The term has practically been rendered a semantic argument. Some have a location-based definition: that it’s a smaller community on the outskirts of a larger city, while others define it visually, by cul-de-sacs upon cul-de-sacs of similarly developed homes. Both could be correct, since there’s no existing federal definition for suburbia.
Existing HUD definitions of American areas include “urban” and “rural,” but there is no such “suburban” category.
A 2013 Harvard University study found that there is “no consensus to what exactly constitutes a suburb.” It added that suburbs have been defined over the years by any number of metrics from physical proximity to cities, to modes of transportation, to general appearance…
The Census Bureau and HUD are currently working toward building out proper definitions and statistical areas based on 2020 census data.
As a scholar who studies suburbs, I find this conversation a little odd. Here is why.
The Census Bureau has tracked the suburban population for decades. For example, the 2002 publication “Demographic Trends in the 20th Century” clearly shows the growth of suburban populations.
As this table suggests, within metropolitan areas there are central cities and suburbs. The area outside central cities and with enough connections to the city and metropolitan region (as delineated by counties) counts toward the suburban population.
On the other hand, the definition of suburbs is multi-faceted and incorporates location relative to a big city and density. But, it also includes the feel and experience of an area. This is where the boundaries are more blurred; you could have neighborhoods in big cities that are full of single-family homes and lots of driving or pockets of more dense rural areas with connections to big cities. There are also a variety of suburban communities ranging from bedroom suburbs to industrial suburbs to ethnoburbs to working-class communities to edge cities and more. The kinds of suburbs might differ but there are common features of suburban life that Americans like.
Across the multiple measures noted in this story, they coalesce around a similar range of Americans living in the suburbs, whether the Census Bureau is measuring or people are self-reporting: roughly 50-55% of Americans live in suburbs.
Complex suburbia might be hard to fully encompass and it has changed over time. However, it hangs together enough to differentiate from big cities and rural areas. A new definition from the Census might help establish geographic and conceptual boundaries but these are always in flux as communities and metropolitan areas change.