Boomburbs: The Rise of America's Accidental Cities

Robert E. Lang
Jennifer B. LeFurgy
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 212
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    A glance at a list of America's fastest growing "cities" reveals quite a surprise: most are really overgrown suburbs. Places such as Anaheim, California, Coral Springs, Florida, Naperville, Illinois, North Las Vegas, Nevada, and Plano, Texas, have swelled to big-city size with few people really noticing -including many of their ten million residents. These "boomburbs" are large, rapidly growing, incorporated communities of more than 100,000 residents that are not the biggest city in their region. Here, Robert E. Lang and Jennifer B. LeFurgy explain who lives in them, what they look like, how they are governed, and why their rise calls into question the definition of urban.

    Located in over twenty-five major metro areas throughout the United States, numerous boomburbs have doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in size between census reports. Some are now more populated than traditional big cities. The population of the biggest boomburb -Mesa, Arizona -recently surpassed that of Minneapolis and Miami.

    Typically large and sprawling, boomburbs are "accidental cities," but not because they lack planning. Many are made up of master-planned communities that have grown into one another. Few anticipated becoming big cities and unintentionally arrived at their status. Although boomburbs possess elements found in cities such as housing, retailing, offices, and entertainment, they lack large downtowns. But they can contain high-profile industries and entertainment venues: the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Arizona Cardinals are among over a dozen major-league sports teams who play in the boomburbs.

    Urban in fact but not in feel, these drive-by cities of highways, office parks, and shopping malls are much more horizontally built and less pedestrian friendly than most older suburbs. And, contrary to common perceptions of suburbia, they are not rich and elitist. Poverty is often seen in boomburb communities of small single-family homes, neighborhoods that once represented the American dream.

    Boomburbs are a quintessential American landscape, embodying much of the nation's complexity, expansiveness, and ambiguity. This fascinating look at the often contradictory world of boomburbs examines why America's suburbs are thriving and how they are shaping the lives of millions of residents.

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-5112-0
    Subjects: Business, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)
    Ed Glaeser

    Statistical work has painted a picture of the American urban frontier. New development is overwhelmingly in the Sunbelt and it is based around the car. The metropolitan areas of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta are particular centers for vast amounts of new building, but this building is more likely to be on the edge of the metropolitan area than in the older centers. America’s growing exurbs are full of both homes and jobs, as firms followed people to exurbs built around highways. While this statistical portrait is accurate, it is also dry and incomplete. It tells us nothing...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. 1 Legoland
    (pp. 1-21)

    The main attraction of Legoland, a theme park just outside of Carlsbad, California, is Miniland USA, which features miniatures of quintessentially American places built from 20 million Legos. Miniland has a replica of Washington, complete with federal museums, monuments, the White House, and the Capitol. It even has a miniature Georgetown and a working model of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Other places in Miniland include the French Quarter of New Orleans, a New England fishing village, and Manhattan. The miniature of California is a hodgepodge of scenes, from an Orange County surfing town to Chinatown in San Francisco.

    What’s missing...

  6. 2 From Settlements to Super Suburbs
    (pp. 22-54)

    So where did boomburbs come from? Although most boomburbs have become cities over the past few decades, many began as minor settlements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (as shown by such sources as census data, municipal web pages, the online encyclopedia wikipedia [], historical societies, old guide books, photographs, and maps). If they existed at all before the mid-twentieth century, boomburbs were tiny specks on the map.

    By contrast, the nation’s original satellite cities were well established by the start of the twentieth century, but none of them qualifies as a boomburb. For example, Newark, New Jersey,...

  7. 3 Who Lives in the Boomburbs?
    (pp. 55-74)

    As much of the research based on the 2000 census reveals, the 1990s witnessed a radical departure from standard demographic trends. Hispanics passed African Americans as the nation’s largest racial or ethnic group, while the Asian American population strengthened its presence by more than 50 percent.¹ The proportion of foreign-born persons reached 11.1 percent, the highest level since 1930. This surge of immigration is changing how communities plan and develop, especially since slightly more than half of all of immigrants who arrived in metropolitan areas in the 1990s chose to live outside central cities.

    The country’s median age is 35.3...

  8. 4 The Business of Boomburbs
    (pp. 75-93)

    Tom Wolfe’s line fromA Man in Fullis like catnip to critics of suburbia.¹ The suburbs are repetitious. They look like a cheap animator’s drawing of a commercial landscape by reusing cartoon frames rather than drawing new ones. It is like watching Fred Flintstone drive around Bedrock and seeing the same buildings pop up behind him again and again.

    Wolfe’s fictional story centers on an Atlanta developer. But had he based his book in, say, Dallas, his famous line about the sameness of suburbia might read, “The way that you know you have entered a boomburb such as Arlington,...

  9. 5 Big Skies, Small Lots: Boomburb Housing and Master-Planned Development
    (pp. 94-120)

    From Coral Springs, Florida, to Costa Mesa, California, land is at a premium in most boomburbs. The result is that many developers of master-planned communities build increasingly larger homes on smaller lots and create dense residential clusters. Some open-space relief is afforded these places by common amenities such as parks, pools, and nature trails. But the bottom line is that many boomburbs seem crowded. This chapter explores the housing and community development world of boomburbs. It highlights some surprising patterns of growth, including a wide variation in the use of gated and walled developments.

    Housing and community development is at...

  10. 6 The Small Town Politics of Big Cities
    (pp. 121-143)

    Boomburbs are now technically big cities but have often arrived at this status accidentally. Chapter 4 shows how this is true for the boomburb business landscape. The boomburbs’ commerce, unlike that of more traditional cities, is not centered in downtown but lies instead along major highways and exit ramps. Many of the elements of a big city economy are typically there but arrayed in a pattern that few would recognize as urban. The same accidental imagery applies to boomburb government—they are big cities yet are run in many ways as small towns. Chapter 6 shows that this big city–...

  11. 7 Boomburbs at Buildout
    (pp. 144-161)

    Boomburbs occupy an in-between niche in the suburban landscape—they are not typical inner-ring suburbs nor are they exurban. Most are the products of the post–World War II building boom, and they continued to grow horizontally through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. However, some now find themselves in competition with their exurbs, facing neighborhood disinvestment, demographic shifts, and limited growth options. These former bedroom communities now have big-city needs that they must balance with a suburban environment based on low-density, single-use subdivisions.

    The boomburb boom may not be sustained, and some are seeing a slowdown in population gains.¹ Population...

  12. 8 Emerging Urban Realms and the Boomburbs of 2030
    (pp. 162-174)

    This final chapter looks at two related issues—the emergence of new boomburbs and the division of metropolitan areas into subregional geographic areas called urban realms. Each decade, a new group of cities crosses the 100,000 population mark that the census uses as an informal threshold for big places. The majority of these cities, as this book shows, are in fact overgrown suburbs. The chapter ends with a look beyond 2030 and a short discussion on what forces may constrain the future development of boomburbs.

    The new boomburbs of 2030 will mostly be found in rapidly expanding parts of major...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 175-198)
  14. Index
    (pp. 199-212)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 213-215)