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America's Suburbs Becoming More City-Like - 2002-02-24

For decades, married couples with children made up the majority of suburban households in the United States. Young single professionals, elderly widows, retirees and other non-family households used to be the majority in American cities. But a new study reveals the traditional living patterns have changed in some parts of the United States.

A new study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, compares the 1990 and 2000 census data for more than 100 large metropolitan areas in the United States. Senior analyst Alan Berube, who co-authored the study, says the comparison reveals a significant change in the types of households in American cities and suburbs.

"We typically think that people in suburbs are young married couples with children in school," said Mr. Berube. "Now, we find that non-families - which are young single people as well as older, elderly people living alone, whose spouse may have died - that those sorts of households comprise a larger share of all households in the suburbs than married couples with children."

In 1990, the situation was reversed, with more than half of the households living in the suburbs were married couples with children.

In the Washington area suburbs, non-families have outnumbered marrie-with-children households for more than a decade. Eva Nenicka, is one of many Washington area singles who moved to the suburbs about 12 years ago.

"It's just more quiet," she said. "I got tired of screaming kids in the front yard all the time."

Ms. Nenicka says working in Washington makes it easy for her to attend cultural and social events in the evening. She just stays in the city after work. But she says she finds a lot to do in the suburbs too.

"You don't have the real big-name theaters, you don't have the Kennedy Center, but you might have like the [regional] Olney Theater. You have all the movie theaters and the restaurants are there. And in addition to everything else, you are close to nature, you are closer to the outdoors," she said.

American suburbs are not what they used to be: bedroom communities made up mostly of single-family homes. In recent years, many companies built their offices and industrial parks in the suburbs, creating a wide-ranging job market - from well-paid management work to minimum-wage cleaning jobs. Alan Berube says people of all ages, educational levels and ethnic backgrounds have moved to these suburbs to be closer to their workplaces.

The increasingly diverse suburban population has created changes in the demand for housing, entertainment and services. More suburbs now offer apartment and condominium living as well as single-family homes. And shopping malls are adding new restaurants, recreation facilities, movie theaters and even nightclubs to serve the diverse clientele.

Widowed, divorced and retired people often decide to remain in the suburbs where they raised their children, adding to the number of non-traditional households in the suburbs.

At the same time, population analyst Alan Berube notes, married-with-children families are increasing in many fast-growing cities, especially in the American South and West.

"The sorts of households that we've thought for the past 30-40 years have been leaving cities for the suburbs, increasingly are going to cities in the South and the West," he said. "And that primarily is a byproduct of the increased Hispanic and Asian immigration to those cities and births to the existing families in those cities."

Cities such as Denver, Colorado, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Anaheim, California have experienced a development boom in the past few decades. They have attracted married couples with children with their job opportunities, mild climate, and new and affordable housing. Many of these fast-growing cities have more of a suburban feel than the older cities of the Northeast.

"In many cases, they actually were suburbs 30-40 years ago," said Mr. Berube. "For instance, Mesa, Arizona, is located right outside of Phoenix, and it's grown into a metropolis of its own that looks and feels very suburban. It's mostly single family homes [and] large developments, but it's taken on such a size now that it's actually the 60th largest city in the United States."

The Brookings Institution analyst says cities in the North and Midwest that have been growing slowly or declining have not attracted families with children. In some older northern metropolitan areas, their numbers have dropped both in the central parts and in the suburbs. Mr. Berube says growth cities that have attracted families with children may find that their appeal wanes as they become crowded and their housing ages.