Census paints a new picture of suburbs

Homogeneity is a thing of the past, Penn State sociologist says

March 21, 2002|By Elisa Ung | Elisa Ung,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - The typical suburban vision of two married parents, a couple of kids, a minivan, and a backyard grill - forget it.

The 2000 census is painting a different tableau of suburban life, one that just as often could include a widowed grandmother in a four-bedroom suburban home or a young single person spurning active city life for the security and jobs of the suburbs.

"The homogeneity that was always thought of about suburbs is a thing of the past," said Gordon DeJong, a Pennsylvania State University professor of sociology and demography. "So a lot of things about service models - all the way from schools to shopping can be kind of out of step."

Public facilities may need to become more senior-friendly. Housing stock may need to get smaller and more plentiful. School construction might compete for tax dollars with a need for senior services.

27% married couples

A Brookings Institution analysis of the census numbers found that in 2000, 29 percent of the U.S. suburbs were nonfamily households - mostly elderly people living alone and young singles - while 27 percent were married couples with children.

The remaining households included single-parent families and married couples without children.

"We're moving to suburbs that look like all of America," said demographer William H. Frey, one of the study's authors. Much of the growth of the suburbs, he said, is no longer due to traditional families but to single parents and nonfamilies.

In Cherry Hill, N.J., Catherine Mariano and Jason Pont are at two ends of the spectrum.

Mariano, 77, has lived in her three-bedroom ranch for 27 years. A widow for the last decade, she scorns city congestion and uses Cherry Hill's free senior-citizen transportation to shopping and doctor's appointments. The Camden County Senior Citizen Day Center takes her grocery shopping.

"A few years ago, I paid off the house," Mariano said. "I'm comfortable where I live."

Pont, 22, a software developer in Marlton, N.J., by day and a bar bouncer two nights a week, lives in a basement apartment in Cherry Hill. Though he misses the hustle-bustle of the city, his commute is short and his lifestyle is cheap.

"For someone my age, it's important to save money, especially in this economy," he said.

Political implications

The examples of Mariano and Pont have big implications for politics, regional planning and culture.

"The impact of declining household size is generally that you need a larger number of housing units to satisfy the smaller number of people," said Michael Ontko, deputy director of regional planning for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. "There are a number of areas where housing units, in terms of square footage, are reacting to that."

And many more people without school-age children will be voting, which raises the possibility that public money may be used for less child-friendly services, demographers say.

This has already played out in some towns where senior citizens have rallied to vote down school budgets that would increase property taxes.

"Part of the reason suburbs were formed was because people wanted to live with people like themselves," Frey said. "Now, more regional planning will be much more important to satisfy these different groups in the suburbs."

A big part of the decreasing household size is what demographers call "aging in place."

"You've got older people who are members of a generation that moved to the suburbs in the `40s and `50s and never lived in the cities, or did at a much younger age," said Alan Berube, a senior research analyst at Brookings and the survey's coauthor. "Now they're not moving to cities. They're not moving south. They're staying where they are."

While senior-citizen services such as medical day-care centers multiply, younger singles find townhouses springing up near their suburban office-park jobs.

"I found [the housing search] a little bit difficult to find something I liked vs. a square box with two bedrooms," said Paige Tilley, a 31-year-old benefits administrator for Horsham, Pa.-based Verticalnet who lives in King of Prussia, Pa. "I wanted something with character.

"But there's something to be said for looking out your window and not looking into your neighbor's bedroom."

To further reverse traditional notions, the survey also found that cities of high immigration and overall ethnic diversity - such as New York and Los Angeles - are becoming more "traditionally suburban," registering strong growth in married couples with children.

Where is the married, two-parent, suburban family still predominant, nationwide and in this area?

In the growing suburbs married couples with children still outnumber nonfamilies.

"There's still this incredible urge," Frey said, "of families with children to want to live in as much space as possible."

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