Rolf Pendall posted a short, interesting piece on the suburbanization of poverty at the Urban Institute's new Metro Trends Blog. In it, he questions the basis of determining cities from suburbs in the service of understanding the "suburbanization of poverty."

His criticism stems from the ambiguity of defining suburbs and cities based on their urban design and physical infrastructure. He demonstrates this ambiguity through examples of Houson, Texas (a city with extensive sprawl); Fremont, California (a suburb with its own employment base and denser development than Houston); and Silver Spring, Maryland (an inner-ring suburb with all of the accoutrements of urban living).

His question is valid and one we face often in our work on New York: how relevant is work on New York City for the rest of the country. Just to provide an example of my own, the picture below that looks much like the Silver Spring neighborhood my family is preparing to move into is actually in New York City.1

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Despite agreeing in principle with Pendall, I would also question why cities and suburbs should be defined by the basis of their urban design? I think that we live with what we call the "Law & Order myth:" that all of New York, or cities for that matter, look like scenes from Law & Order. While there is work, including my own, demonstrating the importance of the built environment for things like obesity or physical activity, I see that work as motivated by a specific theoretical orientation based on physical environments.

Other problems like poverty or education that I typically think of when we think of the suburbanization of problems are much for fundamentally related to governance. There cities differ from most suburbs in an important way: they are large, unified democracies. Suburbs tend to be small and fragmented in ways that lead to things like educational segregation. As handfuls of suburbs, each with their own bureacracies, attempt to deal with problems typically found in the suburbs and clients of those services move across those fragmented districts, there are more opportunities for people to slip through the cracks, for quality of service to decline, and for problems associated with poverty to exacerbate inequality even more.

In the end, built environments are important for many problems, but not nearly as much as the political and economic context in most situations. Thus, it is fair to ask: should cities' form take or social function take priority in urban research and policy?

  1. Granted, it is in Queens.