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Boomburbs: The Rise of America's Accidental Cities

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Overview

A glance at a list of America's fastest growing "cities" reveals quite a surprise: most are really overgrown suburbs. Places such as Anaheim, California, Coral Springs, Florida, Naperville, Illinois, North Las Vegas, Nevada, and Plano, Texas, have swelled to big-city size with few people really noticing —including many of their ten million residents. These "boomburbs" are large, rapidly growing, incorporated communities of more than 100,000 residents that are not the biggest city in their region. Here, Robert E. Lang and Jennifer B. LeFurgy explain who lives in them, what they look like, how they are governed, and why their rise calls into question the definition of urban.

Located in over twenty-five major metro areas throughout the United States, numerous boomburbs have doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in size between census reports. Some are now more populated than traditional big cities. The population of the biggest boomburb —Mesa, Arizona —recently surpassed that of Minneapolis and Miami.

Typically large and sprawling, boomburbs are "accidental cities," but not because they lack planning. Many are made up of master-planned communities that have grown into one another. Few anticipated becoming big cities and unintentionally arrived at their status. Although boomburbs possess elements found in cities such as housing, retailing, offices, and entertainment, they lack large downtowns. But they can contain high-profile industries and entertainment venues: the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Arizona Cardinals are among over a dozen major-league sports teams who play in the boomburbs.

Urban in fact but not in feel, these drive-by cities of highways, office parks, and shopping malls are much more horizontally built and less pedestrian friendly than most older suburbs. And, contrary to common perceptions of suburbia, they are not rich and elitist. Poverty is often seen in boomburb communities of small single-family homes, neighborhoods that once represented the American dream.

Boomburbs are a quintessential American landscape, embodying much of the nation's complexity, expansiveness, and ambiguity. This fascinating look at the often contradictory world of boomburbs examines why America's suburbs are thriving and how they are shaping the lives of millions of residents.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The wealth of statistical and contextual analyses of these places makes the book valuable for graduate students and faculty in urban affairs, as well as for city planners." —E. Carlson, Florida State University, CHOICE

"The book is a valuable addition to the literature of growth and development in the United States." — Civil Engineering

" Boomburbs is an excellent adventure through the evolution of these places, the people who inhabit them, the housing typologies that went from the craftsman house to the ranch to the McMansion, and the commercial and workplace economies that have emerged along the wide arterials and left-turn lanes." —Anthony Flint, on The Business of Government Hour

"Lang and LeFurgy are that most rare of suburban chroniclers; they are describing the place based on research. Almost everyone else who weighs in on the subject, whether apologist or critic, has an ax to grind....this is an immensely readable book for the lay person or the scholar." —Christopher B. Leinberger, University of Michigan, Journal of Planning Education and Research

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815703037
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 7/24/2009
  • Series: James A. Johnson Metro Series
  • Pages: 212
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert E. Lang is co-director of the Metropolitan Institute and a professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning graduate program at Virginia Tech. His previous books include Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis (Brookings, 2003).

Jennifer B. LeFurgy is a writer and consultant in Alexandria, Virginia. She was formerly deputy director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.

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Read an Excerpt

Boomburbs

The Rise of America's Accidental Cities
By Robert E. Lang Jennifer LeFurgy

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2007 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-5114-4


Chapter One

Legoland

A primary LEGO showpiece, Miniland USA is a celebration of American achievements, a canvas to illustrate the diversification of its peoples and cultures, past and present. -Legoland website

The main attraction of Legoland, a theme park just outside of Carlsbad, California, is Miniland USA, which features miniatures of quintessentially American places built from 20 million Legos. Miniland has a replica of Washington, complete with federal museums, monuments, the White House, and the Capitol. It even has a miniature Georgetown and a working model of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Other places in Miniland include the French Quarter of New Orleans, a New England fishing village, and Manhattan. The miniature of California is a hodgepodge of scenes, from an Orange County surfing town to Chinatown in San Francisco.

What's missing from Miniland, however, is the built landscapes so typical of America-the housing subdivision, the retail strip mall, the office park-in short, suburbia. The irony is that Lego building blocks are perfectly suited to make such places, especially the commercial structures. The basic Lego is a small rectangular block. Think of the ease with which the Miniland model makers could depict big-box retail centers or the low-slung, banded-window suburban office building. Just snap a bunch of Legos together and, presto, instant "edge city." It is not as if the Lego folks could have missed knowing about suburban malls and office buildings: Southern California is chock full of them. Such buildings even lie just outside the gates of Legoland, along Interstate 5 as it approaches San Diego. But apparently suburban sprawl does not count as an "American achievement."

Modern suburbia's absence from Miniland USA reflects a national ambivalence about what we have built in the past half century. We made the suburbs, and we increasingly live in the suburbs, but we still often disregard them as real places. Even though one could describe much of modern suburban commercial development as Lego-like, there was little chance that Miniland would include a replica of nearby Costa Mesa, California, which contains the nation's biggest suburban office complex and one of its largest malls.

Boomburbs: The Booming Suburbs

This book is about the places that rarely inspire theme parks but, interestingly, are home to them, such as Anaheim, California, which is famous for Disneyland. While these booming suburbs may not capture the public imagination, they have consistently been the fastest-growing cities over the past several decades. This growth has not translated into immediate name recognition, except perhaps among demographers, who keep seeing the population growth of these cities exceed that of older cities.

The essence of a boomburb is that people know of them but find them unremarkable and unmemorable. As this book shows, all sorts of highprofile industries and activities occur in boomburbs, but few identify with the city. For example, over a dozen major league sports are centered in boomburbs, but only the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (a hockey team) carries the place name. The fact that the one professional baseball team that had a boomburb identity-the Anaheim Angels-has since become the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim points to the problem. The city of Anaheim took the trouble to highlight this switch in its entry for Wikipedia.com, an online encyclopedia:

On January 3, 2005, Angels Baseball, LP, the ownership group for the Anaheim Angels, announced that it would change the name of the club to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Team spokesmen pointed out that, from its inception, the Angels had been granted territorial rights by Major League Baseball to the counties of Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside, and San Bernardino in addition to Orange County. New owner Arturo Moreno believed the new name would help him market the team to the entire Southern California region rather than just Orange County. The "of Anaheim" was included in the official name to comply with a provision of the team's lease at Angel Stadium, which requires that "Anaheim be included" in the team's name.

Thus Anaheim, a city with as many residents as Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, is reduced to an addendum on the Angels name-and only then because of a legal technicality.

Scratch most boomburb mayors and you may find that they have a Rodney Dangerfield complex: their cities get no respect. Michael L. Montandon, the mayor of North Las Vegas (one of the nation's fastest-growing boomburbs), tells of an encounter in which the mayor of Salt Lake City dismissed the idea that the two places share common problems, despite the fact that North Las Vegas is both bigger and more ethnically diverse than Salt Lake City.

North Las Vegas is not alone. Few big-city mayors seem to recognize boomburbs as peers, and visa versa. Mayor Keno Hawker of Mesa, Arizona (a boomburb that is now bigger than Atlanta or St. Louis), spent just one year in the U.S. Conference of Mayors before withdrawing his city. His problem (in addition to the stiff dues) was that the other mayors were simply not discussing issues that concerned him. As of 2004 Mesa was the largest city in the nation that does not belong to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

But boomburbs also have a hard time fitting into the National League of Cities, whose membership is dominated by smaller cities and suburbs. Although most boomburbs do belong to the National League of Cities, their size and growth rates make it difficult for them to share common perspectives and problems with the typical cities in the organization. As one boomburb mayor put it, "How do you relate to cities that are smaller than your city grows in just a year?"

We call boomburbs accidental cities. But they are accidental not because they lack planning, for many are filled with master-planned communities; when one master-planned community runs into another, however, they may not add up to one well-planned city. Too new and different for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and too big and fast growing for the National League of Cities, boomburbs have a hard time fitting into the urban policy discussion. Washington's think tank crowd is simply stumped by them.

It seems that few boomburbs anticipated becoming big cities, or have yet to fully absorb this identity, and thus have accidentally arrived at this status. Part of the confusion may be that in the past the port, the factory, and the rail terminal fueled metropolitan growth. Today booms occur in places with multiple exchanges on new freeways, where subdivisions, shopping strips, and office parks spring up. This is the development zone that Bruce Katz refers to as "the exit-ramp economy." Or as Jane Jacobs would say, boomburbs develop as "micro-destinations" (such as office parks) as opposed to "macro-destinations" (downtowns).

Boomburbs are not traditional cities nor are they bedroom communities for these cities. They are instead a new type of city, a subset of and a new variation of American suburbanization. This book explores the fundamental nature of this new type of city.

The Boomburb Concept

The boomburb concept came from a Fannie Mae Foundation project, undertaken by Robert Lang and Patrick Simmons, to study the 2000 U.S. census to better understand changes in the U.S. city population in the second half of the twentieth century, or since 1950. Lang and Simmons argued that an analysis of five decades of change provides a context for understanding the population shifts of the 1990s.

The year 1950 is an important benchmark for American cities. For many older cities, it was their population high point. Cities swelled as soldiers returning from World War II started families and sought housing in a nation that had built hardly any new residences in twenty years due to war and depression. With the beginning of Levittown and similar tract-style developments in the late 1940s, the 1950 census also marks the start of large-scale suburbanization.

Lang and Simmons were determined to fix two major deficiencies that they saw in most urban population analysis-the lack of historical data and the lumping together of all big cities (comparing, for example, Newark and Las Vegas). By looking at, say, only the hundred biggest cities in the United States in 2000, and using just one decade for comparison (the 1990s), the finding is always the same-Las Vegas blows out Newark. But by developing a peer-city analysis (Newark compared to Cleveland, Las Vegas compared to Phoenix) and by looking at several decades, a more precise reading of urban change is possible.

Lang and Simmons therefore split all major U.S. cities into two categories: boomers and decliners. Boomers were defined as all cities above 100,000 in population as of 2000 that had sustained double-digit population growth since 1950. Decliners included all cities with a 1950 population of 200,000 or more with at least two decades of population loss since 1950.

Looking at the boomers, Lang and Simmons found a surprise-most were not booming cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix but were instead the suburbs of these big Sunbelt cities. The simple fact is that the fastest-growing U.S. cities with more than 100,000 residents have little identity outside their region. Given this finding, Lang and Simmons decided to focus only on places that are not the central city of their region. So instead of, say, comparing Las Vegas to Phoenix, they compared a Las Vegas suburb, such as Henderson, to a Phoenix suburb, such as Chandler. Thus was born the boomburb concept.

The 2001 boomburb research was covered by such national media as USA Today, CNN, and MSNBC. A big reason for such attention, besides the catchy title, was some truly revealing findings. For example, the population of the biggest boomburb-Mesa, Arizona-surpassed that of such traditional big cities as Minneapolis and Miami. Even many smaller boomburbs were now bigger than older and better-known medium-size cities. Tellingly, Peoria, Arizona, was poised to jump ahead of Peoria, Illinois (its namesake)-which it has subsequently done.

The boomburb concept touched a nerve. It tapped into the sense that Americans are building very different places than in the past. There is an extensive literature on the suburbs and even a good deal of work showing that suburbs have evolved past their traditional role as bedroom communities. But the boomburb findings capture the immense scale of this change. The rise of boomburbs has shock value-Mesa bigger than Minneapolis and Miami? It presents the questions, How did this happen and what does it mean?

The idea behind boomburb research was always to explore these places as emerging urban forms and not to judge them. This book seeks to do the same. Boomburbs make an easy target for those who find fault with the way such places are developing. This study does not add to that chorus of criticism. Nor does it apologize for boomburbs. Rather, the book lays out the facts and lets readers render their own verdict. Both detractors and boosters will find plenty of new facts in this book to support their views.

Boomburbs Redux

The starting year in this analysis is 1970, not 1950, as in the original research. This shift added one more boomburb-Palmdale, California-to the list. Boomburbs are still defined as having more than 100,000 residents, as not the core city in their region, and as having maintained double-digit rates of population growth for each census since the beginning year (now 1970). Boomburbs are incorporated and are located in the nation's fifty largest metropolitan statistical areas as of the 2000 census, areas that range from New York City, with over 20 million residents, to Richmond, Virginia, with just under 1 million people. As of the 2000 census, four boomburbs topped 300,000 in population, eight surpassed 200,000, and forty-two exceeded 100,000. The fifty-four boomburbs account for 52 percent of 1990s' growth in cities with 100,000 to 400,000 residents. (The fifty-four boomburbs are listed alphabetically in table 1-1.)

Boomburbs now contain over a quarter of all residents of small to midsize cities. There may be just a few dozen boomburbs, but they now dominate growth in the category of places that fall just below the nation's biggest cities. Another way to grasp just how big boomburbs have become is by comparing their current populations with those of some better-known traditional cities. Mesa, Arizona, the most populous boomburb at 396,375 residents in 2000, is bigger than such traditional large cities as Minneapolis (population 382,618), Miami (population 362,470), and St. Louis (population 348,189). Arlington, Texas, the third biggest boomburb, with 332,969 people, falls just behind Pittsburgh (with 334,536) and just ahead of Cincinnati (with 331,285). Even such smaller boomburbs as Chandler, Arizona, and Henderson, Nevada (with 176,581 and 175,381 residents, respectively) now surpass older midsize cities such as Knoxville (with 173,890), Providence, Rhode Island (with 173,618), and Worcester, Massachusetts (with 172,648).

By the 2000 census, fifteen of the hundred largest cities in the United States were boomburbs. More significant, from 1990 to 2000, fourteen of the twenty-five fastest-growing cities among these hundred were boomburbs-including five of the top ten. Since the 2000 census, many of the largest boomburbs jumped ahead of their traditional (and much better-known) big-city peers (based on 2002 census estimates). Mesa (with an estimated population of 426,841) edged out Atlanta (estimated at 424,868). Both Arlington, Texas (estimated at 349,944), and Santa Ana, California (estimated at 343,413), passed St. Louis (which lost nearly 10,000 residents by 2002). Anaheim (with an estimated 2002 population of 332,642) is now immediately trailing St. Louis. Aurora, Colorado (286,028), has overtaken St. Paul (284,037). Finally, Peoria, Arizona (123,239), surged ahead of Peoria, Illinois (112,670), which has actually lost residents in recent years.

To put the boomburb rise in perspective, consider that only about a quarter of the U.S. population lives in municipalities that exceed 100,000 people. The fraction of the population living in cities this size or above peaked in 1930. Boomburbs are among the few large cities that are actually booming. Much of the nation's metropolitan population gains have shifted to their edges.

While some boomburbs are well on their way to becoming major cities, at least as defined by population size, it is not surprising that these places fall below the public radar. But it is interesting how little boomburbs register with urban experts, too. For instance, a recent encyclopedia of urban America that covers both cities and "major suburbs" fails to list even one boomburb exceeding 300,000 people; it does, however, have entries for comparably sized (and often even smaller) traditional cities.

This book also tracks, in addition to boomburbs, a category of fast-growing suburban city, the baby boomburb. It meets the same boomburb growth qualifications; however, it ranges in size from 50,000 to 100,000 residents as of the 2000 census. There are eighty-six baby boomburbs in the United States (table 1-2).

Baby boomburbs are important to examine for two reasons. First, many are up-and-coming boomburbs. In fact, several have jumped over the 100,000 mark since 2000. The second reason is that baby boomburbs are numerous. They are especially well represented in the Midwest and the South. They capture the growth in places that boom but lack boomburbs. The change that has swept boomburbs also impacted baby boomburbs. In many instances the latter are at an earlier stage in the process of change than the former. Baby boomburbs came up in many of the discussions the authors had with elected boomburb officials, who often saw these places as potential rivals.

Where Are Boomburbs?

While boomburbs and baby boomburbs are found throughout the nation, they occur mostly in the Southwest in a belt of metropolitan areas stretching from Texas to the Pacific, with almost half in California alone. Even a relatively small Western metropolis such as Las Vegas contains two boomburbs. The Las Vegas region also contains three census-designated places (or unincorporated places) that exceed 100,000 residents and so would qualify as boomburbs were they incorporated.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Boomburbs by Robert E. Lang Jennifer LeFurgy Copyright © 2007 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Ed Glaeser
Preface
1. Legoland
2. From Settlements to Super Suburbs
3. Who Lives in the Boomburbs
4. The Business of Boomburbs
5. Big Skies, Small Lots: Boomburb Housing and Master-Planned Development
6. The Small Town Politics of Big Cities
7. Boomburbs at Buildout
8. Emerging Urban Realms and the Boomburbs of 2030
Notes
Index
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