At the beginning of the twentieth century it was widely recognized that the frontier in the United States had passed and that the new growth in population was in and around cities. As rural counties lost population and cities became centers of nonfarm employment, students of social behavior in North America saw a trend toward the development of larger cities. What was not immediately apparent was that the trend toward urbanization and larger cities would continue within another significant trend. This other trend was the centrifugal movement of population around large cities as the urban population, including both older urban dwellers and newcomers, would begin to move outward around larger urban places. This new trend was one of metropolitan development in contrast to merely urban growth, and it carried with it strong changes in population distribution first toward the periphery, then well beyond the boundaries of central cities.
The growth of the metropolitan region was a major social pattern during the entire twentieth century and has continued into the twenty-first century. Roderick D. McKenzie was the first urban sociologist to recognize and call attention to the national trend of metropolitan regional growth in his 1933 book, The Metropolitan Community. This growth pattern involves the ecological process of concentration of population in cities, combined with locally significant deconcentration into nearby areas around cities and their outlying areas. Associated with these demographic and ecological tendencies is an accompanying centralization of administrative control in urban areas, which results in a large-scale regional integration of occupational opportunities. Business decisions, employment, governmental services, shopping and consumer behavior, and a range of recreational and other quotidian activities spread in interlinked fashion over an enlarged regional area.
The major source of the expansion of urban influences into outlying spaces, creating a region of metropolitan impact, is the reduction of the “friction” of space by reducing the limiting effects of time and distance. The enhanced speed and flexibility of motor-vehicle travel has now enlarged the radius of one hour of travel time to thirty miles or so. In the nineteenth century with horseback travel and horse-drawn wagons, this distance was closer to six miles. On foot, an hour’s walking is around three miles. Few people will commute distances that require more than an hour in travel time. The effect has been to expand the square miles of space with urban influence from travel, including shopping, from around thirty-six square miles to two thousand to three thousand square miles or even more. This much greater separation of residence from work, and of errands and shopping areas from residences, has greatly expanded the metropolitan influence into a larger area. Railroad travel between cities in the latter half of the nineteenth century, followed by motor truck transport after the 1920s, have expanded the metropolitan impact to entire regions.
For purposes of clarification and definition, the terms metropolitan community or metropolitan areas are used to refer to the city and the immediately surrounding countryside, usually within a radius of twenty-five to thirty miles. Metropolitan region is the term used to refer to the much broader area, which includes a multiplicity of scattered activities that have come under administrative influences and even supervision of the large central city, or metropolis.
The widely observed trend in modern societies toward large-scale social organization and greater economic reach is a fundamental source of the growth of regions and the great expansion of the metropolitan community. This pattern of growth has developed over about the last hundred years and has been documented for that length of time in the U.S. Census. These changes follow the great redirections in time and cost of movement that motorized vehicles traveling on hard-surfaced roads provide. The telephone, radio, and television followed improvements in transmitting electrical power and made possible the expansion of urban community boundaries. More recently, the computer has facilitated instant communication of information and speeded economic transactions in a manner that reduces the importance of traditionally recognized community boundaries.
The growth of a metropolitan region occurs through ecological processes that involve transportation and contact and exchange, typically in connection with distributive functions arising from various sustenance activities. A center with specialized functions and an involuted administrative organization may be the coordinating base for a hierarchy of socially connected but dispersed activities. The boundaries of a region may be set by the points of intersection of interregional routes. The size of the metropolitan center and spacing of coordinated service functions influence the emerging regional pattern. Interregional nodes of transportation may determine the early development of regional boundaries. It should be added that extractive industries as well as manufacturing exert an eccentric or decentralizing influence on large metropolitan urban locations. Continued expansion of population along with a widened range of administrative organizations extends economic activities over a larger territory.
The U.S. Census Bureau began recognizing metropolitan areas with impact on a nearby region as early as 1910. At that time approximately one-third of the population lived in these newly recognized urban “metropolitan districts,” as they were known. Before midcentury they were named Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Today these metropolitan areas are known as MSAs, or Metropolitan Statistical Areas, the change in designation having been made in 1983. Approximately four out of five people in the United States now live in these metropolitan areas.
A review of population data on metropolitan areas in the United States shows a long-term but massive shift outward from central cities in metropolitan areas as population moves in a large-scale pattern of decentralization into suburbs and adjacent regions. This movement of people and industry was one of the great social trends of the twentieth century, comparable to the decline of small farms and self-employment during the first half of the twentieth century, with the consequent migration to larger towns and cities. A third major social pattern, that of married women entering the labor force and remaining in the workplace after the birth of children, began to develop strongly after World War II and remains a vigorous trend. A visible effect of this tendency toward metropolitan decentralization is the high proportion of Americans who maintain suburban and exurban residences, and in moving even farther outward, contribute to the large-scale growth of urban sprawl as population continues to spread into more distant areas of metropolitan regions and beyond.
Currently, urban life in the United States, viewed demographically and ecologically, has become a metropolitan way of life, with day-to-day activities and living arrangements occurring in a continually growing multi-centered region. The metropolitan center is actually replacing the city itself as the most significant urban unit. Whereas the first half of the twentieth century had seen a little heralded emergence of a larger metropolitan unit dominated by a central city, the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen the growth of deconcentrated populations with a multicentered pattern of growth over entire regions. These major changes have been fueled by the spread of the private automobile and the use of motor truck transport in combination with the national interstate highway systems begun in the late 1950s. Quite influential at the level of individual consumers and families have been federal tax laws that provide for mortgage interest income-tax deductions. The effect has been to subsidize middle-income families in the purchase of affordable single-family dwellings. The dearth of city lots in central cities combined with lower-cost land in rural and developing suburban areas created a potential for large-scale suburban growth and even rapid, leapfrog-style exurban development.
Scholarship in human ecology has assumed consumer demand and improvements in transportation technology as vital in reducing the critical time and distance factors prominent in urban location theory. More recent scholarship in urban sociology and urban ecology has pointed to the strong role of real estate development promotions as well as the interactions of business and local government elites in facilitating the growth of the suburbs and a continuation of the sprawl pattern around urban areas. Thus, a newer trend in urban research and scholarship emphasizes supply-side activities and real estate developers, in cooperation with banks and lending organizations, combined with government subsidies of various kinds in producing the spatial patterns of suburbs around Metropolitan Statistical Areas. All the while, continued belief in seemingly endless supplies of cheap fossil fuel for motor vehicle transportation and maintenance have contributed an ideational support for the continued growth of suburban housing and shopping malls.
In metropolitan areas of the United States, there are more than three suburban residents for every two residents of the area’s central city. This trend has been growing for nearly a generation as industrial cities have lost manufacturing jobs that were often unionized with high pay and benefits, along with other lower-paying entry-level jobs that might have been filled by younger workers and poorer urbanites. As early as the 1980s, nearly twice as many people were employed in manufacturing in the suburbs than in the cities. Interestingly, since the 1980s, the typical commuter’s trip to work has been from suburb to suburb rather than the more traditional suburb to city, or earlier, urban neighborhood to city factory by foot, bicycle, or streetcar, or automobile.
Retail sales of various types, including major department stores, were concentrated in downtown locations until the 1970s. A decline in this concentration had started as much as a decade or so earlier as urban-based manufacturing and businesses as well as retail activity moved from central city locations to outlying areas, typically following highway arteries and suburban housing development. These changes in retail location and activity are seen most clearly in the growth of shopping malls. Only a few malls existed in the 1950s. Today there are more than forty-five thousand shopping malls of various sizes in the United States.
In the United States in the early twenty-first century, over half of the population lives in suburban areas. In the metropolitan areas of the nation, more than 60 percent of the population lives in the suburbs. Not surprisingly, the suburban areas have increasingly taken on an urban character in the social and cultural attributes of their populations. This is seen structurally and demographically in changes in social-class composition and increased numbers of minority group members in the suburbs of metropolitan areas. Working-class and industrial suburbs are a strong presence around larger cities in metropolitan areas. Major segments of middle-status white-collar employees find themselves pressured financially to maintain what is viewed as a middle-class and suburban level of living. This is seen in widespread credit abuse and second mortgages on houses purchased on installments. People in manual occupations are very likely to be dependent on two incomes.
Poverty is also a stronger presence in the suburban portions of metropolitan regions. The federal standard for the measurement of poverty is based on the ability of an individual or family to purchase food. Under the official methods of determining poverty levels, around one person in eight in the United States is in poverty. One-third of the people classified as poor under that standard live in a suburban location.
Impressions from the middle to the third quarter of the twentieth century linger in mass media and public imagery of the suburbs. Some of these stereotypical perceptions of suburbs as dwelling places for a white population have their source in the development of the early suburbs around large cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As with much stereotyped imagery, they have some basis, historically, in fact. Also, at present some of the oldest and most established traditional incorporated suburbs in outlying areas of the largest North American cities exemplify what sociologists refer to as “suburban persistence,” meaning that they retain a significant degree of their original exclusiveness and Anglo-American characteristics.
In looking at metropolitan areas nationally, a different picture emerges. Almost 40 percent of black Americans live in a suburban location, and a growing proportion of this population continues to move to the suburbs. Half of the people from a Latino background are suburban dwellers. For the last two decades or so, Latino people have accounted for around one-quarter of all suburban growth in the United States. Finally, although a small proportion of the total population, 55 percent of all Asian Americans live in suburbs, often in suburbs that are predominantly Asian but contain a significant proportion of Anglo-American residents.
The deconcentration of population around large urban areas in the United States is associated with changes in politics, political alignments, and election outcomes in public life. First is the large number of political jurisdictions in the multicentered urban region. This has many implications, but the most direct impact is on the region and its frequent inability to regulate urban sprawl and its connected problems of leapfrog growth, traffic congestion, and pollution as well as maintaining clean water resources. There is also a growth in the number of local public officials, and as regional-level problems develop, these officials are often unable to operate in a coordinated manner to resolve them and ameliorate the social problems that arise from the organizational features of the metropolitan region. At the national level, the changes reviewed above are reflected in new areas of influence with altered political alignments. Central-city areas have declined in political influence, and an urban, union-influenced vote has determined fewer outcomes than in past decades. The suburban vote is not easy to characterize as it is not nearly as uniformly conservative as it was in past generations. Recent elections have seen a shift toward independent voters in the suburbs, who are issues-oriented and often concerned about lifestyle, with weakened ties to traditional social-class-based political involvement.
In conclusion, central cities are no longer the dominant locations in political decisions and economic activity in metropolitan regions. The newer territorial organization is multicentered, with edge cities and specialized nodes developing along major interstate highways and with services used by a more affluent suburban population. Ethnic variation is commonplace in suburban areas, as is manufacturing activity with suburban commuting working-class populations. Shopping malls are the predominant medium for retail business, and most jobs are in the services sector. Typical commuting occurs from one suburb to another. The longer term effect on politics is not clear, but regional problems are far from experiencing resolution at the local, regional, or national level.
SEE ALSO Anthropology, Urban; Borders; Cities; Economics, Urban; Ethnicity; Human Ecology; Metropolis; Migration; Migration, Rural to Urban; Poverty; Public Goods; Race; Regions; Sociology, Urban; Spatial Theory; Suburban Sprawl; Suburbs; Transportation Industry; Urban Renewal; Urban Sprawl; Urban Studies; Urbanization
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Kenneth N. Eslinger