Welcome To Exurbia

October 27, 2006
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First it was Urbania. Then it was Suburbia. Now it’s Exurbia.

And it’s here.

The latest installment of the ongoing Living Cities Census Series from The Brookings Institution reports that metro Grand Rapids has one of the fastest-growing exurbs in the nation — right alongside Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and 84 other U.S. metropolitan areas.

So what is Exurbia? Planners and geographers define it as a series of communities located on the urban fringe that have at least 20 percent of residents commuting to jobs in an urbanized area. An exurb is sort of a quasi-rural, quasi-urban mix with a low housing density and a relatively high population growth.

In the Brookings report “Finding Exurbia,” the Grand Rapids metro area is listed as having 168,523 people living in exurban communities. That figure placed the region 22nd in total exurban population in a ranking of the 88 largest metro areas in the country.

But when the number of people living in local Exurbia is divided into all who reside in the region, the metro area shot up the chart to third on the listing, because the exurbanites are 22.8 percent of the metro’s total population. Only six other metro areas in the country had at least 20 percent of its total population living in an exurb.

In comparison, exurbanites only account for 6 percent of the national population.

So where is the local Exurbia? Mostly in Allegan, Barry and Newaygo counties, as these counties in the metro region had at least one of every five residents living in an exurb in 2000.

The Brookings report, which was released this month, also found:

  • Just 6 percent of the population, or 10.8 million people, live in the nation’s exurbs.
  • The South and the Midwest have the highest exurban populations. The South has 47 percent of the nation’s exurbanite total, while the Midwest has roughly 25 percent.
  • At least 245 counties nationwide have at least one-fifth of their residents living in exurban communities.
  • The average exurb resident is disproportionately white, middle-income, a homeowner and a commuter.

“Yet exurbanites do not conform to all popular stereotypes,” read the report. “For instance, they do not appear to telecommute, work in the real estate industry, or inhabit super-sized homes at higher rates than residents of other metropolitan county types.”

A few years back, USA Today reported that metro Grand Rapids was the sixth most-sprawled-out region in the nation. So what does a top Exurbia ranking mean for the area? The Brookings researchers weren’t certain because the drama hasn’t played itself out yet.

“As these places continue to add housing and jobs, they may just become the next outer suburban ring,” read the report. “(But) low-density build-out could fuel rapid growth farther out in the region, creating even more severe economic and environmental challenges.”

The full report can be found at www.brookings.edu.    

Inhabitants: Whiter And Growing

Exurban county living has grown faster over the past five years here than life in the city and suburbs have. Exurbia contains a greater percentage of white residents, a higher home ownership, a slightly higher median income, more homes with children, and more super commuters.

Here is a snapshot of exurban and metro indicators.

Population Indicator              Exurban Counties Metro Area
Population growth, 2000-05 5.7% 3.8%
Non-Hispanic white 92.4% 81.7%
Married households with children 28.0% 26.4%
Households with super commute 6.5% 4.3%
Households owning home 84.1% 73.2%
Median adjusted gross income $30,600 $29,914
Average income for owners of new homes $63,235 $78,996

Note: Indicators are from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service. Other than population growth, indicator years are either 2000, 2003 or 2004, depending on the indicator. A super commute is at least one hour in each direction.

Source: The Brookings Institution, Living Cities Census Series, October 2006

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