Suburbs can be amorphous and hard to grasp. Where does a city end and a suburb begin? Where does a suburb end and a rural area start? Reportedly, 52% of Americans describe their home neighborhood as suburban. Yet, the US Census does not have a definition for a suburban area. The term suburban is considered more of a colloquialism in today’s world.
In this piece we will look at how MSG defines suburban geography and how the geo-demographic team compensates for the US Census’ shortcomings and discrepancies.
To define a suburban area properly, we must look at all underlying geographic components – in particular urban and rural. To do this, we start by looking at Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) as defined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
MSA’s are defined as urban areas of at least 50,000 people with one or more adjacent counties that are socioeconomically tied to that urban center. There are over 360 MSA’s currently defined in the US and each MSA has one or more principal cities.
Traditionally, we consider principal cities to be the core socioeconomic center with the counties surrounding it dependent on it.
Now, let’s think about how the US Census delineates cities and urbanity. The Census defines urban as being within the principal city of an MSA and any census block outside of the principal city that meets a specific population threshold.
The problem is that the US Census does not distinguish between suburban or rural areas. It just assumes that anything not urban is rural. In fact, no government entity defines what a suburban area is.
Here we encounter a massive disconnect. According to Pew Research, a growing share of the population in the United States is living in suburban counties of large metropolitan areas. And as we already noted, a majority of Americans say they live in the suburbs. Suburban communities, moreover, have a distinct geo-demographic identity compared to urban and rural areas, yet the government doesn’t really account for it! Compounding the problem is the slippery nature of the term “suburban.” It can mean different things in different parts of the country.
All of this means that we have to define what suburban is ourselves. Marketing Systems Group’s geo-demographic team has developed their own definitions of suburban areas to compensate.
Taking a simplistic approach, we take the census blocks within the principal cities of the MSA’s and keep them coded as “urban.” Any census block outside these principal cities that was classified as urban by the Census we now classify as “suburban.” On the other hand, any census block classified as rural by the Census remains “rural”.
Additionally, we can apply an urban/suburban/rural rule to any kind of geography or polygon. For example, we could take a ZIP code and classify it as urban, suburban, or rural. This is done by rolling up the underlining geography (census blocks) and determining whether the population (or land area) within a ZIP code is predominantly urban, suburban or rural. However, we could end up with a checkerboard affect with how the census blocks distributed across urban, rural, and suburban, so some care is needed.
We can also leverage our Addressed Based Sampling (ABS) frame to our advantage. Using ABS, we can identify population growth in areas in a shorter time frame instead of relying upon decennial Census data, which is only updated once every 10 years. If you are trying to define suburban areas, which can grow suddenly and dramatically, you will see how stale the data can become if you merely rely on decennial Census data. Using ABS gives you a more current, more accurate picture.
For more insight, click here and check out Coffee Quip episode 8, Geo-demographic Methods: Suburban Geography, featuring Dennis Dalbey, Manager, Geo-demographic Services, and David Malarek, Senior Vice President, Sampling & Database Services.