping malls closing down. As she sees it, whenever a mall in the suburbs fails, there is a chance to turn it into a mixed-use downtown that suburbs never had. Dunham-Jones focuses on the elderly population in suburbs in the interview, pointing to the increasing number of aging people in those communities. These people lose their mobility, and their ideal suburban homes turn into islands of isolation. The same can be said for people below the poverty line.

Moving away from a community may be undesirable or economically infeasible for aging or poor populations. That's why  Dunham-Jones believes the "downtown" or "town center" concept, with commercial and residential space as well as improved transit, is a workable solution.

This is what cities focused on smart growth and transit-oriented development have been doing regularly, but it is time to spread some of this thinking to the suburbs. Some suburbs are making steps in this direction, as the Pioneer Press reports, but the steps need to be larger and more widespread. This will make suburbs more sustainable, both economically and environmentally. It will also be vital for the mobility and quality of life of those who cannot or do not drive—as well as for those who do.

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