Inner-Ring Suburb Essay

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Inner-ring suburbs, or what some call “first” suburbs, are communities that developed just outside of central cities during the period following World War II. Initially these suburbs were bedroom communities for mostly affluent, white residents who commuted back and forth, often by streetcar, from work in the urban core to their home life in a safe, low-density neighborhood. Levittowns are examples of such communities.

Studying the characteristics of inner-ring suburbs is not a straightforward process. U.S. Census Bureau data are limited in the definition of suburbs as the residual portion of metropolitan areas that lies outside of central cities. Given this amorphous category, it is hard to distinguish between inner- and outer-ring suburbs. Case studies of specific metropolitan areas, particularly those that are more historical in nature, more clearly distinguish between inner- and outer-ring suburbs.

However, until recently, few studies identified differences among suburbs on a national level. The best strategy, established by researchers at the Brookings Institution, goes back to the 1950 decennial census and identifies counties that were part of the metropolitan United States at that time, which were adjacent to, or included, the top 100 cities. The county or the portion of the county that did not contain the central city was designated as an inner-ring, or first, suburb. In total, 64 counties were identified using this technique, including Nassau, New York; Arlington, Virginia; and Middlesex, Massachusetts.

Using this methodology, researchers have learned much about the character of inner-ring suburbs, relative to newer, or outer-ring, suburbs and central cities. One of the most striking features of inner-ring suburbs is that they housed nearly one fifth of the U.S. population in 2000, while central cities and newer suburbs housed 12.9 and 14.3 percent of the U.S. population, respectively. Equally important is the fact that the nature of the population in inner-ring suburbs is racially and ethnically diverse. In 2000, one third of the population in these areas comprised racial/ethnic minorities, surpassing the proportional representation at the national level (30 percent). Moreover, 29 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population lived in inner-ring suburbs, compared with 28 percent living in central cities. Finally, inner-ring suburbs have maintained a higher socioeconomic status. For example, in 2000, 31 percent of the adult population in these areas had a college education, compared with 26 percent and 28 percent in central cities and outer-ring suburbs, respectively. Likewise, average housing values in 2000 were the highest in inner-ring suburbs.

Whether the future of inner-ring suburbs is as bright as their past, however, remains to be seen. Poverty rates have been growing in these areas, particularly during the 1990s. More alarming is the fact that their poor neighborhoods have grown in recent decades, while there has been a general reduction of such neighborhoods in central cities. With trends in urban sprawl continuing, the future for inner-ring suburbs appears to be a challenging one.


  • Puentes, Robert and David Warren. 2006. One-Fifth of America: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s First Suburbs. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

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