Study shows complexity of suburban population

Urban Chronicle

Data: `It's the variation that's the story,' the survey's co-author says of changes in the past 10 years.

January 10, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

TAKE A look at the population figures for major metropolitan areas -- including Baltimore -- and the general impression is that most of suburbia must be growing.

Look more closely at individual suburbs within those areas, however, and the result is, as University of Virginia Professor William H. Lucy puts it, "more varied."

"It's the variation that's the story," Lucy said in an interview last week.

Lucy and his Virginia colleague, David L. Phillips, catalogued and quantified that variation in a new Brookings Institution report titled "Suburbs and the Census: Patterns of Growth and Decline."

They examined more than 2,500 suburban towns in the country's 35 largest metropolitan areas, including Baltimore and Washington. Their examination showed that although suburbs grew an average 14 percent between 1990 and 2000, more than a third of the towns showed no growth or declined in population -- some of them substantially.

"Although many newly developing suburbs experienced rapid growth in people and jobs, many older, frequently inner-ring suburbs in the Northeast and the Midwest experienced central city-like challenges," Lucy and Phillips wrote. "These include an aging infrastructure, deteriorating schools and commercial corridors, inadequate housing stock -- and population decline."

The researchers -- professors in the department of urban and environmental planners at Virginia's School of Architecture -- debunk the idea that suburban decline is strictly an "inner suburb phenomenon," pointing to examples of outer suburban decline and inner suburban growth.

Among the examples they use to show that suburban population changes are more diverse is the Washington metro area. They point out that while the populations of many inner suburbs in Prince George's County declined, Alexandria and Arlington, which are next to Washington on the Virginia side, experienced increases in population of 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

That example and others "show that suburban population decline cannot be explained as merely the contagion of central city population decline spreading to associated suburbs," according to the authors.

As an indication of the intensity of suburban growth, 11 anchor cities in the study lost residents, but only two of the 35 metro areas declined in population. The declining areas were Buffalo and Pittsburgh, which lost 1.6 and 1.5 percent of their residents, respectively.

Even in the areas where the anchor city grew, however, 16 percent of the suburban towns lost residents, Lucy and Phillips found. In areas where the anchor city lost residents, suburban population loss was more pronounced, with nearly 50 percent of the towns losing residents. Of those, a quarter lost a greater percentage of people than did the city they surround.

Although Baltimore's population dropped 11.5 percent in the past decade, population loss in the Baltimore metropolitan area was more in line with areas where the anchor city grew.

Of the 67 Baltimore-area suburbs that were surveyed, only 12, or 17.9 percent, lost residents.

Those 67 suburbs include incorporated cities, such as Aberdeen and Westminster, and well-established geographical areas, such as Catonsville and Owings Mills. Together, those two categories accounted for nearly 75 percent of the 255,682-person increase in the Baltimore-area suburban population in the last decade.

Overall, the Baltimore region grew 7.2 percent -- slightly more than half of the 35 regions studied but in line with the growth of metro areas in the Northeast and Midwest.

Similarly, in the Washington area, 23 of 130 suburbs surveyed, or 17.7 percent, lost residents, despite a decline in the District of Columbia's population of 5.7 percent

By contrast, Pittsburgh lost 9.5 percent of its population and 84 percent of its suburban towns lost people; Buffalo, N.Y., lost 10.8 percent of its population while 71 percent of the area's towns lost people; and Philadelphia lost 4.3 percent of its population while 67 percent of its suburbs lost residents.

Of the dozen Baltimore-area suburbs that lost people, three -- Brooklyn Park, Linthicum and Lake Shore, all in Anne Arundel County -- showed nominal losses of 1.5 percent or less. Hillsmere Shores, a small community just south of Annapolis, lost about 10 percent of its residents, more than any other area suburb. (The population of Annapolis grew by 8 percent.)

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the fortunes of Baltimore County's struggling eastern communities that the metropolitan region's most concentrated suburban population losses were in Dundalk (down 5.3 percent), Essex (down 4.4 percent) and Middle River (down 2.7 percent).

Those declines are dwarfed by losses in many older Prince George's County communities, including Forestville (down 24.1 percent); Largo (down 11.3 percent); and District Heights (down 11.1 percent).

"It's in a lot of difficulty," Lucy said of the inner-ring area.

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