Getting the categories right in continued urban/rural-plus-suburbs-and-exurbs-in-the-middle divide

Numerous outlets have commented on the continued presence of an urban/rural divide in 2020 voting. Here is another example:

Photo by Pixabay on

Rather than flipping more Obama-Trump counties, Biden instead exceeded previous Democratic win margins in Wisconsin’s two biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison.

That pattern extended to Michigan and other battleground states, with Biden building upon Democrats’ dominance in urban and suburban jurisdictions but Trump leaving most of exurban and rural America awash in red.

The urban-rural divide illustrates the pronounced polarization evident in preliminary 2020 election results. The split underscores fundamental disagreements among Americans about how to control the coronavirus pandemic or whether to even try; how to revitalize the economy and restore jobs; how to combat climate change or whether it is an emergency at all; and the roles of morality, empathy and the rule of law in the body politic.

Four thoughts in reaction to this.

  1. The urban/rural divide is described in an interesting way above: it is cities and suburbs for Democrats and exurbs and rural areas for Republicans. This matches the patterns of this and recent elections. However, is separating the suburbs and exurbs worthwhile? Here is where county level analysis may not be fine-grained enough to see the patterns. Another way to put it might be this: there is a gradient in voting by party as the distance from the big city increases. Does it shade over to Republicans only in exurbs – which are suburbs on the outer edges? Is the 50/50 split a little before exurbs? A concentric circles approach could help though there still could be pockets that break with the overall pattern.
  2. Suburbs might just be too broad of a term to be useful in such analysis. The exurb/suburb split it one way to put it. Might it help to also think of different types of suburbs (wealthier bedroom communities, ethnoburbs/majority-minority communities, working-class suburbs, industrial suburbs, etc.)?
  3. Explaining the differences as urban/rural has a nice short ring to it and it fits the data. Introducing more categories in the middle is interesting to campaigns, pundits, and researchers but is harder to quickly describe. Perhaps the urban/suburban versus exurban/rural divide?
  4. Is the urban/rural divide one of the most fundamental aspects of polarization? Or, is it a symptom? In this story, the divide leads off the discussion of polarization on a number of fronts. But, what leads to these spatial patterns in the first place? While the geography is helpful to think about, are the real issues behind the urban/rural divide about race/ethnicity and class? Given residential segregation patterns in the United States, using the spatial patterns as an explanation covers up a lot of important social forces that led to those patterns in the first place.

Patterns in racial/ethnic change in Chicago area counties 2010-2018

Recently released Census data at the county level shows the shift toward larger non-white populations in the Chicago area:

The Chicago Tribune article also points out a few of the notable patterns:

The six suburban counties gained a total of 14,857 non-Hispanic black residents from 2010 to 2018, most of them in Will and DuPage, the new census data shows.

Cook County, meanwhile, lost 75,081 black residents over the same time period. Black residents’ share of the county population decreased the most of any racial group in the last eight years…

In each of the six suburbs surrounding Cook, non-white Asian residents grew by at least 13% since 2010. DuPage County grew by the most people, with an increase of 21,960 Asian residents in that time.

I’ll throw in three more patterns I see in the table:

  1. The further out counties, the more exurban locations (Kendall and McHenry Counties) have much higher proportions of white residents. It will be interesting to see how these change in the coming decades. Not only are those locations farther from Chicago, they also have fewer historic industrial suburbs (like Joliet in Will County and Elgin in Kane County) that attracted more non-white residents.
  2. In all of the six counties, Hispanics account for larger proportions of the overall population than black residents. Whether this translates into political representation or status within the region is debatable.
  3. The Asian population is more concentrated as a proportion in some counties – DuPage, Cook, and Lake – compared to others.

American exurbs continue to grow

Joel Kotkin points out that despite claims to the contrary, the exurbs are growing:

We first noticed a takeoff in suburban growth in 2013, following a stall-out in the Great Recession. This year research from Brookings confirms that peripheral communities — the newly minted suburbs of the 1990s and early 2000s — are growing more rapidly than denser, inner ring areas.

Peripheral, recent suburbs accounted for roughly 43% of all U.S. residences in 2010. Between July 2013 and July 2014, core urban communities lost a net 363,000 people overall, Brookings demographer Bill Frey reports, as migration increased to suburban and exurban counties. The biggest growth was in exurban areas, or the “suburbiest” places on the periphery…

Far from being doomed, exurbia is turning into something very different from the homogeneous and boring places portrayed in media accounts. For one thing exurbs are becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. In the decade that ended in 2010 the percentage of suburbanites living in “traditional” largely white suburbs fell from 51% to 39%.  According to a 2014 University of Minnesota report, in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, 44% of residents live in racially and ethnically diverse suburbs, defined as between 20% and 60% non-white.

And how about the seniors, a group that pundits consistently claim to be heading back to the city? In reality, according to an analysis of Census data, as seniors age they’re increasingly unlikely to move, but if they do, they tend to move out of urban cores as they reach their 60s, and to less congested, often more affordable areas out in the periphery. Seniors are seven times more likely to buy a suburban house than move to a more urban location. A National Association of Realtors survey found that the vast majority of buyers over 65 looked in suburban areas, followed by rural locales.

This article throws out a lot of reasons why they might want to do this: wanting to own a single-family home, wanting more space (both in the home and in the community), feeling part of a smaller community, sending their kids to good schools, having communities with low crime, and accessing plenty of available jobs. Put another way, the exurbs have downsides but enough Americans consistently seem to want to live on the metropolitan fringe.

At the end, Kotkin suggests that planners and others need to own up to this reality: cities cannot provide these desirable traits. I wonder if that is the case; is the answer that it is either dense inner cities or sprawling exurbs? I think many cities and closer suburbs would want to be able to claim the positives cited above. And there are likely many pockets where this is possible even if not all residents of major cities have these advantages. But, instead of trying to suggest that all people should get used to dense city life or exurban life, why not look for more ways to enhance opportunities throughout an entire region? Perhaps it is a problem of government layers as every community looks out for their own interests first. Or perhaps this is still impossible in a country where race and social class matter tremendously for the kinds of places where people live. Rather than suggest Americans want to live in a certain kind of setting, we need solutions to issues in a variety of communities throughout metropolitan regions (and beyond).

“New McMansions and Disappearing Jobs: A Tale of Two Rural Americas”

Here is a brief summary of two trends in rural America: growing exurbs (which can include McMansions) yet a decline in jobs.

On the positive side of rural, Teresa Wiltz writes for Stateline, the very useful news and analysis source of the Pew Charitable Trusts, that “new census data show that for the first time since 2010, the outermost suburban counties are growing faster than urban counties and close-in suburbs.” The demographic change that Wiltz describes is the increase of 146,000 in new exurban residents attributable to domestic migration. The “vibe” of these exurbs, she writes, “is decidedly rural Americana.”

Why are the exurbs growing? Wiltz cites multiple potential reasons for this turnaround, including people moving to the exurbs for jobs (she cites Joel Kotkin, the well-known author, who believes that suburbanization is the likely route to growth around the world, to point out that “the vast majority of jobs aren’t in the cities”) and for “bigger and more affordable homes in a more wide-open space.”…

Some of the exurban growth might be attributable to the economic revival, but Bill Bishop reports in the Daily Yonder that, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, job growth in rural America stopped pretty abruptly in 2014. Between January 2014 and January 2015, rural counties lost 331,000 jobs while metropolitan counties gained 3.1 million jobs. Job losses almost always correlate with workforce and population losses; the rural workforce dropped 557,000 during 2014, which almost assuredly means that rural counties lost population as well.

It may be that these contrasting stories describe an in-migration by people who can choose to live wherever they want and an outmigration of people who have to go where there are jobs. Those in-migrants pose tough challenges for rural areas. Wiltz, for example, mentions in her piece seeing McMansions, farmhouses, mobile homes, and designer outlet stores together in the exurban area 40 miles north of Atlanta. That kind of mix of land uses can constitute a planner’s nightmare and a challenging issue for citizens groups trying to determine how residential development and open space and farmland preservation should be balanced.

There are a few confounding issues at play here:

1. This article mixes the ideas of exurbs and rural areas. The exurbs are between suburbs and the rural areas but what exactly does this mean? It is hard to know. Is 40 miles from Atlanta the suburbs or a rural area or exurbs? Exurbs often means the suburban fringe.

2. Having a rural “vibe” is also a vague idea. I assume this means big lots and smaller communities. But, a good number of Americans say they would prefer to live in “small towns” and these exurban areas may offer just that.

3. If the last paragraph is correct, the people building and/or buying McMansions in the exurbs are the same people driving the higher ends of the housing market in suburbs and cities. As the bottom end of the housing market continues to struggle, those with money can afford to move further out from the city and into big homes.

Census: 600,000 megacommuters in the US

New data from the Census shows there are around 600,000 megacommuters in the United States:

About 600,000 Americans are megacommuters who work at least 50 miles from home and take at least 90 minutes to get there, with the biggest concentration in California, the U.S. Census Bureau said on Tuesday.

The agency said the percentage of Americans who traveled at least 90 minutes to work daily has inched higher in the last two decades even as the number of people who work from home has soared by 45 percent.

The average one-way daily U.S. commute is 25.5 minutes, and one in four commuters leave their home counties for work, the Census Bureau said, based on its annual American Community Survey…

Three-quarters of megacommuters are male, and they are more likely to be married, older, make a higher salary and have a spouse who does not work. They also are likely to leave for work before 6 a.m., according to the study.

This is still a very small segment of the workforce, less than 1 percent according to the article, but still quite interesting. My first thought at seeing the megacommuter figures is that many of these workers live on the metropolitan fringe or in exurbs. This could be because they need to find a cheaper house (especially if they have a spouse who does not work?) or because they value a little more space.

The rise of the “mega-Loop” in downtown Chicago

Crain’s Chicago Business discusses the activity taking place in Chicago’s Loop and the surrounding area, an area it now calls the “mega-Loop”:

This is the new economic engine of the metropolitan area and, increasingly, the rest of Illinois. And it has reached a critical mass, data suggest, enabling its growth to be self-perpetuating, as more jobs downtown attract more residents to move nearby, which, in turn, becomes a magnet for more employers to join the inward migration.

The Chicago Loop long has been one of the world’s greatest job centers, of course. For much of its history, though, downtown emptied out after office hours. And as the city aged and its population declined, the suburbs rose to become the preferred home to generations of young families and the tollways became employment corridors of their own.

In recent years, those trends have reversed. After decades of watching the suburbs boom (often at the city’s expense), Chicago now is outperforming the surrounding area by almost any measure—jobs, income, retail sales and residential property values, to name a few—despite the loss of 200,000 people in the 2010 census.

The city is so hot that this expanded downtown is adding residents faster than any other urban core in America, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“In the year 2020, no matter how many condos are built or sold, Chicago is likely to be a nest of center-city affluence unequaled in size—or even approached—by anyplace in America,” journalist Alan Ehrenhalt writes in “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City.”…

There’s no question, however, that the mega-Loop is benefiting from a back-to-the-city movement that is reviving urban centers elsewhere in the U.S. In Chicago, the trend appears to be sustainable. “This is a pattern that has developed for the last 30 years, and it has only strengthened,” says Columbia University sociologist Saskia Sassen, author of “The Global City.”

These are some big claims and it will take some years to see how the longer trend plays out. As the article notes, there are a lot of factors at work including a global economy, a variety of serious social issues in Chicago, and growth patterns in the Chicago region where the outer collar counties are gaining population.

If the glitzy downtowns continue to grow as do the more exurban areas, perhaps it is the closer suburbs that are left out. These suburbs were likely founded between the mid 1850s and 1960s and are long past the era of rapid suburban growth. While researchers have noted troubling trends among inner-ring suburbs, communities adjacent to big cities, this might extend further out as growth is centered on the downtown and at the fringes.

McMansions being built in the wildland urban interface

Here is an argument that more McMansions are being built in the wildland urban interface and this is leading to problems with forest fires:

But in go-go America, these scientific truisms were no match for McMansion fantasies. As coastal folk headed to the Rocky Mountain frontier with visions of big-but-inexpensive castles far away from the inner city, the term “zoning” became an even more despised epithet than it already had been in cowboy country.

Rangeland and foothill frontiers subsequently became expansive low-density subdivisions, and carbon-belching SUVs chugged onto new roads being built farther and farther away from the urban core. That is, farther and farther into what the federal government calls the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and what fire experts call the dangerous “red zone.”

The numbers are stark: According to The Denver Post, between 1990 and 2000, 40 percent of all homes built in the nation were built in the WUI — and “a Colorado State University analysis expects a 300 percent increase in WUI acreage in the next couple decades.”

In the last two decades in fire-scorched Colorado alone, I-News Network reports that “a quarter million people have moved into red zones,” meaning that today “one of every four Colorado homes is in a red zone.”

I had never heard of the wildland urban interface before. To put it in other terms, it sounds like many new homes are being built in exurban areas, the leading edges of metropolitan areas. There are advantages and disadvantages to this: the land is likely quite cheaper and people can have bigger pieces of property and newer homes. But, there are negative consequences such as having to drive further to get places and the environmental impact.

Here is more information on the wildland urban interface in Colorado from Colorado State University. And here is an interesting opinion piece in the Denver Post about how to improve the narratives about WUI fires.

A Best Buy no longer?

Wired argues that the decline of Best Buy’s business is linked to the decline of exurbia generally:

You can’t trace a precisely parallel line charting Best Buy’s decline alongside exurbia’s economic cratering. Technology and consumer preference have also taken a toll. Sales of physical media like DVDs and the players to play them have dropped as consumers stream more and more movies and music. Apple stores have seduced customers with a boutique approach that Best Buy plans to copy in some locations. Amazon and other online retailers have likely siphoned even more.

Despite these factors, the twilight gathering around Best Buy feels more than anything like part of the darkness that snuffed out the exurban dream. These signature outposts of [David] Brooks’ new world [described in his 2004 book On Paradise Drive] filled new homes with flatscreens bought with home equity loans that have since left victims of the crash drowning in debt. Like so many exurban homeowners, Best Buy banked on false promises of perpetual prosperity as contrary economic realities lurked.

I would also add that Best Buy has has to contend with expanded (and cheaper) electronics offerings at other big box stores, notably Walmart and Target.  Given the number of factors involved, is it really fair to characterize this as a “exurban problem”?

US exurban population grew 60% between 2000 and 2010

The fastest growing area in the United States between 2000 and 2010 were exurbs:

Between 2000 and 2010, the total U.S. population grew about 10 percent, from 281 million to 309 million. Over that same time, the exurban population grew by more than 60 percent, from about 16 million to almost 26 million people, according to the analysis. As this chart shows, rates of growth are significantly higher in exurban areas than in more urban or densely populated areas.

A new interactive map from the Urban Institute shows how the growth rates in exurban areas have been higher – and in some cases much higher – than the growth rates in their corresponding metropolitan areas. The map is based on an analysis by U.S. Census Bureau researchers Todd Gardner and Matthew Marlay, who looked at census data from 2000 and 2010, and American Community Survey data from 2005 through 2009. Their data is also available in a sortable table.

The exurbs of Las Vegas, for example, saw an average annual growth rate of 17.2 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the metropolitan area as a whole had an average growth rate of just 3.6 percent. Phoenix’s exurban growth rate was 14.7 percent during that time, compared to its metro-wide rate of 2.6 percent. Omaha’s exurban rate of 11.9 percent also outpaced its metro-wide rate of 1.2 percent. Ninety-six of the 98 most populous metropolitan areas saw higher growth rates in the exurbs than in the metro areas as a whole between 2000 and 2010…

But it wasn’t all just pre-crash exurban booming. Some metro areas continued to see their exurban populations grow between 2007 and 2010, after the crash and through the recession. From 2007 to 2010, metropolitan areas grew about 2.4 percent, while exurban areas grew by 13 percent. Some exurbs even out-performed their pre-recession selves. “In 22 of the largest 100 metros, the average annual growth rate in the exurbs from 2007 to 2010 was higher than that of the previous seven years,” the researchers write.

As you might expect, the majority of the fastest growing exurban areas were in the South and West.

By definition, the exurbs are on the metropolitan fringe. However, once they reach a certain population or development moves past them, they are no longer really the exurbs as further out communities then take up the label. How long does the “average” exurb last before it simply becomes a suburb? I suspect this might differ city by city as they expand at different rates. For example, the cities of the Northeast and Midwest have a longer history and much of their explosive growth has already concluded.

Republican secret to success: “a rich-poor alliance of affluent suburbs and poor rural counties”

In discussing the outcome of the recall election in Wisconsin, one analyst argues Republican electoral success is based on combining votes from two geographic areas:

McCabe argues the secret behind Walker and decades of Republican success nationwide is “a rich-poor alliance of affluent suburbs and poor rural counties.” In the recall election, Walker swept Milwaukee’s suburbs by huge margins and dominated the countryside. McCabe says in 2010, “Walker carried the 10 poorest counties in the state by a 13% margin”; these counties used to be reliably Democratic. He elaborates:

“Republicans use powerful economic wedge issues to great impact. They go into rural counties and say, do you have pensions? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs, referring to public sector workers. Do you have healthcare? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs? Do you get wage increases? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs.”

The scenario was far different 50 years ago, explains McCabe:

“The Democrats were identified with programs like Social Security, the G.I. Bill and rural electrification. People could see tangible benefits. Today, they ask, ‘Is government working for us?’ And often their answer is no. They see government as crooked and corrupt. They figure if the government is not working for us, let’s keep it as small as possible.”

Another way to look at this would be to say that Democrats tend to get votes from large cities and less affluent suburbs. This is not the first time this suggestion has been made: Joel Kotkin has discussed how Republicans appeal to suburban voters  and others noted in the 2004 election how George Bush won a clear majority of votes in fast-growing exurban counties.

In the lead-up to the November 2012 elections, when there is commentary about geography, it tends to be about which states are toss-ups between the two candidates. But you can rest assured that the advisers for the candidates are looking at much finer-grained data and how to get more votes from more specific geographic areas like inner-ring suburbs, monied burbs, and the metropolitan fringe. States are too large to analyze quickly: think of Illinois and the differences between Chicago, Chicago suburb, and downstate voters. The analysis in the media could at least be about the areas in the states where there are greater population concentrations. Will Mitt Romney primarily campaign in “affluent suburbs and poor rural suburbs” while Obama will stick to the big cities and middle to lower-class suburbs? Is Romney making a suburban/rural pitch in a majority suburban nation while Obama is promoting a more urban campaign?