Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Suburbs in Decline

• February 27, 2008 • 12:45 AM

Since the 1970s, the cry has been to ‘Save Our Cities’ — often from the seductive call of the suburbs. But now our oldest suburbs themselves are under siege from the same problems.

Can the suburbs be saved? It’s a question few politicians expected they would need to answer — until just more than a decade ago, when socioeconomic data began to show population and income declining in the suburbs surrounding major American cities.

Many of these “first suburbs,” built during and after World War II, now suffer from old age and neglect, with crumbling infrastructure, outdated housing and poverty on the upswing. They face city-sized challenges without the tax base, political clout or other resources to easily combat them. As Sen. Hillary Clinton, a proponent of federal aid for these communities, has said, they’re stuck in a “policy blind spot.”

Governments and nonprofit groups are now attempting to change that, and a new Urban Affairs Review study examines efforts at revitalizing Baltimore County’s first suburbs. While the policies have met with qualified success, they show that reversing suburban decline, though no simple task, remains a realistic goal.

City-dwelling families flocked to suburbs during the mid-20th century, chasing the now-clichéd American dream of homes with yards and picket fences. Governments subsidized the suburban pioneers via the development of a comprehensive highway system, mortgage tax deductions and federal loans. They found lower crime, better schools and, as many social critics have since argued, cookie-cutter homes in neighborhoods built with the automobile in mind.

As the decades passed, suburban sprawl continued and cities’ loss of many productive citizens meant that their problems intensified. But sometime around 1990, the pattern shifted as a booming economy and culture lured young professionals and empty nesters back to America’s downtowns. While striving families built McMansions in distant suburbs and far-flung exurbs, the inner rings of metropolitan bull’s-eyes weren’t so lucky — the housing was often too small or too unfashionable for upper-middle-class families, and their downtowns lacked the arty glitz of central cities.

Retiring residents and the decline of manufacturing employers led to falling incomes and a shrinking tax base. So the quality of schools worsened and investment in infrastructure, such as roads and sewers, lagged.

Dundalk, just east of Baltimore, serves as a prime example. It had been home to some of the world’s largest industrial plants, operated by Bethlehem Steel and General Motors. Between 1970 and 2000, two of three manufacturing jobs in the city disappeared. The poverty rate nearly doubled, to 10 percent, and the number of residents over 65 tripled.

Though rust belt metropolitan areas like Baltimore were among the hardest hit, similar problems have reached all kinds of municipalities nationwide, including unlikely candidates like Portland, Ore., well regarded for “smart” growth policies aimed at managing suburban sprawl.

“It’s almost universal, it’s dominant,” said Cleveland State University researcher Sugie Lee. “There are some thriving suburban neighborhoods, but overall the inner-ring suburbs are declining regardless of their location.”

About one-fifth of America, or 50 million people, lived in these suburbs as of the 2000 Census, but the populations of such disparate communities haven’t been able to band together to stem the decline.

In outer suburbs, land owners, developers and suburban municipalities often promote new housing. In major cities, constituencies from wealthy locals to powerful minority communities push for redevelopment plans. The first suburbs often have none of those.

“The suburban inner ring falls between the cracks,” said John Rennie Short, a public policy professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It doesn’t have development interests, it doesn’t have obvious minority groups, it doesn’t have a big-city political machine. It’s almost like a silent crisis.”

Thomas Vicino, a University of Texas at Arlington professor, began studying Baltimore’s suburbs as a graduate student under Short. Baltimore County, the central political authority there, had spent a decade on revitalization beginning in 1995. County funds and zoning changes helped pour more than $1 billion investment into infrastructure, along with housing and commercial space.

By many measures, the plan seemed to work: While detailed numbers aren’t yet available, countywide household income is up and poverty is down. But the urban phenomenon of gentrification may have spread to these communities, with expensive new housing pricing out some existing residents.

“Revitalization is based on making the infrastructure better and making the place better. One of the questions that remain is: Are the people better off? Right now, anecdotally, we think they are, but we’re waiting on more evidence,” Vicino said.

Nevertheless, the changes in Baltimore County do offer lessons for government leaders elsewhere looking to save their suburbs. For one thing, it showed that elected officials and citizens do have the power to clear the way for change. That’s one focus of advocacy groups like Michigan Suburbs Alliance, which works with communities to streamline zoning rules and the redevelopment process to attract investors.

“Every time the city council members change, and every time they change to a new mayor, they all have their own ideas about how things should be done. You end up adding zoning rules on top of zoning rules,” said Luke Forrest, the group’s public policy director.

Such complex regulations aren’t inviting to housing or commercial developers.

Other municipalities are investing in better public transit or trying tax incentives that encourage residents to expand their homes, and even providing prototype expansion plans to save the cost of hiring an architect. The federal government may eventually add funds to these efforts, though Congress has yet to pass bills introduced by Clinton and others.

In Baltimore, the wealthier outer suburbs helped subsidize the inner suburban revitalization. While this was made easier by Baltimore County’s atypical central political authority, collaboration and tax-revenue sharing between suburban governments may work elsewhere. Already, metropolitan areas in places like New Jersey and Ohio are voluntarily pooling resources to share the benefits of economic development.

“Mayors in declining areas need to talk to one another. They need to cooperate and come together,” Vicino said. “These little suburbs are not capable of fighting the decline on their own.”

Ryan Blitstein
Ryan Blitstein is a freelance journalist based in Chicago and a Miller-McCune contributing editor. As a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury News, SF Weekly and Red Herring,, he covered everything from spray-can artists in San Francisco to homeland security start-ups in Tel Aviv. His writing has also appeared in the New York Observer, the New York Daily News and The Seattle Times. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University.

More From Ryan Blitstein

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.