Last month the Brookings released an analysis using the 2011 census showing that cities were growing faster than the surrounding suburbs for the first time since the 1920s. Since then, there has been active debate between those who are hailing the rebirth of cities and those refuting the findings.
The latest to step into the debate is Trulia, a real estate site, declaring “Americans still love the suburbs.” Trulia came to this conclusion by providing a finer level of analysis after using density measurements to distinguish between urban and suburban places. Simplistically, they argue dense places are urban, and places with low densities are suburban.
We should not be reducing the definition of places to one variable because it is easily measured. It needlessly creates differences. Suburbs are far more complex than just density. For example, at least in Toronto, many areas labelled suburbs are denser then central downtown neighbourhoods, and have a higher share of transit user.
The cities versus suburbs debate is getting tired. Increasingly, suburbs and cities are facing the same problems; growing inequality and poverty, ageing infrastructure, longer commutes, and tighter budgets. Furthermore, suburbs are being built differently than in the past. The Washington Post recently profiled the spread of suburban town centres or lifestyle centres, with nearly 398 built in the United States. Walkable communities with apartments, condos, and retail are increasingly being built in low density places beyond the city limits.
Instead of creating a false dichotomy and trying to determine who is winning the “growth race” by parsing data, we should focus on building more inclusive communities that are accessible, safe, and vibrant. The question should not be where we are building, but what we are building.