This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Suburbanization is the World's Future

If you've read my book, you know that the urban transition has evolved over time into the suburban transition. A majority of the world's population lives is urban places, but these are more likely to be suburbs than inner cities, no matter where you go. Certainly in Accra, the capital city of Ghana in West Africa, where much of my research is currently focused, the highest rate of growth between the 2000 and 2010 censuses was in the peri-urban areas beyond the urban city limits. The Economist has taken this issue up in some detail, partly because it is based in London where, as in other parts of England, the 1930s invention of the green belt tries to prevent suburbanization by putting a physical edge on urban expansion. The Economist notes that what that means these days is that the 20% of people who work in London but live beyond the green belt just have a longer commute than might otherwise be the case. No matter how many people criticize the suburbs (and many have over the decades), they provide a type of classic "Goldilocks solution" for people--not too far from the stimulation and opportunities of the city, but not so close that you have to be crammed in with everyone else. People like to live near a city, but not too near.

Like most Americans, I was raised in, and still live in, the suburbs. But its popularity does not mean that there aren't issues. The Economist notes correctly that in the United States all ethnic/racial groups have participated in suburbanization and that has the potential to reduce the risk of residential segregation based on ethnicity/race. However, as John Logan at Brown University has noted in a Census Brief for Project2010 and in an interview with the Washington Post:
"Suburban diversity," writes Brown's John R. Logan, "does not mean that neighborhoods within suburbia are diverse."
Blacks and Hispanics have moved into the suburbs, but they're still likely to live in neighborhoods there where they're isolated from whites, regardless of income. And those neighborhoods are likely to have more poverty and lower-performing public schools than the suburban neighborhoods where whites live, suggesting that old urban forms of inequality are replicating themselves in the suburbs. 
These patterns have earned national attention in Ferguson. But Logan's recent analysis of national Census data underscores the broad reality that the suburban dream has come to mean something very different for minorities than for whites.
Suburbs have thus begun to replicate some of the same strains of separation that were previously confined to the city core, except that now people are spatially more spread out than they used to be. This may alter some of the perception of society's differences, but it doesn't get rid of them.  


  1. Prof Weeks ... i would be interested in your impressions of the suburbs of Accra. I have been going to Nairobi, Kenya on-and-off over the last 20 years. The city has certainly expanded a lot, and so have the major ghettos. The largest ghetto - a place that I know - is called Kibera and probably holds over 1 million people. As for the city itself ... it has a modern skyline (or is slowly getting one!). But rapid expansion has created enormous problems with transportation. Streets are absolutely jammed during commuter hours. And the traffic jams are worse than in America. Making things worse, there are no standards on exhaust emissions from vehicles. So the roads are jammed with trucks and buses with ancient diesel engines that spit out clouds of horrendous black smoke. It's a nightmare. Urban sprawl in Africa is a chaotic process. Are there nice suburbs?? YES!! But are they getting hit (almost daily) by gangsters and carjackers armed with AK-47's. Well yes, as a matter of fact they are! Welcome to Africa. I don't know where the boundary between sanity and insanity is officially declared ... but somewhere in African cities would be a good place to start looking!! Hahahahaha!!

    Pete, Redondo Beach

    1. Accra's suburbs are not as unruly as you describe for Nairobi, but they generally lack infrastructure and planning and so there is a feeling of chaos--at least to the outsider. My sense, though, is that these places are still often preferable to life in rural areas, on the one hand, and to life in the crammed center of the city, on the other hand.

  2. My perception is that for the African cities ... it's a combination of factors and local cultures - that produces the "urban flavor". Kenya is one of three main "powerhouses" in Africa for crime trends - the other two being Nigeria and South Africa. New developments in African crime, especially violence and bold crimes involving robbery, often come from these countries. Kenya's population is well educated (relatively), but many are locked out of economic progress. So the barrel of a gun becomes an "equalizer" for social mobility. There are no easy answers for this. When slums and ghettos grow to the size of one million people, it is beyond comprehension. I always approach my travel experiences in East Africa with the mindset of being "a part of the human jungle". That approach has been helpful so far. :-)

    I dont know what to say about the transportation chaos. The unique system of minibuses (in Kenya known as "matatus") provides an efficient, as well as highly dangerous, way to circumnavigate the suburbs. I stay away from these vehicles because of their association with crime (robberies are common) and their proclivity to have head-on accidents with commuter traffic. But for many Africans, it's the only solution. I don't see how places like Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania will implement light rail systems (trains). And their road systems are wofeully inadequate for the volumes of traffic. They would be better off have roads that are completely dedicated to bicycle traffi - but that has not happened yet.