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Inner Cities, Inner Suburbs, Outer Suburbs: geographies, changing preferences

By Brian Doucet
January 15, 2010

In simple terms, we can divide cities into three broad areas: inner cities, inner suburbs and outer suburbs. As cities change and develop, so to do the fortunes of each area, and this is the subject this article. It will argue that the traditional beliefs of poor cities and rich suburbs is being challenged as gentrification continues and poverty suburbanises. The changing location preferences of households (particularly middle-class ones) is also reflective of this transition.

Let’s start with inner cities. These are areas broadly defined as being built before World War II, when mobility was not primarily geared to the automobile (ie towards walking, streetcars or trains). They tend to be mixed in their uses; the major commercial, industrial, cultural, governmental and retail centres of urban areas are typically found in the inner city. They also have a mix of housing types, which leads in turn, to a mix of people.

After World War II, many inner cities, particularly in North America, entered a rapid spiral of decline and disinvestment. The ‘inner city’ became a byword for the wider problems of cities: crime, unemployment, poverty, decay and drugs. There were many reasons for these images; inner cities lost much of their (affluent) population, business of all sorts relocated to suburban areas and entire neighbourhoods were destroyed or ripped in half by highways serving the newly-built suburbs. Those who dreamed of a better life for themselves and their families sought that dream in the suburbs.

In the past few decades, a remarkable transformation has occurred. For multiple reasons, inner-cities have regained some of that investment and population lost in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Gentrification is spreading at a rapid rate. This transition is by no means complete, nor is it evenly spread – it can be seen more in cities such as San Francisco, New York or London than Glasgow or Cleveland – but in many places the most problematic neighbourhoods are no longer found in the inner-city. In cities such as Toronto or Amsterdam, the transition in what I have defined as the inner-city is almost complete; there are only a few poor holdouts, most of which are linked to housing projects or noxious factories. These trends show no signs of reversing, either. In the coming decades, the gentrification and professionalisation of inner-cities neighbourhoods will only continue to develop and the population diversity which characterised these areas will continue to decline as lower-income groups and ethnic minorities are forced out. This represents a fundamental shift away from the suburbanisation of wealth has dominated the growth of cities since the start of the industrial era. For many professional middle-class households, their aspirational housing dream is now an urban, gentrified dream.

We now turn our attention to the suburbs, first by examining the outer suburbs. While many middle-class households have chosen an urban lifestyle, there are still large segments of society that pursue the traditional suburban dream, with a large house, multi-car garage and plenty of safe and secure spaces for children to play. For this vision, the outer suburbs offer plenty of opportunities to realise this dream. Developers and local governments also subscribe to this ideal as most new projects in the outer suburbs continue to built following the traditional suburban mould of large homes, space and privacy.

What the outer suburbs and exurbs have as their advantage is newness and space. This attracts households in search of such environments. Notwithstanding the risk of prohibitively high gas prices which could very quickly change peoples’ habits and preferences, these areas will continue to satisfy the demands of a large segment of the urban population’s desire to live in the suburbs. And because there is a lot of money in these neighbourhoods, businesses have followed suit, providing jobs, leisure and retail opportunities. What we are also witnessing is the suburbanisation of ethnic groups; we can no longer say that the suburbs are the domain of the white, middle-classes. The immigrant dream and the suburban dream have become intertwined and find their geographies in the outer suburbs.

That leaves the last of the three parts of the city, which I argue, has the most problematic future: the inner suburbs. Here we are talking about areas built between the end of World War II and the 1970s. While there are exceptions, these areas are rapidly becoming the more deprived parts of the city, with a similar lexicon used to describe them as generations previous wrote about the inner city. They do not possess the advantages of newer suburbs: space and newness, nor do they possess the main advantages of the inner city: proximity to the centre, historic character and mixed uses. In fact, they are stuck between two worlds: they are old, but not old enough (yet) to warrant the aesthetic values of the gentrifying classes. They are closer to the centre than the outer suburbs, but were built primarily for the automobile, thereby making them unattractive for those wishing or needing to use other forms of transport or in search of a walkable neighbourhood. And many of the modernist ideas which guided their development, particularly in the design of large apartment complexes and housing estates, are outdated and have contributed to their economic, social and physical decline. In short, the inner suburbs are being squeezed at both ends, and just as the inner city will continue to become more affluent in the future, so too will the inner suburbs continue on their downward spiral.

There has been more attention in recent years on the inner suburbs. In cities such as Toronto, there are projects in development which could invest significant amounts of money into the post-war high rises of the inner suburbs. And in Europe, in countries such as the Netherlands, redeveloping these problematic estates built between 1945-1970 has been made a priority by national and local government. In both cases, neighbourhoods with the most severe problems and worst reputations can be found in the inner suburbs (Jane and Finch or Malvern in Toronto, or the Bijlmer in Amsterdam).

As cities continue to evolve and change, so to do the geographies of poverty and affluence. While gentrification may be responsible for many making inner city areas wealthy and desirably places to live in, it clearly has not solved the urban problems which used to be associated with urban areas; these have merely been shifted to the inner suburbs. While we have been speaking in broad generalities, it is clear that these areas are rapidly becoming the problematic neighbourhoods of the future, a trend which shows no signs of abating.