When Analyzing Suburbs, Definitions Matter

The definitions of suburban chosen by researchers tend to fall into three categories—and each has a significant impact and the results of academic inquiry.

1 minute read

February 22, 2019, 5:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Suburban Lawns

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Whitney Airgood-Obrycki shares recent research from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University that describes the consequences of having so many different definitions for the suburban.

The problem originates with the U.S. Census’s 15-chapter long compendium of geographic terms and concepts, which does not include any definition of “suburb” or “suburban,” according to Airgood-Obrycki. "As a result, in recent years, researchers have created their own methodologies for defining suburban neighborhoods."

"In our new working paper (which will be featured in a lunchtime Research Seminar this Friday, February 22), Shannon Rieger and I explore varying approaches to defining suburbs and investigate whether (and how) different definitions might affect researchers’ findings about the characteristics of America’s suburbs."

There's the census-convenient definition, the suburbanisms definition, and typology definition—each of which produce different results in given metro areas, according to Airgood-Obrycki. The analysis presented later today analyzed 1) whether these different definitions produce substantial differences in key housing and demographic variables, 2) the extent of a given characteristic within suburbs, and 3) the geographic split of a characteristic between city and suburban neighborhoods.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 in Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University

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