Sunday, February 19, 2006

Blog Review: "One-Fifth of America: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s First Suburbs," Brookings, 2006.

Brookings released an analysis of census data last week entitled, "One-Fifth of America: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s First Suburbs," by Robert Puentes and David Warren.

Random comments:
Primarily a demographic profile of what it defines as first ring suburbs from 1950 to 2000, the 2 main stories are that (a) these were and are different from either the city core or newer suburbs, and (b) their residents are getting older, more diverse, and poorer.

This sounds both interesting and extremely important. I want to know what happened to America's first suburbs, when and why.

As polished a production as it is, I can't see where any of these questions are answered in the report, the main obstacle being data. The 64 first suburbs are defined as a county containing or adjacent to a primary city, less the primary city or cities. In southern California, there are 3: Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties, minus the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Diego. So virtually all of metropolitan southern Californa is considered a first ring suburb of either LA or San Diego. The first suburbs of San Francisco are San Mateo and Alameda Counties.

While the authors had no alternative for their geography for analyses requiring trend data over 1950-2000, the incredible heterogeneity of these counties (addressed in the report as mainly the consequence of regional diversity) raises questions about their two-part story. For example, the report seems to admit that the old and poor in their data are mostly two distinct groups, one fairly well-to-do and aging in place, the other the source of recent growth and change. Then there are the policy recommendations:

  1. Address the special challenges of an elderly population
  2. Pursue a coherent set of policies to meet the needs of the rising foreign-born population
  3. Create and sustain economically-integrated neighborhoods of choice (e.g., mixed income housing programs, income-support/anti-poverty programs, and curbs on "market abuses that charge higher prices to low-income families for basic goods and services")
  4. Remake and renew the economic and physical landscape (e.g., infill, reinvestment in disinvested, aging areas, and "smart growth")
  5. Promote regional cohesion and collaboration (e.g., regional-level coordination for planning and Myron Orfield-type coalitions of local governments to pursue common political/fiscal interests)

This is pretty generic stuff, unexpectedly neither well informed by the enormous data effort nor especially targeted at first ring suburbs.

Also surprising is the limited mention of roles played by private markets, regarding either failures or successes. Government action, at whatever level, is presumably positioned as a response to market failures -- or at least as a push to redistribute resources more fairly. I am open to the idea that the earliest suburbs face both kinds of problems but the report is nearly silent with respect to either.

I guess my initial impression is that the report substantially overreaches, both as a spatial profile and as a policy argument. On the other hand, benchmarking trends is useful and it would be great if the report stimulates more analysis of these kinds of places and issues. Big cities and their locales deserve the attention.

p.s. Part of the thrust of the discussion is the value of promoting the competitiveness of these suburbs, vis-a-vis central cities and newer suburbs. The implication is that they are somehow disadvantaged, perhaps by their demographics and the advancing age of their infrastructure and housing stock (or simply growth rates), though the empirical support for that argument is not presented in any detail. Again, underlying economic fundamentals would be key to that story, such as whatever competitive advantages these places might have or might generate (such as market access, labor resources, etc.). That is the basis for a number of Michael Porter-type "competitive cities" initiatives, both in the U.S. and by international development efforts such as The Cities Alliance. The Brookings report chose a different approach.

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