Finding the right labels

  Cities and their hinterlands are changing, and have been for some time.  The black-white dichotomy of suburban-core is becoming ever more unhelpful in describing the different types of places in or related to cities where people can live and work. Some new definitions or labels may be in order.

Here are my thoughts on some definitions of metropolitan and related spaces.  I’d welcome your ideas, or links to existing work in this area by others.

Lets start with what we had maybe 20 years ago.

Twin Cities – Cities that were founded separately, for different reasons.  They have their own historic “downtown” centre of gravity.  During the 20th century, because of the automotive age, they became linked by a ribbon of freeways; they also likely came to share a major airport as well as some “suburbs” that grew to sprawl in between the historic poles.  Twin cities have distinct identities and even economies in the sense that not many people live in one twin and work in the other.  Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and possibly Seattle-Tacoma  could be called Twin Cities.

Satellite Cities – Cities or smaller metro areas that are close enough to a major metropolitan area that citizens or business people might make easy day trips there and take advantage of specialized amenities, but are far enough to be distinct entities.  They don’t share suburbs or airports.  The Kitchener CMA (+ Guelph) would be a good example of a satellite (to Toronto). Tucson in some ways qualifies as a Satellite to Phoenix and San Diego and Los Angeles might also be considered a Satellite pair.

Bedroom Suburban District – Bedroom suburbs do not have the same economic centres of gravity as major metropolitan areas, satellites or twins.  Typically, many more people would leave them daily to go to work than there are jobs in that suburb. Plus many of the jobs there would be retail, restaurant or personal services, mostly serving the bedroom community population.

Industrial Suburban District – A suburb that contains a lot of low density industrial lands and business parks.  Manufacturing might have been there in the mid 20th century, while today it could be home to more warehouse-logistics space as well as suburban office parks and flex spaces.  Sometimes within the same municipality there might be an industrial suburban half and a bedroom suburban half, with little relation or interaction between the two other than they pay taxes to, and are served by, the same municipal government.

Urban Suburban Districts -  Places that are within a major metropolitan area, but seem more urban.  They have mid and even higher density, walkable residential areas often next to taller office towers and higher density employment lands.  They also have rapid transit links into the major metropolitan area’s downtown.  What they may lack is that “historic downtown” and they likely have regional branch offices of businesses rather than the metro area’s head office.

Today many suburban municipalities are shifting from all or mostly low density, separated bedroom and industrial districts into something more complex.  Mississauga (Toronto CMA) and Surrey (Vancouver CMA) are attempting to create new high density town centres from the shells of shopping centres. Office and residential spaces combined with new transit options are being created to reshape these places into urban suburban districts.  What shall we call these places — Urbanizing suburbs?


  1. Corey says:

    As distances have shrunk with the automobile and the interstate, what about older, smaller cities that have been sucked into a major metro? This is very common in older parts of the United States. They’re Urban Suburban Districts with a downtown, or they’re satellite cities lite.

    I’m in Lowell, Massachusetts. We were founded nearly 200 years ago as a manufacturing satellite of Boston, but in those days, the 25 mile trip between the two cities wasn’t to be taken lightly. That said, without Boston’s investment capital and market, we would never have existed.

    Today, the situation is vastly different as cities like Lowell have become sub-regional population centers inside a much larger Greater Boston economic area. We refuse to call ourselves a Boston suburb, but we certainly don’t have a distinct economy.

  2. Wendy Waters says:

    Hi Corey,

    Places like Lowell were what I had in mind with the concept of “urban-suburban districts” but maybe that’s not the right label. I’m looking for a good term for those places that have some historic character, that often naturally leads to better walkability (an old street grid is often more walkable than meandering roads with cul-de-sacs in modern suburbs).

    So Lowell hasn’t found a good label for itself?

  3. Corey says:

    Aside from the “no historic downtown” bit, Urban-Suburban is probably fair. We have the historic downtown (it’s actually a National Park), but it’s not a particularly notable concentration of jobs or retail, and hasn’t been in decades. The malls in surrounding municipalities ensured that. Suburb is fair in many ways, as our nighttime population is over 100,000, and the daytime population is closer to 60,000. However, at an average density of 7,500 people per square mile and a building stock that tends to trend before 1930, and therefore pre-automobile, urban feels more correct. Especially because no surrounding town gets anywhere near that density figure.

    Economically, we have the regional hospitals, colleges, sports venues, etc. Over time though, they’re losing their independence and becoming satellites to Boston-based organizations. Also, as I mentioned, we don’t have the regional jobs anymore, and not even the regional shopping.

    That said, Lowell’s long and proud history (we once were New England’s second largest city…in 1850), and its reputation as being a city of long-time families, close-knit neighborhoods, and small family businesses makes the “suburban” label very unattractive to me.

  4. Corey says:

    I guess I’ve always called Lowell a satellite city as it is dependent on but distinct from the big city. However, by your definitions, a city with much more economic independence and a bit more distance, like Providence, RI or maybe Worcester, MA or even little Manchester, NH is a satellite. Urban/Suburban just sits wrong with me.

    I don’t know, I’m not sure I’d worry about what I think because New Englanders are strange about this sort of thing. I don’t know what Canada is like, but here, the government needed to come up with a geographical/statistical concept unique to our six states just to be able to describe the inter-community relationships here:

  5. Isidoros says:

    The intensification around malls in Mississauga, Surrey, Scarborough, Brampton, etc. is a Canadian trend that should be given a name. Big box power centres are on their way out and being replaced by “_______”…

    -Parking Lot Towers
    -Mall Walker Suites
    -Shopaholic Spires
    -Suburban Clustering (opposite of urban sprawling)

    I’ve yet to find a similar trend outside of Canada where suburban malls are anchoring high-rise condo developments. Not sure if this has to do with the stability of the malls because their stewards are pension funds, or just that Canadian malls are more successful due to the dreary climate.

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