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August 7, 2007 > Boomburbs (Part I)

Boomburbs (Part I)

We live in an area that has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Across the country, cities that in many cases began as sleepy suburbs have swelled to become influential and critical communities with far-reaching regional political and economic impacts. The Brookings Institution Press recently released a fascinating study of these cities, "Boomburbs, The Rise of America's Accidental Cities," written by Robert E. Lang and Jennifer B. LeFugry. A comprehensive analysis of this phenomenon, the "boomburbs" of Fremont and Sunnyvale are included in the discussion. TCV asked Mr. Lang to comment on the role of boomburbs, their impact on internal policies and relevance to surrounding communities.

Mr. Lang is director of the Metropolitan Institute and associate professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning graduate program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. His previous books include Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis. Ms. LeFurgy is a writer and consultant in Alexandria, Virginia and formerly, deputy director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. Due to the length of this interview, segments will be presented in the next three issues of TCV.

TCV: How do you define a Boomburg and how do these differ from the traditional cities and suburbs?

Lang: Boomburgs are defined as places with populations exceeding 100,000 residents by the 2000 census. They have grown quickly in the last three decades, exceeding double digit growth rates for each decade. But many of them, in fact, have grown since either 1950 or even 1940 if they were involved in war production. Some of them have gone from a population of 7,000 or 8,000 to 200,000 residents from the post war years until now and in, some cases, from 1970 until now.

TCV: Why do we care?

Lang: Looking at the findings of the 2000 census and a half century back, you could see the whole second half of the century - changes with the automobile, air transportation and other forces. By the way, the 1990s was the best decade in fifty years for what were the dying cities of the country. The startling finding was just how bad the seventies were, the 70s are almost non-repeatable in terms of just how bad they were for those cities. But we weren't just looking at the places with a lot of decline, but also places that boomed. When you look at the cities that boomed, everyone likes to talk about Las Vegas. That's just nonsense, but North Las Vegas...maybe. The list was obscure. Gilbert, Arizona was the fastest growing city in this country to the last data estimate in July 2006.

From 1990, there have been places that people may have heard of because they have relatives living there or they stay there in hotel suites, but they are not in the public moment. Some have grown to very a large scale. So we said, 'Let's look at Mesa instead of Phoenix; let's look at Henderson instead of Las Vegas.' You know, look at Plano or Irving instead of Dallas. These were suburbs but have since become overgrown and urbanized.

They dominate the city change list. USA Today published a list of cities that changed dramatically from 2000 to 2006. The majority of big, fast-growing cities in the United States are Boomburgs - something like 15 of 25. There are cities that are not central cities. They are big suburbs of big central cities, especially in places like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, Florida or California. They are in the big "sunbelt" states, but they are not the big cities of these states. A remarkable population of the nation moves there, lives there and works there. Vital technology as well as mundane industry is located in these communities as well as amusement parks...

TCV: Why are these called these accidental cities?

Lang: The term refers to the fact that a majority of them never expected to be cities of that scale. They never planned to be like that; they were just large suburbs. Some of them refused to admit that they were cities. Gilbert, Arizona, one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. since 1990, is called Gilbert Town. Under Arizona Law, they could have been called a city after they exceeded 5,000 residents. But, I talked to the mayor and he specifically said that were never going to be called Gilbert City; 'we're going to call it Gilbert Town no matter how big we get, even if we have 300,000 people, we're still going to call it a town.' Others are planned in the sense that there's a lot of master planning on a large scale, but they are all little islands and don't plan to add up to a cohesive city. They are planned in little sections.

TCV: So the parts don't necessarily create a whole?

Lang: It's like a reverse synergy. It may be less than a whole because the parts compete with each other. Their externalities bump into one another;, they just bump into each other's traffic. They were not expected to coalesce into a tremendous whole and have not gotten used to the notion, "This place is bigger than St. Louis or Atlanta in population."

TCV: So they still see themselves as a town?

Lang: If you go to the downtown of some boomburbs, cities such as Arlington, Texas - the size of Atlanta or bigger than St. Louis or closing in on places like Washington D.C. - downtowns compared to Pittsburg or Cincinnati, look like it is in a place with only 5,000 residents. Others are working on this; there is a lot of activity, use of light rail and mixed-use of development. When you get to this scale, then you are a city, even if you don't face the consequences of it. You are in competition with other suburbs that are newer and smaller, less costly and not as congested. And so, you are caught in the middle, these are urbanizing suburbs, not exclusive. Even a upscale place like Scottsdale has a downscale section to it because you don't get to 200,000 people with 200,000 billionaires. Some neighborhoods are going to be in decline, even though that may not be anticipated; public policy is not being developed in these cities to track these issues.

TCV: In your book, you mention "baby boomburgs." Do these smaller communities grow into boomburgs and eventually urban cities?

Lang: It's a mixed picture. Some will embrace being urban, some will, by mid 21st century, be distinctly urban, others will be large subdivisions. Some of the baby boomburgs will grow well beyond a 100,000 while others will stay below that number. About 10 of them have already passed that mark in this decade. Cary, North Carolina and places in the west valley of Phoenix go up to about 150,000. So even in this decade, some of these places have jumped to a whole new scale. Others are slower growing and get built out prior to reaching 100,000 residents. The west side of Broward County, Florida is getting there because of a federal and state imposed growth boundary protecting sawgrass, water quality and the Everglades.

There are other places where there is plenty of room to grow; they anticipate being the size of Mesa, Arizona one day. So, it's a mixed picture and new places - not even baby boomburbs - are emerging that could be a 100,000 by 2030. So it's a process of change, but places like Lakewood, Colorado and Tempe, Arizona, are finished and in the process of redeveloping at much greater density. They will not be urban in the sense of a central city; they will not have a traditional look to them, but they will be urbanized in a new form where there is mixed use and automobile accommodation but a greater emphasis on pedestrian access. It won't look like a clone of Back Bay, Boston or Washington; it will be a new form of a city different from the subdivisions of the last couple of decades - not traditional urban. You see this emerging everywhere in the Sun Belt.

(End of Part I)

Boomburbs: The Rise of America's Accidental Cities
Robert E. Lang and Jennifer B. LeFurgy
Brookings Institution Press
July 2007
212 pages
ISBN 978-0-8157-5114-4

Jacket design by Rogue Element
Photos provided by Getty Images

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