The Rush to the Suburbs

The forces behind this sustained growth of the suburbs were numerous. Mortgage finance was readily available on attractive terms (see Chapter 17). Employment was high, and incomes were rising rapidly. The nation thus had more wealth to spend on land development, on housing, and on the additional personal transportation that suburbanization required. Automobile ownership rose from 25 million in 1945 to about 40 million in 1950, to 62 million in 1960, 89 million in 1970, 122 million in 1980, and 134 million in 1990. At the end of World War II, there was one automobile for every five Americans. By 1990 there was one automobile for every 1.9 Americans. After 1990, the statistics for the number of automobiles registered in the United States stabilized, but only because so many people switched to vans and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), which are classified as light trucks rather than automobiles.

Paralleling the increase in automobile ownership was a great expansion of the nation's highway system. Shortly after World War II there began a major surge of highway building by the states, powerfully encouraged by federal subsidies. Practical commuting distances increased, and suburban residence for city workers became much more feasible. Then the National Defense Highway Act of 1956 funded the beginning of the Interstate Highway System. The suburbanizing effect of the Interstate Highway System on both population and economic activity was enormous. This matter is discussed in detail in Chapter 17.

Decentralization has also been promoted by improvements in electronic communications. Long-distance direct dialing, common carrier links between computers, closed-circuit television, e-mail, fax, and social networking all reduce the need for face-to-face communication. Having the capacity for interaction at a distance does not cause decentralization, but it permits it if economic or social forces favor it. In many industries like brokerage and insurance, which still maintain a large central-city presence for the highest interaction activities, much "back office" work—like data processing—has moved to the suburbs, to nonmetropolitan America, and overseas. In the first years of this century, much concern has been expressed about the outsourcing to lower-wage nations of all sorts of white-collar work including computer programming, income tax preparation, legal work, call center operations, analysis of X-rays and other medical diagnostic images, and the like. What has made all these outward moves possible is low-cost, instantaneous transmission of words, data, and images. In its way, the microchip may be proving to be as powerful an agent of deconcentration as was the automobile.

The baby boom, a phenomenon that began in the late 1940s, peaked in 1957, and lasted into the mid-1960s, further fueled the suburban housing boom. The increase in births a generation later, the so-called echo of the baby boom, added force to the suburbanizing trend toward the end of the twentieth century. The attraction of the suburbs for couples in the family- formation stage of life is an enormous decentralizing force.

The Boomburgs. Perhaps the ultimate (at least thus far) expression of decentralizing forces has been the development of the "boomburgs," a term popularized by Robert Lang and Jennifer Lefurgy for large cities or places large enough to be cities that grew at double-digit rates for each of the past three decades of the twentieth century and which are generally located within metropolitan areas. The largest of the group that they identify is Mesa, Arizona, which had a population of over 400,000 by 2002.9 The most striking characteristic of these cities is their non-urbanness.

Some boomburgs contain substantial amounts of office space: Scottsdale, Arizona and Plano, Texas have dozens of office buildings and millions of square feet of floor space—mostly upper end space at that. Yet together these two communities have only four high rise office buildings. Welcome to the boomburgs, where low-slung office cubes line the freeways.10

Until very recently the boomburg was a major—perhaps the major— emerging form in the United States. That is no longer so. In fact, many boomburgs and boomburg-like places are in serious economic trouble. In fast-growing places much employment—construction, real estate, finance— comes from the fact of growth itself. When growth stops, the blow to the job market is more severe than in a slower-growing area. Then, too, in places that have experienced rapid growth and perhaps also a bubble in real estate prices many property owners owe more on their properties than the properties are worth. These "underwater" properties increase the rate of foreclosure and abandonment, a matter discussed in more detail in Chapter 11. In early 2011 it was reported that the biggest percentage increase in people whose incomes were under the federal poverty line was in the Sarasota- Brandenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) on the Gulf Coast of Florida, a place that has many boomburg characteristics.

Will boomburg growth resume as the U.S. puts the Great Recession behind it? This remains to be seen. Some reasons for doubt are presented in the final section of this chapter.

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