The United States does not produce new big cities; it produces more edge cities, boomburbs, and suburbs

Two recent posts – a plan for a new multi-million person American city and the fastest-growing American communities are all suburbs – plus the construction of many new cities around the world led to this idea: the United States produces far more suburbs than big cities.

This was not always the case. The urbanization of the United States was quite rapid and gave rise to numerous big cities by the mid-twentieth century. In the early 1900s, the United States was less than 30% urban and less than one hundred years later was 80% urban. See this table from a 2002 US Census publication:

Before this, certain cities boomed. Chicago went from a small community in the 1830s to the second largest city in the United States in 1890. Numerous Sunbelt cities exploded in population, whether Atlanta or Phoenix or Las Vegas.

But, the United States now has relatively few new big cities. For decades, numerous small suburbs have truly expanded. One of the most noteworthy, thank to journalist Joel Garreau’s work Edge Cities, is Tysons Corner, Virginia. Once a rural intersection, the construction of a shopping mall and the arrival of thousands of square feet or retail and office space created a new kind of suburban community: one dominated by business rather than residents. While Tysons Corner has plans for additional residential units, it is a convergence of business and office activity at the intersections of several major roads outside Washington, D.C. Instead of new big cities, Americans get office parks and retail in the suburbs that rivals that of smaller big cities.

Another alternative to new big cities are suburbs that boom in population. I have detailed the population growth of Naperville, Illinois which grew from roughly 12,000 residents in 1960 to nearly 150,000 today. Boomburbs, analyzed by Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy, are suburbs with multiple consecutive decades of double-digit growth. Some of these suburbs have grown to multiple hundreds of thousands of residents, including places like Henderson, Nevada or Mesa, Arizona. While some of these suburbs now have populations rivaling smaller big cities, they are more suburban in nature with sprawling landscapes and dependence on cars.

More broadly, where other places around the world have focused some development attention and resources on new cities, the United States has continued to fund and pursue suburbs. There are multiple reasons Americans love suburbs – I highlight the top seven – but this is still an interesting choice given how new cities might have non-linear benefits in certain areas that could help people and the country meet new challenges.

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