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Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics


Defining Exurbia

Defining Exurbia

Increased out-migration from urban and suburban areas, more land consumption per capita, and edge city formation around the periphery of central cities have led to more complicated patterns of settlement in which the distinction between suburban and rural has become increasingly blurred. A new type of development that is neither fully suburban nor fully rural has emerged, sometimes referred to as the "exurbs." Spectorsky (1955), who is commonly credited with coining the term “exurbia,” first elucidated this new form and function of residential settlement emerging in the New York metropolitan area in his book, “The Exurbanites.” At that time exurbia was an oasis only accessible by the urban elite because of the high cost of automobiles and limited highway network. But as incomes and automobile ownership increased and new roads were built, this oasis expanded to become the new frontier for those seeking larger houses for less money, better schools, a bit of country, and the like. Currently, there are a number of approaches to define exurbia with several common themes, including (Spectorsky, 1955; Patel, 1980; Lamb, 1983; Nelson, 1992; Morrill, 1992; Davis et al., 1994; Nelson and Sanchez, 1997; Audirac, 1999; Theobald, 2001):

  • exurbia as a mix of rural and urban land uses;
  • exurbia as low-density development;
  • exurbia occurring within the commuting zone of a large, urbanized area;
  • exurbia as a settlement form somewhere between the suburbs and truly rural areas; and
  • exurbia as a place of transition between urban and rural.

We define exurbia as urban-dependent, low-density development. These are places that are outside of built-up urban landscapes, but within the commutershed of a major urban area. Exurbia is typically, overall, developed less densely than suburban and urban development. Other characteristics are those factors that are most likely to undergo changes as a result of urbanization influences. These include increasing population and population density; increasing conversion of land from agriculture and other non-urban uses to new residential, industrial and commercial uses; declining agricultural or other natural resource based industries; changes in the socioeconomic characteristics of residents, including increasing median household incomes, an increasing number of residents employed in service and professional occupations, and increasing commute times; increasing housing values and local economic growth in non-traditional sectors, e.g., service related, professional, or industrial jobs; and changes in traditional social ties, including increasing conflicts between “old” and “new” residents and less homogeneity in terms of shared values and beliefs.

Audirac, I. (1999).  Unsettled views about the fringe:  Rural-urban or urban-rural frontiers. In J.F. Owen & M.B. Lapping, Contested countryside:  The rural urban fringe in North America (pp. 7-32). Brookfield: Ashgate.

Davis, J.S. (1993). The commuting of exurban homebuyers. Urban Geography 14(1), 7-29.

Lamb, R.F. (1983). The extent and form of exurban sprawl. Growth and Change 14(1), 40-48.

Morrill, R. (1992). Population redistribution within metropolitan regions in the 1980s: Core, satellite, and exurban growth. Growth and Change 23(3), 277-293.

Nelson, A.C. (1992). Characterizing exurbia. Journal of Planning Literature 6(4), 350-368.

Nelson, A.C. and T.W. Sanchez (1997). Exurban and suburban households:  A departure from traditional location theory? Journal of Housing Research 8(2), 249-276.

Patel, D.I. (1980). Exurbs:  Urban Residential Developments in the Countryside. Washington, DC: University Press of America.

Spectorsky, A.C. (1955). The Exurbanites. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Theobald, D.M. (2001). Land-use dynamics beyond the American urban fringe. Geographical Review91(3), 544-565.