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August 14, 2007 > Boomburbs (Part II)

Boomburbs (Part II)

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.

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, it is covered in three issues of TCV. Part I was published August 7, 2007.

"Boomburbs 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."

Boomburbs, Part II

TCV: Given the growth of Boomburbs and the economic power within them, why haven't we heard more from the planning community about them?

Lang: It takes a while for the public's imagination to catch up with what has just changed. Who would have guessed that Peoria Illinois was smaller than Peoria, Arizona? They are so suburban in look and feel that they don't strike people as cities. This has radically changed the definition from what constituted a central city to principal city, a new label as of 2003. In that process, almost none of my boomburbs were considered cities. About half of them are considered cities under the new definition that includes Thousand Oaks, California and Scottsdale, Arizona. The classification of city has now become a 'grab-bag.'

Irvine, California is considered a city under the census because it has enough office high-rise buildings employing enough people with enough concentration of population and retail even though it doesn't look like a city, even if it's a planned suburb. There is now recognition by the census that puts Irvine, California into the same category as New York City which means that there is almost no meaning to that data. The term Boomburbs is designed to separate the larger, faster, overgrown suburbs from traditional cities - from Green Bay, Wisconsin and bigger places like Cincinnati, Ohio. The term is a label, a family of comparable cities.

I was in California once, at Cal Berkeley to give a talk on this and a faculty member said, 'you can't seriously think that Fullerton is anything like, say Sunnyvale.' I replied, 'Those two cities are a lot closer to each other than they are to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Let's compare them to cities in the New York area such as Syracuse, New York or Providence, Rhode Island. Are they like those cities? Or maybe they are not clones of one another, but they are certainly similar in look, feel, development patterns and time of development then places in the East or Midwest. In that sense, they are comparable to the suburbs around Phoenix or Dallas.

TCV: Are Boomburbs in conflict with neighboring cities?

Lang: The allies of the future are pairs such as Plano and Dallas in Texas. They are concerned with the further decentralization of all commerce and the 'metroplex' of prairies recently converted to suburban uses like Frisco (Texas) and McKinney (Texas). Irving and Arlington share certain qualities; Irving and Plano share a light rail system. There are stops at both on the public transit system that is rail based. They have a common stake - their revenues are mingled and a share of their sales tax to subsidize the transit system. Their fate is in with Dallas.

TCV: How do established cities guard their identity?

Lang: If you're a marketing expert, you're going to try to identify with states. Now you see team names identified as Minnesota, Arizona, Carolina, etc.

TCV: The Oakland A's are planning to build a stadium in Fremont, but similar to the L.A. Angels at Anaheim, the agreement is to include 'at Fremont' in the name.

Lang: That's because they have brands. And cities have brands. It takes a long time for an upstart to gain standing. I think that by mid-century, a brand like Scottsdale might have more meaning. Right now, Scottsdale's downtown is done with western imagery. This is the town where Frank Lloyd Wright died; where you could play off an urban-western design ethos. The wealth and sophistication of that valley represents the richest place between Chicago and Los Angeles. But instead, they have wagon wheels. They don't know what's going on. They should yank the wagons and play off Frank Lloyd Wright. But they're still in the horse and buggy era. A lot of places don't get it. That is why they are accidental.

When cities developed in the late nineteenth century, they were expected to be the grand cities. Well before they were anything like this scale, they were already talking grandiose terms and trying to build high rises and when the technology existed, elevated trains and whatever. This is the opposite. These places are stealthy; they're trying not to indicate that they are in the scale they are at. They're tying to offer a still suburban model of amenities and lifestyle, which they can offer in master plan product. But, put enough master planned communities together, draw a boundary around it and you are bigger than Pittsburgh.

TCV: In this area, a line was drawn around five cities to form Fremont.

LANG: I mention that consolidation in the book. Fremont came out of nothing. In fact, Fremont was a difficult city to track because it didn't have that organic basis as a place that just annexed. The city was put together as a combination of the South Bay.

TCV: What challenges do Boomburbs face in the governmental structure?

Lang: Well, Boomburbs were designed to have a fairly light government offering a private world where you could withdraw from the city, not pay as high taxes, put your lot in with people of similar income and not make investments in giant signature urban parks such as Central Park or expensive infrastructure like trains. This developed with a different model, in a different kind of world. People also worried about things like high taxes and so on, so these places grew and developed governments that were much smaller given their population size, than you would expect.

Atlanta is smaller than Mesa (Arizona), but has a much larger government and a much more traditional government with an elected strong mayor, not a city council/manager system or part-time mayor. The problem is that the Boomburb model only works because there is so much private government to substitute for what would have been public functions. Master Plan communities take care of code enforcement through covenants enforceable by neighbors from the same association. This doesn't require somebody hired by the city with a salary, pension and health care. This is a public enforcement of building codes.

And they take care of a lot of parks and associated amenities including pools and road systems that are internal to a structure (private streets). So the Boomburbs have gotten away with a very large scale with very scaleable governments. But, if you get big enough diverse enough, then you're going to have to have voices in government that are coming from neighborhoods in decline. You can't just have the city council system at large, where everyone comes from the same upscale part of the city where they're all volunteers, they're all lawyers and independently wealthy.

You're going to have to elect city council members, pay them salaries, allow wards to develop and compete for city resources. This drives up the cost of government. For some boomburbs, that is still several years or decades away, but the day of reckoning is not far off. You can't get to half million people or 300,000 people without sooner or later, issues of equity arising that requires a government that accommodates a larger and more diverse set of issues, rather than a group of subdivisions and master plan communities.

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

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