June 27, 2011

Suburbanizing poverty: Fuzzy concepts, fuzzy policy

June 27, 2011

Does it matter that poverty is suburbanizing? It depends what you mean by “suburb.” Like sprawl, gentrification, and pornography, city and suburb (and poverty, for that matter) are complex categories—“fuzzy concepts,” as Ann Markusen labeled sustainability and globalization. Such fuzzy concepts may be helpful starting points, but too often people fight over the labels instead of disentangling their many strands and meanings, which is a necessary step toward identifying challenges, opportunities, and responses.

Take one example: Houston. It’s a sprawling sunbelt city of 579 square miles. Chicago and New York City would fit comfortably inside those boundaries, or half of Rhode Island. Most of Houston’s neighborhoods have low residential densities, and many of its more modest districts still lack curbs and gutters. Vacant lots and other undeveloped land dot many areas. A recent  Brookings Institution report shows that city residents could commute by transit to only a third of the metro area’s jobs within 90 minutes, and 10 percent of residents in city limits would have to walk more than three-quarters of a mile from their homes to catch any bus.

Another example: Fremont, California, between San Jose and Oakland. With just over 200,000 people and about 80 square miles, it’s now more populous than Rochester, New York. It’s a city too—just not a central city. It’s mostly residential, though here too it bucks the trend; Boston Scientific, Western Digital, and Seagate all have facilities employing over 1000 residents there. Walk around its average residential neighborhood, and within 10 minutes you’re likely to pass at least twice as many houses as you would in Houston’s average residential neighborhood. Why is Fremont more a suburb than Houston?

A final example: Silver Spring, Maryland, just north of Washington, DC. This community of 71,000 residents—Maryland’s  fourth largest—has its own Metrorail station and a thriving central area with county offices, stores, multi-story housing, hotels, and one of the metro area’s best repertory cinemas. Nearby neighborhoods bear the stamp of early-1900s streetcar developers, but beyond the Washington Beltway, other Silver Spring neighborhoods trace the country’s residential development history  from the 1930s onward. Why is Silver Spring less a city than either Houston or Fremont? Mainly because it doesn’t govern itself; that responsibility is Montgomery County’s.

“Suburb” and “city,” then, have multiple dimensions: government, development pattern, transportation systems, lifestyle, attitude. Ranking Houston, Fremont, and Silver Spring on how well they protect and nurture low-income kids or other social indicators would be difficult right now.  In fact, the research challenge of suburban poverty is to think more clearly about both suburbs and poverty—so we can build better places for all kinds of people. (More on that later!)  

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