Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Economist: Suburbs are the new cities

Adam Graber tipped me off to a good article in The Economist about how American suburbs are becoming more like city centers, for good and for bad. Population trends continue to highlight the new importance of suburbia. Since 1990, the city of Chicago itself grew by about 50,000 people, while the surrounding suburbs grew by over a million. Suburbs are new centers of industry and commerce, and they are reflecting greater ethnic and economic diversity. Some excerpts:
As they swell, the suburbs are changing. Perhaps none ever quite resembled the colourless domestic enclaves popularised by 1970s television programmes such as “The Brady Bunch”; now, they look nothing at all like them. America's suburbs are ethnically and demographically mixed—sometimes more so than its cities. Many are less dormitories than economic powerhouses.

According to William Frey, a demographer, the white population of big-city suburbs grew by 7% between 2000 and 2006. In the same period the suburban Asian population grew by 16%, the black population by 24% and the Hispanic population by an astonishing 60%. Many immigrants to America now move directly to the suburbs without passing through established urban ghettos. Having conquered suburbia, ethnic-minority groups are now swiftly infiltrating the more distant “exurbs”.

The most important reason people are moving to the suburbs is economic: that is where the jobs are. . . . In a forthcoming report, Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, calculates that 45% of the jobs in America's 100 biggest metropolitan areas are found more than ten miles from the downtown core. Between 1998 and 2004 fully three-quarters of all new jobs emerged in this area. Many of these new positions were filled by local people, who were delighted to drop their long commutes to traditional city centres. But more and more Americans wake up in one suburb and go to work in another. Others, including many of Google's Bay Area employees, wake up in a city and go to work in a suburb.

But as new suburbs become new cities, old suburbs become old cities, with worries and problems of aging infrastructure and increasing crime. Those of us who would seek the welfare of the suburbs (and the whole metropolis) can see suburbia as heralding new opportunities for ministry and outreach as well as greater complexities and challenges.

Next week I'll be at the Envision 08 conference in Princeton on "Gospel, Politics and the Future," and I'm speaking in one of the plenary sessions as part of a panel discussion on the future of the church. I'm going to talk briefly about the missional suburban church and how suburban Christians are grappling with changing realities. Should be a good conference. If you'll be there, say hi!


Adam said...

This article reminded me of another one on "the rise and fall of the shopping mall," also from The Economist.

I know, I know.

Al Hsu said...

Thanks, Adam. Another good piece. I grew up in Minnesota, and Southdale was actually my home mall. Hung out there a lot as a junior higher in the mid-80s. Didn't realize until later how important it was as the first of its kind. And it's kind of funny now that when I go back to Minnesota, I no longer have a home church, but I still consider Southdale my home mall.

Earl Grey Tea said...


The topics are lame, the speakers have a predilection for certain thoughts and as their audience too posses a parochial view, speakers expect no challenge- it’s just like a blind man following another blind man. Moreover, upon visiting the discussion board, there was not a miniscule of philosophical dexterity in any writing, but pure rabid ideologies- like we must start a “World wide Christian movement to end poverty “, the ulterior motto so blatantly stands out- which is “ A world wide movement to proselytize the innocent”.

The Christian theology is undoubtedly vague and weak; every single philosophical question according to Christian theology has a part philosophical, part socio-political, part moral dimension to the solution, there is no one pointed answer to any question, which brings me to point to conclude the insufficiency of the christian theology. By mixing it all and confusing their followers, are they trying to masquerade the deficiency in philosophy? Does this self prophesized institute by the use morally stilted rhetoric and refraining from spirituality, solicit socio-political dominance in the world?

Once a man asked, what did Jesus bring new to the world that we never had before?

High Calling Blogs said...

From Real Live Preacher:

This is pretty fascinating to me. I don't like living in suburbs, though I do. I thought there was a trend back inward toward the center of cities. Maybe just among artsy richish people.

Joel Hamernick said...

al, my home mall was Rosedale. . . we always had a bit of mall-envy about Southdale!

Anyway the burbs are really interesting for all of the reasons you point out. Roseville and Richfield are both very complex, radically diversifying locations that present great challenge to Christians. Too often the church treats those communities the same way they viewed North Mpls and West St. Paul 25 years ago -- places to move away from. First move the residence, then move the business, finally move the congregation. (My family moved to north Shoreview. . . )

These communities, according to a Brookings report I read a couple years ago are more rapidly diversifying at educational levels (highest proportion of college grads and most rapidly growing among non-HS completers) along with the racial and economic diversity indicators. Caldrons of undulating humanity -- classic places for ministry that are more like the worldwide reality than what most of us suburban types are used to.

If the church can't fall in love with Richfield and Roseville in their current manifestations, how can we say world missions is really "us"?

Ed said...

Al - as you celebrate (?) the rise of the suburbs, and particularly when you speak to this issue with regard to the mission of the church, keep in mind that the reign of the suburbs will in all likelihood be short indeed. The suburbs were built, as the Economist notes, on a foundation of cheap mortgages, but even more - as this paragon of news magazines inexplicably omits - on cheap energy. Without inexpensive gas, the suburb cannot survive.

The day of the suburb as we know it - is over, and it would be good for the church to recognize this before the fact rather than, as so often happens to us evangelicals, thirty years later!


Al Hsu said...

Ed - I hear what you're saying, but the "day of the suburb" is hardly over. In 1900 the US was roughly 50/50 between small towns and big cities. In 1950 a quarter of the population was in the suburbs. In 2000, over half. Among the trends I document in my book are the suburbanization of cities (we are moving away from center/hub/rings models and toward more multicentered/decentralized metropolises, like L.A. and many newer cities in the south and west) as well as the urbanization of suburbs. The world is not just urbanizing - it is suburbanizing as well. And we neglect this to our peril.

Suburban issues are urban issues, and rather than pitting suburbs against cities, we need to seek the welfare of the whole metropolis. So suburbia is increasingly complex and will require all the understanding and missiological study and attention that has been given to center cities.

I don't disagree that energy issues will reshape suburban landscapes. But I think Kunstler and others and the "End of Suburbia" documentary overstate the case. It's true that suburban layout and land use patterns were designed on the basis of cheap fuel and assumed cars for transport. Increasing energy costs may well encourage suburban communities to recover a sense of local neighborhood and parish. But it doesn't mean that suburbs are going away anytime soon.