Thriving and Inclusive First-Ring/Inner Suburbs

Coral Gables, FL – Source:

As metropolitan areas grow in population or enlarge their land area by sprawl, gradually, the innermost or first-ring suburbs start to experience some of the same problems that the core city have found challenging. This is particularly true in regions where the population is stagnant and/or declining. These problems could include but are not limited to crime, white-flight, decreasing property values, lack of land to expand, increased poverty, and aging infrastructure.

Clayton, MO – Source:

However, there are a number inner first ring suburbs who have bucked this scenario altogether or have reversed/stymied an initial downward spiral to thrive within their existing skin. The list below identifies some of these thriving inner suburbs.

  • Bethesda, Maryland – an incorporated suburb abutting Washington, DC
  • Brookhaven, Georgia – a freshly minted suburb abutting Atlanta
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts – historic and very dense suburb of Boston
  • Clayton, Missouri – the administrative heart of St. Louis County, adjacent to the city of the same name
  • Coral Gables, Florida – located just south/southwest of downtown Miami
  • Dunwoody, Georgia – another newly incorporated suburb of Atlanta
  • East Lansing, Michigan – Big 10 college town adjacent to Lansing
  • Evanston, Illinois – another Big 10 town just north of Chicago
  • Garland, Texas – first ring suburb on the northeast side of Dallas
  • Glendale, California – inner suburb just north of LA
  • Jeffersonville, Indiana – river town across from Louisville, Kentucky
  • Lakewood, Colorado – inner suburb located just west of Denver
  • Oak Park, Illinois – city famous for Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and abuts Chicago
  • Quincy, Massachusetts – located directly southeast of Boston
  • Richardson, Texas – northern, inner suburb of Dallas
  • Sandy Springs, Georgia – a third relatively newly incorporated suburb of Atlanta
  • Santa Clara, California – located just west of San Jose
  • Santa Monica, California – Beach Bum town abutting LA
  • Silver Spring, Maryland – another unincorporated Maryland suburb of DC
  • Skokie, Illinois – just west of Evanston and north of Chicago
  • Tempe, Arizona – Pac 12 desert college town on manmade lake next to Phoenix
  • Winter Park, Florida – abutting Orlando – my favorite first-ring suburb of them all
  • Wyoming, Michigan – just south of fast growing Grand Rapids

The critical questions are, how have these particular communities continued to succeed while others have languished or failed? And, what are some of the factors that set these communities apart from those that may still languish. Well, the following are a some common factors that this urban planner has identified that may be the secret sauce to their current and continued success.

Silver Spring, MD – Source:

Access to mass transit – from the Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) serving Wyoming, Michigan to the famous MTA in Cambridge and Quincy, Massachusetts; many of the cities listed above have access to modern transit options like BRT, light rail, and commuter rail. The only exceptions on this list are Jeffersonville, Santa Monica, and East Lansing.

Colleges and universities – having a college or university in your community immediately raises its potential for being a thriving first-ring suburb, as the presence of well-educated college students adds vibrancy to the community’s social and economic well-being. On the list above Bethesda (Unformed Services University), Brookhaven (Oglethorpe), Cambridge (Harvard and MIT), Clayton (Washington University), Coral Gables (University of Miami), Dunwoody (Georgia State-Dunwoody), East Lansing (MSU), Evanston (Northwestern), Glendale (Glendale CC), Lakewood (Colorado Christian, Rocky Mtn. College of Art & Design, and Red Rocks CC), Quincy (quincy College and Eastern Nazarene), Richardson (UT-Dallas and Richardson CC), Santa Clara (Santa Clara), Tempe (ASU), and Winter Park (Rollins) are beneficiaries from the town/gown relationship.

Tempe, AZ – Source:

Cultural amenities – first-ring suburbs themselves do not necessarily have to have these cultural institutions within their boundaries, but they naturally benefit by being in closer proximity than outlying and exurban suburbs. That said, many of these communities posses an impressive array of such amenities on their own. Some examples include:

  • Six (6) museums in Cambridge
  • Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens in Coral Gables
  • Broad Art Museum in East Lansing
  • W.J. Beal Botanical Garden in East Lansing
  • Ladd Arboretum in Evanston
  • Granville Arts Center in Garland
  • Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale
  • Three (3) gardens in Glendale (Descanso, Japanese Friendship, and Glendale Heritage)
  • Big Four Bridge and Station in Jeffersonville
  • Frank Lloyd Wright sites in Oak Park
  • Oak Park Conservatory in Oak Park
  • Dallas Repertory Theater in Richardson
  • Adams National Historical Park in Quincy
  • U.S. Naval Shipbuilding Museum in Quincy
  • Great America Amusement Park in Santa Clara
  • Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara
  • Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica
  • Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center – Sandy Springs
  • AFI Docs Film Festival – Silver Spring
  • Jazz Festival – Silver Spring
  • Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie
  • NorthShore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie
  • Music Walk in Tempe
  • Cornell Fine Arts Museum in Winter Park
  • Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park
  • Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park
  • Sidewalk Art Festival in Winter Park

Denser development – While not always the case, the vast majority of these first-ring suburbs are developed at a denser rate that their outlying counterparts. For the places listed who are completely encircled by other communities (Cambridge, Clayton, Evanston, Glendale, Richardson, Santa Clara, Santa Monica, Skokie, and Tempe) allowing increased densities and or taller building heights may be the only method for increasing the city’s population or for enabling substantial economic expansion.

Here are some comparable data on current estimated population densities:

  1. Cambridge = 17,014 people/square mile
  2. Oak Park = 11,062 people/square mile
  3. Santa Monica = 10,962 people/square mile
  4. Silver Spring = 9,896 people/square mile
  5. Evanston = 9,702 people/square mile
  6. Santa Clara = 6,667 people/square mile
  7. Glendale, CA = 6,503 people/square mile
  8. Skokie = 6,446 people/square mile
  9. Clayton = 6,390 people/square mile
  10. Quincy = 5,568 people/square mile
  11. Bethesda = 4,721 people/square mile
  12. Brookhaven = 4,452 people/square mile
  13. Tempe = 4,370 people/square mile
  14. Garland = 4,117 people/square mile
  15. Coral Gables = 3,908 people/square mile
  16. Richardson = 3,792 people/square mile
  17. Dunwoody = 3,696 people/square mile
  18. East Lansing = 3,603 people/square mile
  19. Lakewood = 3,486 people/square mile
  20. Winter Park = 3,400 people/square mile
  21. Wyoming = 3,034 people/square mile
  22. Sandy Spring = 2,714 people/square mile
  23. Jeffersonville = 1,361 people/square mile

*Both Garland and Richardson have higher population densities than the core city of Dallas which is 3,645 people/square mile.

*Tempe has a greater population density that Phoenix which is 3,005 people/square mile.

*Both Brookhaven and Dunwoody have higher population densities than the core city of Atlanta which sits at 3,420 people/square mile.

*Oak Park’s density is nearly has high as that of Chicago which is 11,938 people/square mile.

As may be evidenced by the photographs included with this post, some of these inner suburbs have fairly impressive skylines other own. In particular – Brookhaven, Cambridge, Clayton, Coral Gables, Dunwoody, Evanston, Oak Park, Sandy Springs, Sant Monica, Silver Spring, and Tempe have quite the skylines.

Diverse and inclusive populations – every one of these inner suburbs has at least one minority demographic group (either African-American, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic/Latino) composing a minimum of  ten percent (10%) of its total population in the 2010 Census. While not necessarily a requirement for growth, a diverse and welcoming population is a critical factor in building a thriving and socially-healthy community, whether it’s a core city, inner suburb, or exurb. A plural and multicultural community not only help to build understanding and trust, but helps fend off white-flight, racism, bigotry, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ bias, and religious divisions.

One might not typically think of Texas as the most inclusive (or welcoming) state in the union for immigrants, but more than 12 percent of Garland’s population was born in Vietnam.  Similarly, nearly one-quarter of Richardson, Texas’ population is foreign born; primarily Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese-Americans. Further to the east, nearly a quarter of the population of Quincy, Massachusetts is also Asian, with two0thirds being Chinese-Americans.

An inclusive community enjoys the symbiotic benefits of cross-pollination of ideas, beliefs, cuisines, and cultures that make this nation so unique and help build economic growth through the exchange of ideas. Outside of a few areas like Chicago, Detroit, and college towns, this is one criteria where suburbs in the Midwest tend to fall woefully short. In fact, trying to locate prosperous inner suburbs in the Midwest that actually met the ten percent (10%) threshold was quite difficult – that, in itself is a very sad commentary, as maintaining such divisions is one of the factors that appears to hold the Midwest back compared to other regions of the country.

Healthy downtown or commercial district – a vitally important factor is having a healthy downtown or commercial district where residents may live or walk/bike to shop, learn, play, and work. Not all of the first-ring suburbs listed above meet this criteria yet. For them to continue to thrive, developing a healthy and vibrant downtown/commercial district will become increasingly critical.

Glendale, CA – Source:

Major employers – being the home of major private and/or public sector employers is always a plus, particularly if they are an organization with a long local historic with deep roots in the community. Clayton (county government), Bethesda (multiple federal institutions), Jeffersonville (Census Bureau), Lakewood (Denver Federal Center), Silver Spring (FDA), as well as most of the cities with colleges/universities located within their borders exemplify communities with major public sector employers.

Private sector employers include commercial, retail, wholesale, industrial, office, manufacturing, and service-oriented businesses, as well as cottage industries.

Proximity to the core city’s downtown and amenities – all of the communities listed benefit from easy access and proximity to the core city of their metropolitan area.

Research and medical institutions – The National Institute of Health (NIH), Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are all located in Bethesda. The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB)  is in East Lansing. These institutions, as well as major hospitals, particularly teaching hospitals, are important catalysts for economic growth through scientific and medical research. The UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, University of Miami Hospital in Coral Gables, NorthShore University Health System and Presence St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, four (4) hospitals in Bethesda, and two (2) hospitals each in both Glendale and Cambridge are all teaching hospitals.

Evanston, IL – Source:


This entry was posted in Active transportation, adaptive reuse, architecture, art, bicycling, cities, civics, colleges, commerce, culture, density, diversity, economic development, economic gardening, education, entertainment, entrepreneurship, fun, geography, government, health, historic preservation, history, Housing, human rights, inclusiveness, infrastructure, land use, new urbanism, Passenger rail, placemaking, planning, racism, revitalization, Science, shopping, skylines, spatial design, sprawl, Statistics, third places, tourism, traffic, transit, urban planning, walking, zoning and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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