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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suburbs,” built during and after World War II, now suffer from old age and neglect, with crumbling infrastructure, outdated housing and poverty on the upswing.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.

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