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Center for Community Planning and Development


Poverty in the suburbs is growing, but there is great diversity in the rates of growth of poverty as well as causes and consequences of the growth across different kinds of suburbs. Suburban typologies, systems to group different types of suburbs, are a useful tool for understanding the variation among suburbs and highlighting potential strategies for addressing poverty. This paper discusses why typologies of suburban communities are important, what factors have been considered in the development and use of typologies, what typologies have been developed to date, and lastly, how typologies can be used to inform strategies for addressing suburban poverty.

Suburban typologies can assist in understanding the variation between suburbs in the overall level, duration, and causes of poverty as well as variation in resources, services, and opportunities available for addressing it (Allard & Roth, 2010; Kneebone & Berube, 2013). For example, suburbs experiencing a sharp increase in poverty coupled with large increases in population may have different social service needs than suburbs with sharp poverty increases and little or no growth in population. The typology research sheds light on those suburbs that are experiencing the most significant impacts from increases in poverty and can identify appropriate policy tools and strategies to help communities cope with poverty.

Yet, typologies vary with respect to how suburbs are defined, which suburbs are included, and what factors are considered in their development. Not one consistent definition of suburb is used across the typologies that have been developed. Instead, different researchers classify different geographic areas as suburbs, in part, based on the availability of data. Typologies also differ in the sample of suburbs that are being classified. Some researchers focus on all suburban areas, whereas others focus more narrowly on subsets of suburbs, such as inner-ring suburbs or economically distressed suburbs. Finally, researchers use a range of factors and methodologies to develop these typologies including a number of different economic, demographic, and historical factors (Hanlon, 2010; Hanlon, Vicino, & Short, 2006; Mikelbank, 2004; Orfield & Luce, 2012).

Their differences not withstanding, taken together, the suburban typologies that have been developed reveal a number of common findings related to the economic vitality and vulnerability of suburbs. Increasingly larger populations of suburban residents live in communities that do not resemble traditional perceptions of prosperous suburbs. Instead, they live in a diverse set of communities including those characterized by poor economic health with low average income and home values, less housing stability, large populations, diverse family structures and racial composition, and varying levels and composition of employment). Although poverty is increasing in suburbs throughout the country, it is growing fastest in distressed suburbs, which tend to be highly racially segregated and fiscally constrained. Moreover, suburbs closest to central cities are increasingly poor and increasingly non-white. The combination of population growth and economic decline in these communities serve as barriers for addressing the increase in poverty.