The Fading Distinction Between City And Suburb

As high-income people return to cities and urban neighbourhoods, they bring much of their suburban lifestyle with them.

Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons
Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons

Most of us who are sometimes labeled “urbanists” believe the new age of the city is squarely upon us. Cities and urban neighbourhoods once counted for dead are adding people, in some cases faster than the suburbs; at the same time, we’re seeing shortages of affordable housing in some of America’s largest and most vibrant cities. This is what Alan Eherenhalt dubs “the Great Inversion”—a reversal of fortunes in which cities grow as suburbs decline.

But a recent study indicates that the traditional suburban lifestyle continues to be widespread. The study, by Markus Moos of the University of Waterloo and Pablo Mendez of Carleton University, found that key features of suburban life not only remain commonplace in the suburbs but are often continued by high-income people even after they move to cities.

The study covered 26 of 33 total Canadian census metropolitan areas (CMAs) that range from large cities and metro areas like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal to much smaller ones like Windsor, Regina and Kelowna. These 26 CMAs account for 65 percent of Canada’s population. Using data from Canada’s 2006 census on before-tax average income, the researchers grouped the CMAs into eight “neighbourhood types” based on three key variables: homeownership rate, share of population living in a detached single family house, and share of people who commute by car. The eight community types range from the most “urban” (Category 1), where none of these three variables are more present in the neighbourhood than in the metro as a whole, to the most “suburban” (Category 8), where all three factors are greater than across the metro area.

[infobox]As the rich move back to cities, they take their preferences for and abilities to purchase larger home or condos and private cars.[/infobox]

The researchers found that the great majority of the population in Canada’s metros reside in two types of neighbourhoods at opposite ends of the spectrum. Between a third to more than half of CMA residents (depending on the specific metro) live in Category 8 neighbourhoods, the most suburban type of neighbourhood. On the other hand, between 13 and 33 percent of residents (again, depending on the specific metro) live in Category 1 communities, the most urban.

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Their most interesting finding concerns the “consistently positive relationship between suburban ways of living and higher incomes.” Richer people, the researchers found, tend to own single-family homes and drive cars even when they live in highly urbanised neighbourhoods. In other words, even though there is a diverse range of suburban and urban neighbourhoods, the affluent people who live in them lead relatively similar lifestyles. As the rich move back to cities, they take their preferences for and abilities to purchase larger home or condos and private cars.

The graph below (from the study) shows individuals making at least $60,000 per year are almost twice as likely to live suburban versus urban lifestyles, whereas those residents making $0 to $9,900 per year are more evenly distributed among urban and suburban neighbourhoods. Moreover, households making $100,000 per year are more than three times as likely to live in suburban rather than urban neighbourhoods, whereas households making $0 to $19,900 per year are almost five times less likely to live in suburban as opposed to urban neighbourhoods. In short, the rich are more suburbanised regardless of where these suburban ways of living occur—a downtown condo or a suburban detached home.

Moos and Mendez

The relationship between income and suburban ways of living is strongest in older industrial metros and in those that depend on mining and resource industries, as well as those with larger shares of single-family housing.

The authors qualify their findings, pointing out that the relationship between income and suburban ways of living is weakest in large metro areas like Toronto and Vancouver, where densities are higher and more affluent people live in downtown condos. As housing costs rise and commuting becomes more arduous, higher income people live closer to the urban core in condos and rentals. These higher income urbanites also begin to embrace alternative transportation patterns such as walking, cycling and especially transit, and begin to locate around transit hubs, outbidding lower income groups for transit accessible locations. (A report with the Martin Prosperity Institute found that higher-income creative class professionals often follow similar transit-influenced housing patterns in the U.S., as well).

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[infobox]Not only are cities are looking more like suburbs—suburbs are looking more like cities.[/infobox]

On the flip side, the study documents the concentration of lower income groups in the suburbs of these larger metro areas, as some suburban neighbourhoods have lower average incomes than their urban counterparts. This is partly the result of less advantaged groups being pushed out of the core and away from closer-in transit hubs. In some of Canada’s largest metros, then, not only are cities are looking more like suburbs—suburbs are looking more like cities.

These patterns and processes, especially homeownership among more affluent groups, combine to exacerbate economic inequality and spatial segregation within as well as across urban centres and suburbs, according to the study.

Cities are resurgent, but their comeback also calls into question our basic models of “urban” and “suburban,” blurring the hard and fast lines between them. As pointed out a while back, high-income people in living in advantaged urban and suburban neighbourhoods lead essentially similar lives. While their urban neighbourhoods might be denser and have more tall buildings, and their suburban communities have larger lots and more single-family homes, people living in both types of communities shop in similar stores, send their kids to similar schools and enjoy similar amenities.

As the Great Inversion continues, city leaders, urbanists and all of us will find ourselves confronting these new realities of geography and class, as the distinctions between “cities” or “suburbs” continue to evolve and change.


This article originally appeared in CityLab.


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