Rx for Suburbia

There’s no such thing as the suburbs,” declares Myron Orfield, a former Minnesota state legislator who’s gained national attention for his research on patterns of decline and prosperity in America’s metropolitan areas. “Suburbs are not all alike anymore.”

Unfurling a map of the Detroit region splashed with bright reds and blues, he zeroes in on a few towns south of the city: Ecorse, River Rouge, Inkster. “These places are devastated. Boarded-up strip malls. Abandoned houses. Potholes in the streets big enough for kids to play in.” Then moving his finger across the map north to Bloomfield Hills, he says, “This is what we think of when we hear suburbs“: big houses, wide lawns, golf courses, shiny malls and office parks.

But less than 10 percent of all suburbanites call this kind of affluent community home, according to Orfield’s research. Most of them live in places facing some of the same economic, social, environmental, and racial challenges cities face. And this is true not just in struggling metropolitan regions like Detroit, but across the country. From New Rochelle (once famous as Rob and Laura Petrie’s suburban New York home on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but now increasingly poor and Latino) to Compton (the struggling Los Angeles suburb immortalized by gangsta rap pioneers NWA in their album Straight Outta Compton), it’s clear that urban decline can no longer be confined within the boundaries of central cities.

In the Chicago area, which has seen a significant upswing in many city neighborhoods and booming prosperity in its north and northwest suburbs, 59 municipalities had a lower per-capita tax base than the city in a 1999 study–a good measure that poverty is taking root in the lawns of suburbia. Orfield cites a visit a few years back to Harvey, a largely black community southwest of the city, as what really convinced him that some suburbs are in just as much trouble as inner cities. “The place was destitute,” he remembers. “The city government had been forced to move into an abandoned bank building. The mayor sat behind bullet-proof glass.

“Many suburbs are actually much more fragile than center cities,” Orfield adds. “When they start to go, they go fast. You always have certain people who want to live in the city: young people, gays and lesbians, and artistic types, as well as many upper-middle-class people with an affection for urban living and old architecture. There’s an aesthetic appeal to older, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. This is why you saw a rebound in a lot of cities during the 1990s.

“But no one wants to live in many of these older suburbs once they start to decline. You won’t find yuppies moving into neighborhoods full of ’50s and ’60s houses with no woodwork, no hardwood floors, no shops within walking distance. Suburbs that were built as bedroom communities just don’t have the assets of cities. They don’t have many parks or public centers. And they aren’t used to dealing with social problems.”

After 12 years in the Minnesota legislature, Orfield, 41, left office earlier this year to devote more attention to Ameregis, an urban affairs research firm he founded. He also travels widely talking about his ambitious political initiative to slow suburban sprawl and revive the fortunes of struggling neighborhoods in both cities and suburbs. He sees central cities and lower-income suburbs as allies in an emerging political coalition to revitalize low- and middle-income communities. Working with a growing national movement of social justice activists, environmentalists, and municipal officials–both urban and suburban–Orfield promotes the idea that problems like poverty, affordable housing, crime, and urban decay are best solved on a regional basis.

All metropolitan regions function as unified economic units, Orfield explains, and many of the advantages enjoyed by upscale suburbs come at the expense of inner cities and lower-income suburbs. Affluent communities on the outer rings of a metropolitan area that are booming–new houses, new businesses, and new jobs, but no affordable housing for the low-wage workers who make this economic growth possible–can offer lower taxes, better public services, and shelter from crime and other social problems. This draws businesses and middle-class households away from city neighborhoods and lower-income suburbs, setting off a spiral of disinvestment and decline. The tax base shrinks in these older communities at the same time an increasingly poor population needs more public services. This is the familiar story of urban America since World War II, but Orfield has identified two new dimensions.

First, many suburbs are now joining cities as the big losers in this game. And second, wealthy suburbs on the edge of metropolitan areas thrive, in large part, because they receive the lion’s share of public investment in new roads and sewers, which are paid for by everyone in the region.

“Essentially,” he says, “people in central cities and inner suburbs are subsidizing their own decline.”

Orfield backs up these assertions with an avalanche of statistical data that he’s organized into the brightly colored maps that are the centerpiece of his new book, American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality (Brookings Institution).

In studying the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas, which account for 43 percent of America’s population, he’s identified five basic types of suburban communities in terms of economic and social factors, only one of which fits most people’s stereotype of comfortable suburban prosperity. City residents make up about a quarter of the metropolitan population, with everyone else loosely distributed into the following community categories:

  • At-risk segregated (8 percent). This encompasses places like Harvey, Illinois, and Ecorse, Michigan, where black urban ghettos have formed outside the city limits.
  • At-risk older (8-9 percent). These are lower-income communities, with growing minority populations but also a large number of older white people.
  • At-risk developing (25 percent). While the first two groups include mostly inner-ring suburbs, these lower-income communities include many new subdivisions, trailer parks, and existing towns at the exurban fringes of a metropolitan area. This is the central battleground of American politics, Orfield notes. Democrats who can reach these voters usually win.
  • Bedroom developing (25 percent). These are generally new communities, home to many middle-class families, that are stressed not by poverty but by growth. They are struggling to keep up with the demand for sewers, public services, and, most of all, schools.
  • Affluent job centers (7 percent). This is the suburban American dream, yet not all is happy here. Orfield relates, “People who live there are starting to go nuts because of the congestion. Traffic crawls along at rush hour and even on Saturdays because everyone from everywhere else drives there to work or shop. Residents are afraid of losing the natural open space and clean air that drew them there in the first place.”

Drawing on this research, Orfield has fashioned an innovative political program to spread the benefits of economic growth to all corners of America’s metropolitan areas. The chief goal is to encourage middle-class people and thriving businesses to stay in–or move back into–city neighborhoods and older suburbs by removing barriers that stand in the way of community revival: poor public services, a low tax base, and the web of social problems that arise in pockets of concentrated poverty. Orfield’s program involves enacting new policies in four areas, based upon successful strategies already in place around the country These are proven policies, he emphasizes, “not radical departures.”

  • Land-use planning. Orfield’s regional revitalization agenda emphasizes preserving green space and limiting runaway sprawl. An urban growth boundary in Portland, Oregon, a line beyond which suburban development can’t go, keeps the lid on sprawl, saving farmland and open space. But it also redirects development back toward the city and inner-ring suburbs because there is less cheap land available on the outskirts of the region. Downtown Portland and many urban and inner suburban neighborhoods have benefited enormously from renovation projects and new development spawned by the growth boundary. He notes that of 25 major metropolitan areas he’s studied, Portland is the only one where inner-ring suburbs are posting economic gains compared to the rest of the region. Sixteen states in all now feature comprehensive land-use plans.
  • Affordable housing. Another central component of Orfield’s blueprint for stabilizing metropolitan areas is fair-share housing measures, which require all municipalities in a region to provide housing for some low- and middle-income families. This helps relieve the tangle of social problems that arise when poor people are concentrated in certain locales. This idea has been adopted in a number of areas, most impressively in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., where 10,000 affordable homes have been constructed in affluent neighborhoods since 1977.
  • Metropolitan government. America’s metropolitan regions function as single communities in almost every way–economics, the environment, even the sports teams they support–but not when it comes to government. Public services are divided up among any number of separate and often competitive municipalities. Allowing voters to elect a regional government body (Portland has had one since since 1979) lets important decisions be coordinated in a unified way rather than by scores of local governments. By federal law all urban regions must have metro planning agencies, Orfield says, so let’s bring some democracy and accountability to them.
  • Tax equity. Orfield advocates that basic services be funded primarily by state or regional sources rather than local taxes. This means that poorer communities don’t have to choose between subpar public services and stiff property taxes, both of which drive people out.

In the Twin Cities region, 40 percent of the growth in all commercial and industrial property taxes collected in each municipality are put into a regional pool and divvied up among communities on the basis of need. That’s why inner-city neighborhoods and hard-hit blue-collar suburbs there don’t show the same signs of economic freefall as their counterparts across the country. Lower-income communities benefit, in a small way, from the prosperity of their upscale neighbors. This tax-base sharing policy is a very popular idea, having survived five Republican attempts to repeal it in the state legislature since 1976. A look at the numbers shows why: Two-thirds of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region benefits from the economic good fortune of the wealthiest one-third. Many other states have adopted statewide funding of schools out of concerns about economic inequity.

Orfield believes that everyone living in a metropolitan area will benefit from these regional revitalization measures. Even residents of affluent suburbs–many of whom strongly resist these ideas because they don’t want to accommodate affordable housing in their communities or to share their local tax proceeds–end up ahead.

Orfield notes that he hears from some residents in affluent suburbs who support the regionalist agenda as a way to preserve the quality of life in their communities–by preventing further sprawl, easing traffic congestion, protecting open space, and ensuring future vitality. If the bulk of new investment continually flows to the outer edges of a metropolitan region, it’s only a matter of time until currently prosperous areas begin to show symptoms of decline. After all, many of the older suburbs around the country now experiencing urban decay were settled by families seeking a haven from what were perceived as problems of the city.

Orfield points to studies done by Richard Voith, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, showing that suburbs enjoy higher income growth and higher land values in metropolitan areas where the central city is economically vital. “If you live in a middle-class suburb and your center city is not doing well,” Voith says, “it’s a good bet that your suburb is not doing as well as a similar suburb where the center city is doing well.”

The regional revitalization movement also shows some promise as a way to reverse the fortunes of progressive politics. While he was in the Minnesota state house and senate, Orfield was able to enact portions of this agenda into state law thanks to a never-before-seen bipartisan coalition of city and suburban legislators, who often before were on opposite sides of these issues.

Low- and middle-income suburbs have become the ground zero of American elections, making Orfield’s regional revitalization agenda a catalyst for possible political shifts. He calculates that as many as three-quarters of residents in America’s metropolitan regions wind up on the short end of the stick in the massive share of public investment flowing into affluent new suburbs. If residents of older and lower-income suburbs come to feel their fate is linked with that of people in central cities, it could change the face of American politics.

No one says this is going be easy. For one thing, regional revitalization is an unabashedly wonkish issue, replete with arcane details about sewer funding, land use strategies, and apportioning responsibilities among different levels of government. But as people come to realize what’s at stake, it has sparked a wave of community organizing on regional issues–in Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, and a major statewide coalition, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

“People can come to understand what appears to be rather complex social and political analysis when it affects their lives,” notes Pamela Twiss, co-director of isaiah, a group of inner-city and suburban congregations in Minnesota that has embraced Orfield’s regional revitalization agenda as one of its chief organizing missions. “When you talk about how all the money for roads and sewers is going to the new suburbs and how poverty is being consciously concentrated in the inner city and inner suburbs, you can see the lights going on in people’s heads.”

Our present patterns of suburban development benefit a fortunate few while at the same time degrading the natural environment, aggravating conditions for poor people, and setting the stage for decline in many middle-class communities. The regional revitalization movement directly challenges these trends with a simple set of ideas–and the promise of a formidable new political coalition–that offers help and hope for a majority of people. As a moral call for justice, the regional revitalization movement probably won’t go far in the present political climate. But as a pragmatic program to improve the communities where most Americans live, it could.

Jay Walljasper, editor of Utne, writes “What Works,” a project exploring positive political and social initiatives around America and the world. Updated and expanded from an article in The Nation (Nov. 20, 2000). Subscriptions: $39.97/yr. (47 issues) from Box 55149, Boulder, CO 80322.

Metropolitan Man

For more information on the patterns of decline and prosperity in American metropolitan regions, see Myron Orfield’s Web site, www.metrosearch.org, which includes detailed maps of many places. For more information on Orfield’s work and the regional revitalization movement, see www.ameregis.com and his books, American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality (Brookings Institution, 2002) and Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Brookings Institution, 1997).

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