Is Jersey City a Suburb? Joel Kotkin Thinks So.
March 3rd, 2011 by Tim Evans
Earlier this week, a friend who works for the city of Jersey City emailed Joel Kotkin’s column, in which Kotkin attempts to downplay the idea of an urban renaissance:
Point One: America is becoming more suburban.
For much of the past decade, there has been a constant media drumbeat about the “return to the cities.” Urban real estate interests, environmentalists and planners have widely promoted this idea…
The Census reveals that, contrary to the “back to the city” rhetoric, suburban growth continues to dominate in most regions of the country, constituting between 80% and 100% of all growth in all but three of the 16 metropolitan areas reporting.
New Jersey Future has certainly been part of this “drumbeat” (see here, here, here, and here) heralding the urban comeback. So have many national sources, including USA Today and the Environmental Protection Agency (pdf), as well as respected experts on metropolitan growth, ranging from Richard Florida to Christopher Leinberger to New Jersey’s own James Hughes and Joseph Seneca (pdf).
Our Jersey City friend flagged this Kotkin article because it doesn’t square with what he’s seeing on the ground there, or with all of the linked articles above about the return to the cities. Are we all wrong? Is the resurgent city just wishful thinking?
Or is there something misleading about Kotkin’s analysis? Those familiar with Kotkin know that he is a frequent critic of cities and defender of suburbia, so it is not unreasonable to harbor the suspicion that he might be slanting his analysis to lowball the degree to which many of the country’s (and New Jersey’s) urban areas are reviving their fortunes.
In fact, this is exactly what he’s doing. It’s easy to say that “America is becoming more suburban” when you define “suburb” so loosely that it includes just about everything. The problem with Kotkin’s analysis is in his very expansive definition of “suburb.”
Defining “suburb” is a tricky proposition to begin with, since the term is largely subjective—so subjective, in fact, that the Office of Management and Budget (which sets the standards for delineating metropolitan areas) explicitly refrains from doing so in its “Statistical Area Definitions and Guidance on Their Uses” [pdf — see bottom of p.1]:
OMB establishes and maintains the definitions of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas… solely for statistical purposes…The Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Area Standards do not equate to an urban-rural classification; many counties included in Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas, and many other counties, contain both urban and rural territory and populations.
The Census Bureau likewise declines to include a “suburban” category in its methodology for classifying territory as either “urban” or “rural.”
In the absence of any official definition of what constitutes a suburb, many analysts (Kotkin is certainly not alone here) plow ahead anyway and use Census/OMB geographies to piece one together. They partition the population as follows:
- “urban” = population in the “principal city” (or cities) of a metropolitan statistical area (MSA)
- “suburb” = population in an MSA but not in a principal city
- “rural” = population not in an MSA
This may sound reasonable at first glance. But consider that every county in New Jersey is part of one MSA or another. New Jersey would thus contain no rural territory by this definition; everything is at least “suburban,” including all of Salem County (the home of Cowtown).
This unauthorized typology begins to look even more faulty when you read the definition of a “principal city” [pdf — see 1st column of p. 6, labeled as p. 37250] and see how limited it is:
Section 5. Identification of Principal Cities
The Principal City (or Cities) of a CBSA [Core-Based Statistical Area, the general term for Metropolitan and Micropolitan areas] will include:
(a) The largest incorporated place with a 2010 Census population of at least 10,000 in the CBSA or, if no incorporated place of at least 10,000 population is present in the CBSA, the largest incorporated place or census designated place in the CBSA; and
(b) Any additional incorporated place or census designated place with a 2010 Census population of at least 250,000 or in which 100,000 or more persons work; and
(c) Any additional incorporated place or census designated place with a 2010 Census population of at least 50,000, but less than 250,000, and in which the number of workers working in the place meets or exceeds the number of workers living in the place; and
(d) Any additional incorporated place or census designated place with a 2010 Census population of at least 10,000, but less than 50,000, and at least one-third the population size of the largest place, and in which the number of workers working in the place meets or exceeds the number of workers living in the place.
Applying this definition to the entire New York MSA yields a grand total of seven principal cities [pdf — see p. 49 (labeled as p. 43)]:
35620 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Principal Cities: New York, NY; Newark, NJ; Edison, NJ; White Plains, NY; Wayne, NJ; Union, NJ; New Brunswick, NJ
That’s it. Only five New Jersey municipalities make the list, three of which (Edison, Union and Wayne) are more like the kind of places most people, probably including Kotkin himself, have in mind when they think of the suburbs. (Wayne, incidentally, is the hometown of — and inspiration for — the unabashedly suburban rock band Fountains of Wayne, who frequently sing about life in the North Jersey suburbs.)
More tellingly, consider some North Jersey cities that are NOT on the list: Paterson (New Jersey’s third-largest city), Elizabeth (fourth-largest), Clifton, Passaic, Orange, East Orange, Bayonne, Perth Amboy, Plainfield, Hackensack, Linden and Rahway. Not to mention Union City, West New York and Hoboken, three of the most densely populated municipalities in the entire United States (all three exceed 30,000 people per square mile). Not to mention a whole host of smaller but still “urban” places such as Asbury Park, Keansburg, Neptune, Long Branch, Garfield…
Oh, and Jersey City, the 2nd-largest city in the state.
All of these places fail to meet one or the other of the four criteria for qualifying as a “principal city.” In other words, they are all “suburbs” by Kotkin’s definition. That’s right, Jersey City is a suburb. In fact, so are 23 of the 30 “distressed urban communities” identified by the Housing and Community Development Network in its Cities in Transition report of 2006.
Using Kotkin’s definition, it’s not surprising that most of the country’s (and New Jersey’s) population growth is in suburbs, because most of the population lives in his definition of suburbs. But this oversimplified (and non-Census- or OMB-endorsed) taxonomy fails to capture the full range of places that are participating in the urban revival and hence understates its extent.
Which, one suspects, was the point.
UPDATE [3-25-11]: Yonah Freemark at Transport Politic contributes a more nuanced analysis of some of the supposedly declining cities cited by Kotkin, noting that many of them experienced population gains in their downtown areas even as the overall city population decreased:
Other Census data tell a different, more polished, story about some of these same cities, requiring a very different explanation:
- Baltimore‘s downtown residential population has grown by 11.6% since 2006 and now provides living space for more than 40,000 people.
- Chicago‘s Loop saw a 76% increase in inhabitants since 2000 and the Near South Side more than doubled in population over the same period (even as the number of jobs downtown declined by 60,000).
- Cleveland‘s most central census tracts
each gained 20% or more in population between 2000 and 2010.
- St. Louis‘ central neighborhoods gained several thousand people in total.
Thus, even as citywide population declined in these cities, downtown population increased — in some cases quite dramatically.
He also points to Philadelphia and Newark as having posted their first overall population gains since 1950. How does this square with the facts that Kotkin chooses to (selectively) highlight? Freemark sums it up:
This downtown growth falls closely in line with the narrative that Americans are moving back to the city — it’s just that in many cases they’re only moving to a specific part of it: The high-density downtown.
The Census Bureau itself also weighs in with a few observations that reinforce the “return to the cities” theme:
The District of Columbia experienced its first decennial population increase since the 1940s.
Nine of the 10 most populous cities in 2010 gained population over the last decade. Chicago, which grew between 1990 and 2000, was the only one of these cities to decline in population.