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The Rise of America's Accidental Cities

Robert E. Lang and Jennifer B. LeFurgy

Publication Year: 2007

A glance at a list of America's fastest growing "cities" reveals quite a surprise: most are really overgrown suburbs. Places such as Anaheim, California, Coral Springs, Florida, Naperville, Illinois, North Las Vegas, Nevada, and Plano, Texas, have swelled to big-city size with few people really noticing —including many of their ten million residents. These "boomburbs" are large, rapidly growing, incorporated communities of more than 100,000 residents that are not the biggest city in their region. Here, Robert E. Lang and Jennifer B. LeFurgy explain who lives in them, what they look like, how they are governed, and why their rise calls into question the definition of urban.

Located in over twenty-five major metro areas throughout the United States, numerous boomburbs have doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in size between census reports. Some are now more populated than traditional big cities. The population of the biggest boomburb —Mesa, Arizona —recently surpassed that of Minneapolis and Miami.

Typically large and sprawling, boomburbs are "accidental cities," but not because they lack planning. Many are made up of master-planned communities that have grown into one another. Few anticipated becoming big cities and unintentionally arrived at their status. Although boomburbs possess elements found in cities such as housing, retailing, offices, and entertainment, they lack large downtowns. But they can contain high-profile industries and entertainment venues: the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Arizona Cardinals are among over a dozen major-league sports teams who play in the boomburbs.

Urban in fact but not in feel, these drive-by cities of highways, office parks, and shopping malls are much more horizontally built and less pedestrian friendly than most older suburbs. And, contrary to common perceptions of suburbia, they are not rich and elitist. Poverty is often seen in boomburb communities of small single-family homes, neighborhoods that once represented the American dream.

Boomburbs are a quintessential American landscape, embodying much of the nation's complexity, expansiveness, and ambiguity. This fascinating look at the often contradictory world of boomburbs examines why America's suburbs are thriving and how they are shaping the lives of millions of residents.

Published by: Brookings Institution Press

Series: James A. Johnson Metro Series

Cover Page

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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv

Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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Ed Glaeser

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pp. vii-x

...the older centers. America’s growing exurbs are full of both homes and jobs, as firms followed people to exurbs built around highways. While this statistical portrait is accurate, it is also dry and incomplete. It tells us nothing about the political conditions that made the Sunbelt such a center for new construction. It tells us little about...

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pp. xi-xvi

...dwellers and made our livings studying and writing about central cities. After coming to work for the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, located in Old Town Alexandria, we each moved to Fairfax County, Virginia, and our appreciation...

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Chapter 1: Legoland

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pp. 1-21

...House, and the Capitol. It even has a miniature Georgetown and a working model of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Other places in Miniland include the French Quarter of New Orleans, a New England fishing village, and Manhattan. The miniature of California is a hodgepodge of scenes, from an Orange County surfing town to Chinatown...

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Chapter 2: From Settlements to Super Suburbs

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pp. 22-54

...twentieth century, but none of them qualifies as a boomburb. For example, Newark, New Jersey, Alexandria, Virginia, and Long Beach, California, are big enough to be boomburbs, but they have grown too slowly in recent years to qualify. Even most late-starting industrial satellites, such as Gary, Indiana (built by the U.S. Steel Corporation...

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Chapter 3: Who Lives in the Boomburbs?

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pp. 55-74

...The proportion of foreign-born persons reached 11.1 percent, the highest level since 1930. This surge of immigration is changing how communities plan and develop, especially since slightly more than half of all of immigrants who arrived in metropolitan...

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Chapter 4: The Business of Boomburbs

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pp. 75-93

...buildings pop up behind him again and again. Wolfe’s fictional story centers on an Atlanta developer. But had he based his book in, say, Dallas, his famous line about the sameness of suburbia might read, “The way that you know you have entered a boomburb such as Arlington, Texas, is that the franchises start repeating themselves...

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Chapter 5: Big Skies, Small Lots: Boomburb Housing and Master-Planned Development

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pp. 94-120

...residential clusters. Some open-space relief is afforded these places by common amenities such as parks, pools, and nature trails. But the bottom line is that many boomburbs seem crowded. This chapter explores the housing and community development world of boomburbs. It highlights some surprising patterns of growth, including a wide...

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Chapter 6: The Small Town Politics of Big Cities

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pp. 121-143

...elements of a big city economy are typically there but arrayed in a pattern that few would recognize as urban. The same accidental imagery applies to boomburb government—they are big cities yet are run in many ways as small towns. Chapter 6 shows that this big city–small town governance split is both a strength and...

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Chapter 7: Boomburbs at Buildout

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pp. 144-161

...competition with their exurbs, facing neighborhood disinvestment, demographic shifts, and limited growth options. These former bedroom communities now have big-city needs that they must balance with a suburban environment based on low-density, single-use subdivisions...

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Chapter 8: Emerging Urban Realms and the Boomburbs of 2030

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pp. 162-174

...multiple subregions. Development in some of these urban realms is just taking off. These emerging metropolitan spaces serve as boomburb incubators. Regions often have both built-out urban realms and barely built ones. The following section looks at the future of boomburbs in different types of urban realm and finds that the fate of...


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pp. 175-198


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pp. 199-212

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The Brookings Institution

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pp. 213-214

...education, and publication on important issues of domestic and foreign policy. Its principal purpose is to bring the highest quality independent research and analysis to bear on current and emerging policy problems. The Institution was founded on December 8, 1927, to merge the activities of the Institute...

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780815751120
E-ISBN-10: 0815751125

Page Count: 212
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: James A. Johnson Metro Series