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Suburban Areas - Problem Neighbourhoods of the Future?

Markus Hesse and Joachim Scheiner

Suburban Areas - Problem Neighbourhoods of the Future?

Introduction: Shift in Perspective from the Inner City to the Outskirts
Suburbia in the Life Cycle of Urban Development
Mobility and Traffic as Problem and Area of Conflict
    Adverse Impacts of Traffic
    Accessibility and Personal Mobility
    Contextualization: Changing Demographic and Economic Conditions
Consequences: Possible Strategies for Action


The article deals with the role of suburban areas as potential problem neighbourhoods of the future. This is a shift in perspective from inner-city neighbourhoods, typically seen as problematic, to the surrounding areas of cities. Taking as their point of departure demographic changes in the context of specific life-cycles of suburban areas during urban development, the authors examine two main hypotheses: firstly, whether, in the course of urbanisation, suburban areas also assume certain negative properties of the city, especially those associated with increasing density or growing interdependence with the core city. Secondly, they investigate the extent to which the specific situation, structure, and endowment of these locations reduces adaptability to such changes. Finally, possible strategies for action in dealing with these problems are discussed.


Introduction: Shift in Perspective from the Inner City to the Outskirts

Studies and concepts on socially inequitable urban development take a classical spatial point of view: they are turned towards inner-city neighbourhoods and centrally located areas that are judged to be problematic or deprived. This is the case with both theoretical viewpoints like social ecology and postmodern approaches and with practical urban renewal or redevelopment. The locations concerned mostly suffer from poor physical fabric and low experience value, and a high proportion of residents are recipients of transfer payments and people with an immigrant background. Ideal-typically, they are centrally located on busy main streets in the core city (cf. the article by Beckmann, Bracher und Hesse in this issue).

This article adopts a different perspective. It directs its attention primarily towards suburban areas on the outskirts of the core city or at some distance from it. In urban studies, these locations have hitherto tended to be seen as socio-economically better off and of higher status, since the classical agents of suburbanisation have been regarded as the middle classes and high income groups (cf. Friedrichs 1995, 103). The reason for changing perspective on suburban areas as possible problem neighbourhoods is primarily the parallel ageing of residents and the areas where they live. In the course of urban development, suburban areas have been embedded in specific origination conditions and age and life cycles. Often they emerged as new housing areas at a certain point in time and not infrequently they house comparatively homogeneous age cohorts. This specific age and life cycle situation poses new challenges for urban development.

The article examines two questions: whether, in the course of urbanisation, suburban areas assume certain negative characteristics and properties of the city, especially those associated with increasing density or growing interdependence with the core city. They include motorised transport and its negative consequences, especially noise, emissions, the risk of accidents, and urban development problems. Secondly the article investigates the extent to which the specific situation, structure, and endowment of these locations reduces their ability to adapt to such changes. This applies, for example, with regard to low density and an overall low degree of urbanisation, which makes these areas unattractive for sections of the population that are (once again) “distance-sensitive”, and which could set off a vicious circle.


Suburbia in the Life Cycle of Urban Development

Suburbanisation is the spatial deconcentration of workplaces, population, and recreational facilities in urban regions, which – by definition – is directed across the boundaries of the core city towards surrounding areas, but which in fact also takes place within central cities. It has been one of the determining characteristics of settlement development in the majority of industrialised countries during the 20 th century (cf. Burdack/Hesse 2006). This has been the case in (West) Germany since the end of the war, and in North America for some decades longer. With the spread of developed areas, the historical system of settlement structure and central place hierarchy changed. Growing spatial interdependence led to the extension of commuter catchment areas. The once clear distinction between city and country became blurred.

With marked differences from region to region, suburban areas have thus become an important component of interlinked urban regions. Their constituent elements are increasingly being used selectively in the pursuit of a “regionalisation of lifestyles” (cf. Priebs 2004). Residential areas, workplaces, recreational and service facilities occupy specific locations in the inner and outer zones of the developed area, complementing the central city, the surrounding region, and more distant areas.

In theoretical models, suburbia is conceptualised in different ways. On the one hand, cyclical models of European urban development are postulated (cf. van den Berg et al. 1982). From this point of view, urban regions experience more or less rule-governed cycles of urbanisation, suburbanisation, desuburbanisation, and resuburbanisation, which proceed with specific shifts in weight between the core city and surrounding areas. Whereas suburbia in this sense is a period in the life cycle of a city, other approaches investigate the life cycles of suburban areas. Developed especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, they stress the tendency towards autonomy or specificity in suburban areas (cf. the overview in Harris/Larkham 1999). “Old” or “first” suburbs have developed a use structure corresponding to that of the old “Vorstadt” or “faubourg”, and they have tended to emancipate themselves from the old centre. New residential and recreational uses have come into being in the environs of commercial and industrial sites and shopping centres (or vice versa). The supposed social homogeneity of the suburban milieu, composed of white, middle-class families, has also changed (cf. Frey 2003).

This trend is also apparent in high-growth European urban regions, for instance in South-East England, the centre of Benelux, or in northern Italy (cf. Phelps/Parsons 2003). In Germany, regions like the Ruhr District or Rhine-Main are considered prototypical of such “in-between cities” (or “Cities without Cities”, cf. Sieverts 1997). The harmonisation of living conditions and physical and spatial phenomena in the built environment can in principle be demonstrated in almost every major agglomeration: the more “mature” suburban areas appear to be, that is the more heavily built-up they are, the more socially diverse they become and the more residential use is complemented by other functions, and the more the suburban area takes on the form of a city. At the same time, the growing traffic problems in suburban areas can be seen as the “price” of maturing and urbanising. However, the expectation of private utility maximization, to which suburbia owes much of its development (living in green surroundings close to an urban economy and culture) is fundamentally called into question.

Demographic change and the ageing of the first suburbanisation areas have now raised the question of what future these localities can expect under changing conditions on the housing and property markets. This is particularly relevant where the ageing of the first residents of typical suburban residential areas undermines one of the constitutive conditions of suburbia: private motorisation. The scattered service structures and regionalised demand patterns of suburban areas are essentially bound to the availability of private cars. If this condition is no longer met, and people have more alternatives to choose from in the urban region than in periods of tight property markets, suburbia could develop from an attractive out-of-town place to live into the loser of demographic change. Not by chance is the focus on mobility and transport as an area of conflict. On the one hand, the mass motorisation of the middle classes was the precondition for extensive suburbanisation, and, on the other, motorised transport is one of the main problems of suburban areas, both with regard to the efficiency of transport systems and the repercussions for the quality of life (cf. Hesse 2007a). The future of this type of settlement structure appears to depend on solving mobility problems.


Mobility and Traffic as Problem and Area of Conflict

This section looks at two different aspects of mobility and traffic in the suburban context as compared with the city. At the same time, a differentiated point of view on suburbia itself is adopted, distinguishing between central and peripheral areas. We first look at the adverse impacts produced by traffic in the residential environment – by “other people’s” mobility. The examples of noise pollution and road safety are examined. We go on to discuss the costs of transport accruing to private households from their own mobility, arising from accessibility, and the time and money spent on transport.

The empirical basis is provided by data from two research projects completed by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF): Intermobil Region Dresden (Intermobile Region Dresden) and StadtLeben (CityLife).(1) Owing to differences in questionnaire contents, these two surveys have to be distinguished depending on the questions put. The analyses have been supplemented by literature.


Adverse Impacts of Traffic

Impairment of the quality of life in the urban residential environment is generally considered a major factor in centrifugal migration. Most important are traffic nuisances in the form of noise and exhaust gas emissions, as well as the risk of traffic accidents. This is confirmed in the Dresden and Cologne regions. In the Dresden region, traffic noise is one of the main reasons why people move house (24 per cent). Traffic noise is particularly frequently mentioned by city-periphery migrants (32 per cent) but also by people moving within the urban periphery. This shows that considerable noise pollution apparently occurs even within suburbia.

Noise pollution in suburbia tends to occur in more central areas and is therefore likely to increase with the continued urbanisation of the urban fringe. This small-scale differentiation is empirically demonstrable with the aid of change of residence plans, for which we have an adequate sub-sample only for the Cologne region. 16 per cent of respondents there state that noise was a reason for wanting to move. In view of the many reasons for changing address (family, accommodation, etc.), this figure can be regarded as very high. Traffic noise was explicitly mentioned, but other sources of noise were not excluded. This reason is mentioned with above-average frequency in central areas (see table 1). However, the findings also show that noise itself plays an important role even in purely residential areas.

Table 1: Noise as residential area-related reason for plans to move house





Inner city

Edge of centre



Residential areas


% of respondents because of noise *














* of respondents planning to move
Source: own analyses. Data: Projekt StadtLeben (Beckmann et al. 2006b)

Other, seemingly typical urban problems, like the quality of the dwelling environs for children occur not only in the core city or in central locations. Among immigrants to a municipality in the Dresden region, this reason was stated by 23 per cent of those leaving the core city of Dresden but also 25 per cent of outmigrants from other communities in the environs of Dresden. Not only the city but also certain suburban contexts are accordingly felt to be inadequate, especially with respect to environmental stress and child-friendliness.

Another often cited reason for centrifugal migration, particularly among families, is the lack of road safety in the core city. Unfortunately, no precise statement can be offered on this subject, since the statistical offices record only the site of an accident but not where the victim lives. If we make the simplified assumption that the place where an accident occurs is identical with the victim's place of residence, it is clear that the cliché of risky city life is false. Quite the contrary. The risk of being killed in road traffic is much smaller in central cities than in suburbia and in the country.

Even for the 6 to 14 age group, the risk of road death in agglomerated and rural counties is twice as high as in county-free cities (see table 2). In the population of driving age, the ratio of risk between agglomerated/rural counties and cities with more than 500 000 inhabitants jumps to more than 6 to 1. The risk for the adolescent children of suburbanites is thus higher than average. Motorisation in suburban life careers begins at the age of 18, very much earlier than in the city. This and the long journeys – for instance the classical night-time recreational car trips – make young adults in suburbia and in the country a particularly endangered group.

As the urbanisation of suburbia progresses, road traffic nuisance can be expected to increase. The number of jobs in the suburbs is increasing with repercussions for commuter flows, namely a growing number of out-commuters from the central city (reverse commuting) and dispersed commuting (cf., e.g., Aguilera 2005). The Cologne survey shows that centrifugal migrants are much more likely to engage in dispersed commuting than well-established suburbanites (cf. Kasper/Scheiner 2006). The effects of the growth of the urban field on the generation of traffic are therefore often underestimated in spatial comparisons between core city and environs. Out-commuting from the core city and the dispersion of commuting first of all extend commuting distances and secondly favour motorised private transport over public transport. The adverse impacts are borne chiefly by suburban areas. A complementary effect is that the suburbanisation of commerce and recreation increases the burden on suburban areas.

And beyond the everyday journeys of the population, too, suburbia is likely to be more strongly affected by traffic impacts in the future. For one thing, business is increasingly interested in suburban sites (Hesse 2007b). They are very well linked with to the highway network and often to airports. At the same time, they are convenient to the core city and, from the point of view of the enterprises concerned, sufficiently central. Added to this is the strong growth in air traffic, which in many places considerably impairs the quality of life in suburban localities (cf. Schreckenberg/Meis 2006). Conflicts between acceptable land uses and maintaining the character of the classical quiet, green residential areas are likely to intensify with the growing density and diversity of land use in suburbia.


Accessibility and Personal Mobility

Despite all the trends towards urbanisation, suburbia is still much less well endowed with residential infrastructure than cities – jobs, schools and child-care facilities, retailing, recreational facilities, public transport, medical care. This brings disadvantages for the suburban population as compared with residents of the core city on several levels: longer journeys, more expensive transport, less choice in activities.

Well documented are the greater distances travelled by the suburban population, especially by private motorised transport, as compared with residents of the core city (cf. Naess 2006, see also figure 1). They are the result of longer but not more frequent journeys. On the contrary, activity or journey frequency in peripheral locations is even a little lower than in central areas (cf. Scheiner 2006); this is owing primarily to more efficient supply behaviour (bulk buying rather than buying only for immediate needs).

The long journeys of suburbanites are due not only to the spatial structures of the places where they live but also the structure of the region as a whole. It is strongly determined by centrifugal migrants and their persistent orientation on the core city. The proportion of Cologne commuters among centrifugal migrants in the Cologne survey is almost twice as large as that of population already settled in the suburbs in 1989. Commuters between municipalities are much rarer among centrifugal migrants than among well-established suburbanites (13 per cent as against 34 per cent, Kasper/Scheiner 2006). These regionally oriented patterns of action are associated with traffic volumes. Thus centrifugal migrants travel about 60 per cent farther than long-established suburbanites (see figure 1). This is mainly owing to occupational but also to recreational trips (to control for demographic effects, only people in full-time work were taken into account.

From the traffic point of view and that of the private households themselves, it is of great importance whether such long journeys are persistent in the long term or whether after a certain time an adjustment to the local relations of the old-established population takes place. The findings vary. In the Cologne region, the proportion of intra-municipality commuters among centrifugal migrants increases markedly with the length of residence. Nevertheless, it remains so low that the average distances travelled only slightly decrease (see figure 1). It thus appears that, to at least some extent, people change jobs after a certain delay; this is confirmed by studies of firms that have relocated from Berlin to the surrounding region (Hesse 2007b). The FRAME project, however, showed that older people tend to engage in recreational activities in their former place of work with above-average frequency. These spatial orientations, explicable in terms of personal ties, do not weaken with increasing temporal distance from working life (Scheiner 2004).

From the point of view of the population, journey time is more important than the distance covered. Owing to the heavy use of private cars in suburbia, journeys which are longer than in the urban context do not necessarily require more time. The empirical findings on this subject give a mixed picture.

In the Dresden data, occupational and educational journeys into the core city Dresden take much less time than in surrounding areas.(2) Other activities show no systematic differentiation. In the Netherlands, by contrast, journey time in the core cities was found to be longer than in the urban environs (Schwanen et al. 2002). According to an analysis of the nation-wide survey Mobility in Germany 2002 (Scheiner 2007), it appears that travel time varies only slightly between types of municipality. Overall, suburbia has a slight advantage. However, journey time has often increased after moving to the suburbs, especially in commuter traffic (cf. Beckmann et al. 2006a, 114 ff.; Pscherer 2006, 125 f.).

Spatially differentiated accessibility and the corresponding demand for transport are also evident in location-specific transport costs. The high mobility and infrastructure costs of peripheral and suburban locations has been repeatedly pointed out (cf. e.g., Boesch/Schmid-Keller 1999). They include the cost of providing transport services (infrastructure, public transport), external costs of transport demand, and the costs borne by customers. From the point of view of private households, only the latter are relevant.

The transport costs of private households are much higher on the urban fringe than in the city (cf. Boesch/Schmid-Keller 1999). Centrifugal migrants must therefore expect their transport costs to increase, which, depending on the differences in property prices, may partly or entirely cancel out the savings in housing costs. This differs depending on the immediate situation and structure of the location chosen. For instance, Beckmann et al. (2006a, 164) note an increase in transport costs for 57% of centrifugal migrants in the areas between the development axes of their study regions (decrease 12 per cent) compared with 46 per cent in axial areas (decrease 15 per cent).

In a rough model calculation, Scheiner (2007) estimates a monthly increase in transport costs for households with two working members of between € 200 and € 250 (if no car has to be bought) and between € 350 and € 400 (where an additional car has to be bought). These amounts differ from location to location and from household type to household type; the cost in time is not taken into account. However, average transport costs of centrifugal migrants are far higher than those of other city-dwellers even before they move out of the city – i.e., while they are still living in town. The reason is the selectiveness of migrants: their rate of motorisation – the prime cost factor – is much higher that that of other urban dwellers before moving house even when controlling for socio-demographic conditions (cf. Scheiner 2005).


Contextualization: Changing Demographic and Economic Conditions

The establishment of suburban areas in the life cycle of urban development has fed essentially on favourable socio-economic conditions, including the general development of incomes and affluence and the consequent ability of many households to acquire property and cars. On the supply side, planning and fiscal regulation has provided support. If these conditions were to change in the future, and there is currently some indication that this could be the case, the life cycle of suburban locations will once again change. The objective problems and burdens of suburban areas could exert greater influence on household siting decisions than in the past.

There are two main factors. First, in planning their costs, households acquiring property are interested not only in short-term housing quality and locational satisfaction but also in the long-term development of housing and mobility costs. Outside growth regions (like Munich, Stuttgart, Cologne, Hamburg, and Rhine-Main), property markets become demand markets. In many places, the future development of property values is uncertain, and home-ownership loses its status as an undisputed provision for old age. At the same time, rising energy and mobility costs make it questionable whether the accustomed lifestyle can be maintained, which modifies the competitive position of the various residential locations to the advantage of central, well endowed areas.

Secondly, demographic changes come into play, especially the ageing of an important age group that had been instrumental in the suburbanisation of the post-war affluent society, which bought properties in the 1960s and 1970s that now are often not well suited for the phase in life they are now entering. The action space of older people is defined by the immediate residential environs much more strongly that that of younger people. They need to be close to shopping facilities, medical care and other services (cf. Beckmann et al. 2006a, 63 ff.). At the same time, the “empty nest” causes older people considerable expense and effort for upkeep and maintenance, especially when the property is large and a garden is to be tended. The move from a suburban one-family home into an urban apartment in old age is, however, only realistic if the house can be sold at an acceptable price, particularly because a floor plan designed to accommodate family life is seldom suitable for subletting.

In view of demographic ageing, social fractures are thus likely in suburbia. They are particularly likely in places with poor local infrastructure where an independent life not demanding the use of a car is not possible. This argument becomes all the more weighty in view of the probable further rise in transport costs. Purely residential areas on the outskirts of suburban municipalities are particularly unable to adapt, especially since their deficient adjustment is in future unlikely to be compensated by public service provision. The usual post-factum endowment of suburban areas with residential infrastructure (or alternatively with additional transport infrastructure) is becoming more and more of a political problem. Future settlement development could thus realistically include a scenario of suburban problem neighbourhoods.


Consequences: Possible Strategies for Action

It remains to be seen whether the weakening or partial reversal of suburbanisation currently under discussion can already be considered a new trend towards re-urbanisation. This thesis is not supported by empirical evidence (cf. Burdack/Hesse 2006). Nevertheless, there is much to suggest that suburban areas acquire certain characteristics of the city in the course of their urbanisation – positive as far as the residential environment, locational quality, and choice are concerned, but also negative in the form of increasing density, land-use conflicts, growing traffic nuisance. This can generate forms of disadvantagement hitherto familiar only in the core city. This accordingly raises the issue of the adaptability of peripheral locations in suburbia to changing economic and demographic conditions. Particularly concerned are residential areas with a low urbanisation level, i.e., poorly endowed with residential infrastructure, at some distance from the next middle-order centre and/or the core city.

How to respond adequately to the overageing of these locations, to the growing “distance sensitivity” of their population, and to rising transport costs? In principle, we assume that suburban areas with a certain degree of density, infrastructure, and local quality can adapt to changing framework conditions. A number of well-known factors come to bear. First, a minimum of land-use density (population, jobs, etc.) is indispensable for acceptable public transport services, whose efficiency ensures both the urban compatibility of traffic and socially equitable access to mobility. Second, a balanced mix of uses, at least on a medium scale, is essential for (relatively) short distances and flexibility in consumer behaviour with regard to rising transport costs. Even where opportunities are provided on a small scale, a greater mix can help meet these goals; for instance, the further development of service stations into small suppliers/convenience centres. Growing transport costs may concentrate everyday activities, especially in low to medium-income households. Only if individual life worlds continue to be reflected in regional action spaces rather than in the immediate neighbourhood are narrow limits set to the acceptable spatial allocation of functions.

Central locations in suburbia can be upgraded by further urbanisation, for instance through targeted “place making.” In any case, such strategies are among the standard tools of municipalities and of property developers and agents with an interest in the future of their locations and stock. They are favoured particularly in locations relating to settlement cores or urban corridors. Strategies are urgently needed for avoiding the concentration of problems and abating noise and other emissions, for instance on major roads. Where extensive service and commercial centres are built or redeveloped, precautionary traffic management measures are necessary. From this point of view, the sprawl of single-family home development decried as “carpet urbanisation” can be a major problem. Stabilisation measures and strategies are required in this connection. Isolated urban locations must be seen critically from the point of view of mobility and accessibility.

However, in the light of local authority planning sovereignty and the growing competition among local authorities for residents, restrictive settlement policies are unlikely to have any success. An alternative is to encourage self-reliance in deciding where to live. Private households obey personal logics in this regard, e.g., anticipated individual utility in the sense of greater quality of life and lower housing costs in suburbia. Households deciding where to locate must recognise that, far more than in the past, they have to bear the consequences of their decisions. The established standards of follow-up residential infrastructure in peripheral locations will be more and more difficult to maintain. At the same time, the gap between falling transport costs and increasing housing costs and property values, which had grown until the mid-1990s, is closing. This development will continue, leading to comparative disadvantages for peripheral locations. What public expenditure can be justified in maintaining peripheral settlements is becoming a fundamental question.

At the same time, social cohesion in locations developed in the early phase of suburbanisation with their populations from the same age cohorts needs to be fostered. The mobility and supply of older people in such areas already depend largely on support from neighbours and family. Such activities can certainly been expanded. An important precondition is the development of community spirit – in a socio-spatial environment that has tended to develop owing to people’s wish to escape unwanted “social relations” (in the city). In principle, the forms of neighbourhood help or the highly developed collective activities traditionally widespread in new housing subdivisions, to mention only two examples, show that it is not utopian to consider that something like “community” has developed there, too. In this manner, the predictable cutback in public services could be compensated, for example, by flexible and/or civil society forms of public transport (community bus). Such adapted forms of mobility would thus promote social inclusion, which would in turn benefit.



(1) The data from the “StadtLeben” survey was collected in 2002 and 2003 in n=2 691 personal interviews in ten study areas of the Cologne region (cf. Beckmann et al. 2006b). The project Intermobile Region Dresden involved a written, postal survey of n=1 649 persons in 13 municipalities of the Upper Elbe region in 2000 (cf. Bauer et al. 2005). (back)

(2) Journey length was not recorded in the UrbanLife project. (back)



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