Two-thirds of Chicago area jobs in the suburbs

The demise of Sears and its suburban headquarters, once famously downtown in a building that was the tallest in the world, does not mean that suburban jobs are disappearing:

Sears’ move to northwest suburban Hoffman Estates symbolized a trend: The economic ascendance of Chicago’s suburbs, which even in the early 1990s accounted for more than 60 percent of the region’s jobs.

At first glance, that dominance appears to be slipping as companies like McDonald’s make headline-grabbing moves back to the city from leafy suburban campuses.

But it would be wrong to point to Sears’ latest struggles, which eased Wednesday when the company’s chairman won a bankruptcy auction that prevented a liquidation of Sears, and conclude that the suburbs are down and out.

People working in the suburbs still provide two out of every three Chicago-area jobs, according to data provided by regional planners.

While the emphasis of this article is on the suburban Sears campus, the suburban jobs numbers stuck out to me. There are (at least) two ways to interpret the number that two-thirds of the jobs in the Chicago region are in the suburbs:

  1. Of course the majority of jobs in the Chicago region are in the suburbs: more than two-thirds of the region’s population lives in the suburbs. All those residents both help generate nearby jobs with their various consumer needs (from retail to food to building and construction) and help fill those jobs.
  2. This is a surprising figure. Chicago is a leading global city; how could so many jobs be in the suburbs when what really matters in the region is the strength of the Loop and nearby neighborhoods? Plus, it would be better if employers started in the city or moved back to the city to help create a strong base for the region as well as take advantage of the city’s economies of scale (including mass transit access) and cultural opportunities.

These figures are part of a larger trend that I think is underappreciated in the rise of American suburbs: the suburbs are jobs centers, not just a collection of bedroom communities. While the stereotypical American suburb is a community of subdivisions with occasional businesses, the suburbs are full of companies and firms doing all sorts of things. And it has been this way for decades.

Determining the complicated boundaries of the Chicago suburbs

Prompted by the discovery of Green Oaks, Illinois earlier this week, I went searching for a list of all of the Chicago suburbs. Instead, I found a discussion about where exactly the Chicago suburbs end. Here is an expert talking about this very issue in summer 2018:

The best definition of where the “suburbs” are, according to Ellis, is probably the boundaries of the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet Metropolitan Statistical Area

But calling everything inside those boundaries “the suburbs” is probably too simple…

So, Ellis said, the suburbs end to the west at the Fox River, to the south along the Lincoln Highway, and stretch along the train lines as far south as Michigan City, IN and as far north as Kenosha, WI.

The second map probably also conforms to cultural understandings in the region about what is really a suburb. There are places that could be within the far-flung orbit of Chicago but do not think of themselves or are not regarded by others as true suburbs.

This is an issue for many metropolitan regions, particular due to two changes:

1. Suburban areas keep developing further from the central city.

2. More people commute suburb to suburb rather than into the central city on a regular basis.

With more housing available further from the city as well as the presence of jobs in far-flung job centers, more residents can be part of a metropolitan region even if they rarely make a trip into the big city or do direct business with the big city.

Lakewood, CA caught between suburban housing or job choices

A profile of Lakewood, California, a paradigmatic postwar suburb, suggests the community is no longer home to numerous suburban dreams:

So they settled in Lakewood, among the rows of modest little ranch-style houses, repeated in one of 20 or so iterations, interspersed with shopping centers, parks and schools. It’s a landscape that today appears completely unremarkable, but half a century ago embodied a powerful vision of the good life in California…

“The promise of Lakewood was enough of the good things of an everyday life — a simple house, a yard, infrastructure of schools and churches and shopping centers,” said D.J. Waldie, an author and former city historian who wrote the book, “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir,” about life in Lakewood from the 1950s, when the subdivision exploded out of lima bean fields into a suburb of 70,000…

Those solid middle-class jobs nearby have shipped out. To afford to buy a home here, a lot more people are living like Jenny Gov — spending more of their day in ever-worsening traffic, leaving little time to spend with family and neighbors, coaching Little League or exploring the wonders of California.

The promise of places like Lakewood has been carved down into little pieces with Californians forced to pick between them: choose the house or choose the nearby job, but seldom both.

The issue discussed in the article is a common one: the locations of jobs and affordable or even somewhat affordable housing are not necessarily close. Many metropolitan regions do not have the infrastructure to provide options besides driving for the important suburb to suburb trips that make up the largest segment of trips. And to some degree, these locations can change. When Lakewood was developed, how many people predicted the true multinucleated nature of the Los Angeles region?

Certainly, more affordable housing is needed. At the same time, is there hope of spreading out good jobs or introducing new jobs in more residential communities? The typical bedroom suburb does not have to remain as such.

Study suggests more traffic is related to stronger metro economies

What if traffic is not something to avoid but rather a byproduct of a strong economy?

By comparing historic traffic data against several economic markers, the authors found virtually no indication that gridlock stalled commerce. In fact, it looked like the economy had its own HOV lane. Region by region, GDP and jobs grew, even as traffic increased. This does not mean speed bumps should come standard on every new highway. Traffic still sucks, and things that suck should be fixed. What this study does is acknowledge that economically vibrant cities will always have congestion. So transportation planners should instead focus on ways to alleviate the misery rather than eliminate the existence of congestion…

Marshall acknowledges that no statistic can paint a perfect picture of reality, but he says he and his coauthor wrangled their analysis into coherence. Once they accounted for all the hanging chads, the overall trend was pretty clear: Traffic really didn’t do much to the economy. In fact, they found that if anything, places with higher car congestion seemed to have stronger economies. Specifically, per capita GDP and job growth both tracked upward as traffic wait times got worse.

It sounds like the study suggests the better the economy is, the more traffic there will be. I could think of two observations that go with these findings:

  1. The idea of ghost towns, both literal and figurative. If there is a lack of economic activity, the streets and buildings will be pretty empty.
  2. Jane Jacobs argued the most interesting neighborhoods are those with a lot of street and sidewalk activity. This is certainly related to economic activity of businesses, shops, and restaurants as well as the ability of residents and visitors to spend money.

Even if this is true, I would guess this knowledge would do little to help people stuck in gridlock feel better about the situation. They should think “I’m glad I have a good job in a thriving metro area and the traffic is the small penalty to pay for that.”

Perhaps a final piece to this would be to think about what would need to change in urban areas or driving to decouple these factors. Would a significant investment in mass transit counter this connection? More telecommuting and working from home?

Fallacy: if suburbs or a big city gain people, the other necessarily has to lose

The history of American metropolitan areas suggests that if a big city loses people, the suburbs gain people and vice versa. Yet, I argue this is an inadequate view of metropolitan regions. Consider a recent story on how the revival of downtown Detroit could harm its suburbs:

The failure of a few landmarks does not mean Detroit’s suburbs are doomed, but some local leaders see writing on the wall. Oakland County’s famously abrasive county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, has long taken a vocal pro-sprawl position, but even his government is making an effort to invest in the county’s handful of historic downtowns, via what’s touted as the “nation’s first and only county-wide Main Street program.” Archetypal suburbs like Troy are also getting in on the act. While it may be hard now to imagine walking along Troy’s main drag, a busy six-lane thoroughfare called Big Beaver Road, the city recently installed wider sidewalks, revised zoning to encourage taller buildings and multifamily housing, and took a stab at transit with a trolley-style shuttle bus.

“Everybody’s trying to create places in Southeast Michigan, which didn’t really have places before,” says Barry Murray, director of economic and community development for Dearborn, which borders Detroit to the southwest. “And there’s a lot of interest in diversified housing options, from young people who want to be in the hearts of downtowns.”

Dearborn, with a bustling commercial center of its own less than seven miles from Detroit’s, is in a better position to adapt to the changing times than most of its suburban peers. The city has been Ford’s hometown for the past century, and while a few thousand Ford workers might be moving down Michigan Avenue, the automaker is also spending more than $1 billion to reimagine its Dearborn headquarters along the lines of a Silicon Valley Tech Campus, and to create a new mixed-use development around Dearborn’s historic Wagner Hotel. Murray expects at least 1,000 new apartments to come online over the next few years—at present, he estimates, 90 percent of the city’s 38,000 housing units are detached single-family homes. Meanwhile, a declining mall where 1,800 Ford employees are temporarily occupying an old Lord & Taylor is “an active planning area,” Murray says. “We know these retailers are not going to be there forever.”

Southfield, just across Eight Mile Road from Detroit, could tell Dearborn a thing or two about disappearing retail—last year, it began tearing down Northland Center, the first shopping mall in America. Since Amazon turned down the city’s offer of the site for its second headquarters, Southfield is moving forward with a plan to crisscross the property with through streets and make way for offices, restaurants, apartments and a park—an effort to create a downtown in a city built without one. Says Mayor Kenson Siver, “We have a lot of plans here.”

This is a common approach to population changes: cities and suburbs are locked in a zero-sum mortal combat for residents. Suburbs have won this battle over time with over 50% of Americans living around major cities. (Hence, the countless stories in recent decades about a population migration to cities which will come at the expense of suburbs. I believe the data overall is limited regarding a major shift in American preferences for city life.)

I would suggest this view contains some truth – communities do compete with each other for prestige, jobs, their tax base, and residents – but also ignores the larger reality of how cities and suburbs work in today’s world. The metropolitan region is a connected unit and the communities and agents work together. The differences between suburbs and city are ultimately smaller than the differences with other metropolitan regions. If Detroit’s core attracts new businesses and residents, this can only be good in the long run. If Detroit is only able to attract businesses and residents from the suburbs, this is not real growth – it simply shuffling actors around within the region. When both Detroit’s suburbs and core bring in people from other regions, they can grow together and the metropolitan region (and all the people within it can thrive).

Of course, there are hurdles to coming to this perspective. Individual communities, city or suburbs, will not like if they lose assets and others around them gain. Racial and class differences lurk behind these current and historic differences. Money is tight. Ideally, suburban and urban leaders would come together to talk about how to proceed positively as a region. Going further, they could discuss how to share resources. (This is probably the toughest sell in American regions, particularly from wealthier communities who do not want to lose the resources they see as theirs.) But, working together for the greater Detroit area would pay off in the long run and help ensure a thriving region.

Can you say you are from a city when you actually live in its suburbs?

The debate continues on whether suburban residents can claim to be from the big city:

Fowler was criticizing Trump for bashing Chicago while failing to reach out to Gov. Bruce Rauner about potential solutions. When he says “I’m from Chicago,” he’s quickly cut off by Caldwell whose “Bruh, you’re from Evanston” comment quickly excited Chicagoans on Twitter…

Perhaps this is even a bigger issue in Chicago where identification with a neighborhood or community area is very common among urban residents.

While suburban residents shouldn’t try to boost their image by claiming to be from the big city when they aren’t, they are in a difficult place when talking to people from outside of the region. When meeting someone, telling them the name of your suburb can often produce blank stares. The Chicago region has hundreds of communities of varying sizes and it is difficult to expect people to know even most of them (even if they are from the region). The big city becomes a kind of shorthand of where you are from. One other option that might work could be to identify a noteworthy or large suburb that others may know – I’ve been surprised how many people register some familiarity when I say I live near Naperville.

Additionally, there are certainly instances when saying you identify with the big city does make sense. Sports teams are the first example that comes to mind. There are very few American major sports franchises that identify with the suburbs. The only two that come to mind are the Long Island Islanders and the New Jersey Devils but they are from the largest region in the country and there are three hockey teams to differentiate. There are certain resources that big cities have that suburbanites could identify with, such as major airports (many people who have spent little time in the Chicago region can hold some kind of conversation about O’Hare Airport) or museums and cultural attractions.

Majority of American jobs in the suburbs

An analysis at New Geography shows the metropolitan locations of American jobs:

The 2014 data indicates that more than 80 percent of employment in the nation’s major metropolitan areas is in functionally suburban or exurban areas (Figure 3). The earlier suburbs have the largest share of employment, at 44 percent. The later suburbs and exurbs combined have 37.0 percent, while the urban cores have 18.9 percent, including the 9.1 percent in the downtown areas (central business districts, or CBDs).

These numbers reveal dispersion since 2000. Then, the earlier suburbs had even more of the jobs, at 49.4 percent, 5.3 percentage points higher than in 2014. Virtually all of the lost share of jobs in the earlier suburbs was transferred to the later suburbs and exurbs, which combined grew from 31.4 percent in 2000 to 37.0 percent in 2014. The urban cores had 19.4 percent of the jobs (8.8 percent in the CBDs), slightly more than the 18.9 percent in 2014.

While Chicago is one of the cities with a higher percentage of jobs in the city, Sun Belt locations dominate the list of cities with more jobs in outer suburbs:

These figures counter claims or stereotypes that (1) suburbs are primarily bedroom communities where people sleep but work in the city and (2) urban cores are the primary job centers of metropolitan regions. Of course, some suburbs are bedroom suburbs and big city downtowns are still important, particularly for certain industries (think global finance). At the same time, it would be interesting to envision some of these Sun Belt cities with no downtown…how different would Raleigh or Atlanta or Orlando really be?