Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Are Exurbs?

3 minute read

Farther out than suburbs but still connected to a major urban center, exurbs lie at the ever-shifting border between urban and rural spaces and are defined by economic ties to a city, low density housing, and high population growth.

Exurban Development

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An exurb is a largely residential community located outside of a major city and its suburban periphery that maintains a connection to the metropolis through jobs and services. "At the urban-rural periphery, outer suburbs bleed into small-town communities with an agricultural heritage." The term first came into the popular lexicon with A. C. Spectorsky's The Exurbanites in 1955, but has become much more widely used in the last two decades. As urban areas grow, suburbs and exurbs can become enveloped by the greater metropolis, becoming neighborhoods rather than isolated enclaves. As such, "[t]hey lie at the forefront of important local debates around growth and development issues" and "their prevalence may serve as an important indicator of emerging social trends or the effectiveness of various policies to shape metropolitan development."

Defining Features

Unlike rural areas, exurbs are defined by their association with a nearby city's economy, but have lower density and less walkability than many suburbs. According to a 2006 study by the Brookings Institution, exurbs "have at least 20 percent of their workers commuting to jobs in an urbanized area, exhibit low housing density, and have relatively high population growth." In other words, exurban census tracts are defined by some level of economic connection to an urban area, low density, and recent growth. The study found that as of 2000, about 6% of the population of large metropolitan areas in the U.S., or roughly 10.8 million people, live in exurbs, which grew at a rate more than twice as fast as the overall metropolitan areas. The median exurban lot, at 14 acres, is much larger than the median lot in the U.S., which is only 0.8 acres. "While the nation grew by 13.2 percent over the [1990s], median population growth in exurban census tracts was 31.4 percent, more than double the national rate."


"Residents of the 'average' exurb are disproportionately white, middle-income, homeowners, and commuters," but "they do not appear to telecommute, work in the real estate industry, or inhabit super-sized homes at higher rates than residents of other metropolitan county types." Many exurban residents are middle-income families seeking affordable homeownership. The American Communities Project estimates that exurbs have a median household income of $65,500. Exurban residents also have commutes that are on average 10% longer than other Americans, with around half of exurban residents working in jobs outside their county of residence.

While exurbs make up a small portion of American communities today, their rapid growth in the 2000s, increasingly unaffordable urban housing costs, and the rise of remote work could signal sustained growth in these outlying areas. As the authors of the Brookings Institution report conclude, "political and corporate leaders must consider how future metropolitan growth can be accommodated in a more compact, fiscally efficient manner as these places continue to add housing and jobs."

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