Posted August 21, 2008

Philly, suburbs share stake in region’s future

A Temple team challenges traditional assumptions regarding city and suburb.

A team of Temple researchers examining patterns of growth in metropolitan Philadelphia noticed some surprising developments. They saw city-like conditions in some suburbs, and found the suburbs in the city.

In their new book, Restructuring the Philadelphia Region: Metropolitan Divisions and Inequality (Temple University Press), Carolyn Adams, David Bartelt, David Elesh and Ira Goldstein call attention not only to the region’s heterogeneity, but also to the need for a unified approach to addressing inequalities and improving competitiveness in the global economy. (Adams and Bartelt are professors of geography and urban studies at Temple University; Elesh is associate professor of sociology at Temple University; and Goldstein is director of Policy and Information Services for The Reinvestment Fund.)

“Relying on the old categories of city versus suburb no longer makes sense. This traditional distinction does not capture the dynamics of regional development,” said Bartelt.

In their earlier book, Philadelphia: Neighborhoods, Division, and Conflict in a Postindustrial City, the authors examined how deindustrialization transformed the city during the latter half of the 20th century and shaped the prospects of the city’s residents.

But now we are in a new era, say the authors, one in which multiple centers of growth drive the events of the region. Now questions of opportunity and development must be looked at from a broader perspective.

Using data from Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project, the authors look at employment, housing and education, paying special attention to factors and development patterns that have impacted low-income populations.

One such factor is job sprawl. “Philadelphia ranks among the highest metropolitan areas in terms of job sprawl. Approximately 70 percent of the jobs in the region are located in the suburbs and because the jobs just follow the roadways, they are difficult to get to without a car,” noted Elesh.

“Households that traded lower housing costs at the urban fringe for longer commutes are getting hurt by higher gas prices. And the lack of public transportation from the fringe means that they have few alternatives to paying those prices,” Elesh said.

Another is housing. “Our data dispels some myths about how people choose where to live. What drives most people to choose a community has to do with affordability, not school districts, not safety,” Elesh said.

Urban neighborhoods are not the only ones facing disadvantages arising from their older and smaller homes and aging infrastructure, so are suburban communities with older housing stock. At the same time, the data indicate that forces that have led to decline are also creating opportunities for new directions leading to new housing construction and gentrified neighborhoods.

Because they found that some communities in the city have more in common with affluent suburbs than their urban neighbors and some struggling suburban communities more closely match parts of the city, the authors divide the city into 12 communities and the resulting 364 localities into five types: urban centers, stable working communities, established towns, middle class suburbs and affluent suburbs. Residents in these five community types differ significantly in terms of their characteristics and the opportunities open to them.

As the authors investigated the region’s uneven development, they found that nongovernmental organizations are playing a growing role in the formation and execution of policies to address inequalities. Many of these organizations arose because municipalities have long shown an inability to cooperate about issues that transcend their borders. But state restrictions on community collaboration and the issuance of debt to finance development projects also are important factors.

“With opportunity increasingly controlled by events at the state, national or international level, it appears that our region’s ability to compete in a global economy rests on how well older and newer communities can collaborate to overcome problems of inequality and stagnating growth,” said Bartelt.