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Interview with Richard Keiser

August 7, 2002

Associate Professor of Political Science Richard Keiser says that suburbanization—developing residential areas adjacent to a a central city—has contributed to a decline in the health of major American cities. The image of suburbs with big yards, new houses and quiet neighborhoods has attracted people, leaving cities with negative perceptions, declining tax bases and increasing social service demands. In a recent interview, Keiser discusses the impact of suburbanization on America's major cities.

Contact Professor Keiser to discuss suburbanization and its effects by calling his Carleton College office, 507.646.4122, or by e-mail at rkeiser@carleton.edu .

—Interview by Jill Hopson '03, writer for the Office of Media Relations

What is suburbanization?
In the United States, suburban dwellers own homes rather than renting, these homes are typically not close to work places, and are not as densely settled as in cities. Suburbanization is typically associated with affluent or at least middle class status.

Who is choosing to live in suburbs? Why are people choosing suburbs?
Suburbs have long attracted all kinds of people because of the idyllic image associated with large yards, green lawns, and cleaner and healthier living conditions than crowded cities. Once only the rich could afford these perceived amenities, but changes in the technology of transportation and home construction enabled the suburbs to be accessible to the broad middle class. However, discriminatory behavior by real estate agents and by white, middle class, suburban residents created barriers for many who were attracted to the mythical promise of suburbia. The films Gentleman's Agreement and Raisin in the Sun both portray the clash between aspiring minority families and exclusionary practices that typified the suburbs. Today discrimination is less overt but continues through zoning practices that create income barriers and through racial steering by realtors. We now have suburbs populated by residents whose incomes hover just above the poverty line; we have wealthy African-American and Asian suburbs as well as lower middle class suburbs that are populated by minorities. Although patterns of class and racial segregation remain strong in individual suburbs, across the spectrum there is a dramatically new level of diversity. Americans continue to associate suburbs with larger homes, less density, better schools, and greater security from crime than cities and since the 1980s more of the population lives in suburbs than in cities or rural areas.

Are cities becoming less attractive places to live, or are suburbs becoming more attractive?
Although cities offer cultural amenities that suburbs have yet to match, and cities seem to offer far greater opportunities for the development of community, increasingly during the twentieth century they have been seen negatively. Crowded and congested cities that provide the only housing available to the poorest among us have been linked to poor health conditions, declining schools, and higher levels of crime and perceived vulnerability to crime. At the same time, numerous government policies made building new homes in the suburbs less costly than revitalizing decaying areas of the city.

What are the effects of the trend on cities? How are the demographics of cities changing as a result of suburbanization?
As negative perceptions of the city increased, suburbs began to resist annexation. This left cities, particularly those in the East and Midwest, with declining tax bases and increasing social service demands, a bad combination. Suburbs developed malls for shopping and created an alternative to downtown shopping that further reduced the urban tax base. Meanwhile, as suburban populations eclipsed urban populations in number, legislative strength and electoral power have shifted away from cities making it that much more difficult to use government as a tool to redress inequities. These inequities are compounded by the fact that affluent suburbs typically refuse to build housing that is affordable for anyone but the affluent. Most cities still have large pockets of affluence and in the last decade or so gentrification has returned some middle class residents to the city. But the city (and some older, run-down inner ring suburbs) is typically responsible for the vast majority of the poor in a region.

Are suburbs changing as they get bigger and more numerous?
Yes, in many ways other than becoming more diverse economically and racially. Suburbs have become less strictly residential bedroom communities. Edge city is a term that designates suburbs in which people not only live and shop but also work in office towers that once were seen only in central cities. Suburban residents now commute to other suburbs more frequently than they commute to the core city. These growing suburban metropolises have contributed to sprawl and all of the negatives associated with that term, including traffic congestion, environmental degradation, and a decline in personal security. Ironically, the goals that people sought in their "escape" to the suburbs are becoming harder to achieve because so many people have made the same choice. Our attachment to cars and resistance to mass transit makes this a problem that will not be easily addressed.

Can anything else temper the effects of suburbanization?
The most promising step toward addressing these problems involves changing our views about the autonomy of suburbs and cities. If we adopt a regional perspective and see the health of suburbs, even affluent ones, as tied to the well-being of cities and declining suburbs, then we can begin to use resources to address common problems. Suburban congestion will decline and suburban sprawl will slow when people see the city as a positive residential alternative. We see glimmers of this changing view of the city already. If healthy suburban schools shared responsibility for educating the region's poor with urban schools, and suburban neighborhoods increased their proportion of housing for less than affluent residents, then cities could use that much more of their economic resources for combating problems that are solvable. Thinking regionally is, however, quite a challenge in our individualistic society.

 

Keiser focuses his research on progressive politics in America's big cities. He teaches an introductory course on liberty and equality in America, as well as courses on urban and suburban political economy, poverty and public policy and the Presidency. He is the author of "Subordination or Empowerment?" a text that analyzed the formation and disintegration of coalitions that advance African-American political empowerment, and he co-edited "Minority Politics at the Millennium," published in 2000.

Written by Jill Hopson '03