How will the Suburbs Cope with Poverty?

Lance Freeman's picture
The terms Central city, Inner city and urban have long been synonymous with the poorer, disadvantaged minority sections of metropolitan areas. Conversely, the suburbs have been associated with whites, affluence and job growth. For a long time, however, this dichotomy has failed to capture the gradual blurring of distinctive patterns that demarcate city from suburb. A recent Brookings report by Kenya Covington, Michael Stoll and yours truly underscores this point. The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, the single largest affordable housing program in the country is almost as prevalent in the suburbs as in central cities. Moreover, over the 2000-2008 period the rate at which black and Latino voucher recipients suburbanized outpaced that of white voucher recipients. Gone are the days when poverty of the type associated with affordable housing was an urban problem.  This report comes on the heels of another study by Elizabeth Kneebone and Emily Garr that showed that the suburban poverty population now exceeded that found in central cities (it should be noted that size of the total suburban population is much larger, and hence the suburban poverty rate is still lower than the central city poverty rate).

These trends have enormous implications for planning. Particularly when we consider the resources needed to address urban poverty. At least one of the roots of planning grew from progressives' concerns with the slums of the early industrial city. Progressives' concerns were motivated by both self-interest and noblesse oblige. But the fact that the progressives often lived in the same cities as the poor meant they could not always easily ignore the poor and that the interests of the two groups' often overlapped because they were residents of the same cities. Although poor city dwellers were in many ways better off than their rural counterparts, living in the city made them more visible and sparked some progressive reforms.

The suburbanization of poverty, however, runs the risk of isolating the poor from the infrastructure that can help ameliorate some of the challenges of poverty. Anchor institutions such as hospital and universities, and major corporate headquarters are still more likely to be found in central cities. More importantly, while suburbs as a whole are becoming more diverse individual suburban jurisdictions, which are often relatively small, can still be relatively homogenous.

Will the increasing suburbanization of poverty serve to further isolate the poor or will it serve as springboard to escape poverty? Good planning certainly has a role to play here.

Lance Freeman is an associate professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University.



Maybe changing the nomenclature would help

I wonder if it would be easier for our understanding to catch up to the new reality that Prof. Freeman describes if we could (somehow) discard or expand the term "suburb." Right now I think it is hindering more than it is helping in understanding metropolitan geography in the US.

To take the San Francisco Bay Area as an example: Albany, East Palo Alto, and Brentwood are all sometimes labeled as "suburbs." And yet they are completely different types of places that have almost nothing in common other than the fact that they are in the San Francisco Bay Area, and lie at some distance from the region's namesake city. Respectively, they are a built-out, privileged community located near jobs and renowned for its school system about 10 miles from downtown SF; a struggling newly-incorporated suburban city laboring under the burden of decades of disinvestment, about 30 miles out; and an ethnically diverse (formerly) rapidly-growing former farm town at the metropolitan fringe that is now wracked by fiscal distress and a wave of foreclosures, maybe 50 miles out.

Does it even make sense to call all three of these places "suburbs?"

I don't have any brilliant ideas for what to call them instead. But maybe we should try to start figuring it out. Suburb vs. central city as an analytical distinction for talking about race and poverty is making less and less sense, as Prof. Freeman argues.

Jake Wegmann

History irreversible now

Inner city "housing" was LOW cost when the trend was for people to be moving OUT. The new lands being brought into urban use were LOW cost, rural land, so the price of suburban housing was LOW - the difference between suburban low price and inner city low price, was "space".

It is irrational to think that we can ever reverse this flow, because as soon as it is reversed for whatever reason, the price of inner city "housing" rises in response to demand, and it is limited in quantity, unlike the quantity of fringe land under the sprawl paradigm. This is borne out by real life observation anyway.

The inner city is now for boutique, upper class, luxury living. The new "slums" will indeed be suburban. But the reason for the slums is still the same. Moral breakdown, family breakdown, and a spiral of crime and blight. Urban planners cannot hope to "fix" this. But it will be interesting to see whether slum suburbs can be turned around by the same sort of approaches to crime and policing and social policy, that is the only approach that has ever worked for the inner city. Surely in any case, low density slums are better than high density?

It has often been noted that the "suburbanisation" of the very jobs that lower income people rely on, led to transport difficulties for the remaining inhabitants of inner city slums, because mass transit is simply not adapted to dispersed employment patterns. eg see Lori G. Kennedy: "Transport and Social Exclusion: A United States View"

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