Ah, suburbia, land of the bland. White-picket-fenced realm of white-bread people and cookie-cutter housing. That’s still the stereotype that persists in how many of us think about and portray these much-maligned spaces surrounding cities. But if there was once some truth to it, there certainly isn’t today.
In the past several years, a much more complex picture has emerged—one of Asian and Latino “ethnoburbs,” rising suburban poverty, and Baby Boomers stuck in their split-levels. And 2018 really drove home the lesson that, when Americans say they live in the suburbs (as most do), the suburbias they describe are vastly different kinds of places, where people of every stripe live, work, pray, vote, and vie to control their communities’ future.
A century and a half after Frederick Law Olmsted laid out one of the first planned American suburbs in Riverside, Illinois, and seven decades after the builders Levitt & Sons broke ground on the ur-tract ’burb of Levittown, New York, we haven’t fully mapped the contours of modern suburbia—not just who lives there and why, but the role that suburbs play in politics and society.
CityLab’s reporting and analysis brought suburban realities into sharper focus in 2018. The wide spectrum of suburban place types is a feature of CityLab’s Congressional Density Index, developed before the midterm election by David Montgomery and Richard Florida. The index classified each congressional district in the U.S. by density into one of six types, four of which fall under the suburban umbrella: rural-suburban mix; sparse suburban; dense suburban; and urban-suburban mix.
As Montgomery and Florida wrote, “a continuum of densities” correlates closely to suburban politics. Rural-suburban areas are strongly Republican; urban-suburban places are overwhelmingly Democratic. But sparse and dense suburbs are more divided—and these were the battleground of the 2018 election. On November 6, Democrats picked up at least 22 seats in sparse- and dense-suburban districts. A suburbanite is now twice as likely to be represented in Congress by a Democrat as by a Republican.
If the density index revealed that America’s suburbs are more politically diverse than many would guess, Brentin Mock’s reporting from greater Atlanta showed the role of changing racial demographics in reshaping metropolitan areas. Mock chronicled the “cityhood” movement that is roiling Atlanta’s outskirts, as suburban enclaves attempt to secede from counties and towns and form their own jurisdictions. This takes an important chunk of the tax base away from the larger municipality, leaving it holding the bag. “Since 2005, at least ten cities have formed in the region, in a movement that could be described as a series of Brexits,” Mock wrote in March. Most of the new cities are majority-white, but one formed in 2016, Stonecrest, is majority-black. A recent bid by the Eagle’s Landing enclave to secede from the town of Stockbridge—motivated partly by the former’s desire for a Cheesecake Factory—failed at the ballot box in November.
As some suburbs draw lines in the sand, others put out the welcome mat. South of Chicago, the suburb of Homewood, Illinois, launched an ad campaign earlier this year to try to woo Millennials from their urban strongholds. A series of comic-strip ads by a local artist touted Homewood’s racial diversity, walkability, and farm-to-table food—as well as its good schools and, crucially, its affordable home prices. “Suburbs can no longer just sit back and wait for the inevitable stampede of first-time homebuyers and new parents,” as I wrote back in April. “They have to convince skeptical young folk of their essential urbanity first.”
The charm offensive reveals just how much the old dichotomy of declining cities and snooty suburbs has shifted. This year, we also saw the suburbs of Minneapolis battling over very urban-looking issues of density and affordability; saw Amazon locate one of its HQ2s in the un-suburban suburb of
Crystal City National Landing, Virginia; and contemplated the cloudy future of suburban staples like malls and shopping centers. It all added up to a portrait of suburbia as a landscape of dynamic cultural and structural change, not sleepy stasis.