The Pros and Cons of Living in an “Urban Suburb”

With all the charm of Main Street and all the benefits of living close to town, it can be difficult to classify the close-in suburbs that often ring a major city. While they may technically be suburbs, they still have an urban feel, with the amenities and walkability of many city neighborhoods. Sometimes referred to as “first-ring suburbs,” planners at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs have coined the term “also-urb” to describe these communities, since they’re also urban areas.

Here’s what to consider when deciding whether or not an urban suburb is right for you:

Proximity to both urban and suburban amenities. Urban suburbs tend to lie between a city and its more traditional suburban communities, which make its residents perfectly placed to take advantage of the amenities of both areas. You’ll likely be just as close to the city’s boutique shops and cultural venues as you are to the big box stores and large parks in the suburbs.

Small, close-knit feel. Urban suburbs have a small town feel, and can give you a real sense of belonging. While this is definitely a positive for more outgoing, extroverted types, it could be a downside for more introverted people, as the level of “everyone knows everyone” can be intimidating.

One person can make a big difference. The smaller community in an urban suburb means that your volunteer work and activism can make a proportionately bigger difference in the lives of your neighbors, whether it is serving in the local government, helping with beautification efforts, or volunteering with local organizations.

Less red tape. Urban suburbs have their own local government that only covers one neighborhood, so there is typically less bureaucracy to deal with. It’s likely you can pay your water bill, voice a concern, and attend the volunteer fire company’s fundraiser in one stop. However, these smaller communities typically do not pay their mayor and local council, so you are potentially getting less of their time and focus.

Fewer public safety taxes. Small urban suburbs do not tend to have standing fire or emergency medical departments and rely on volunteers. While you will not be taxed for these services, you will be asked to donate. Though these communities do employ a full-time police force, it will be considerably smaller than in a city.

Too small to recycle? Some smaller urban suburbs may be unable to get favorable rates on residential recycling collection and so choose not to include it in waste management fees. While of course this doesn’t mean you can’t recycle, you may need to transport your own recyclables to a central drop-off spot.

You won’t need your car as much. Many urban suburbs have walkable access to libraries, parks, schools, and other places that are part of your normal routine. However, living outside of the city can mean a longer commute to your job elsewhere, and especially heavy traffic if you’re heading downtown.

More mom n’ pop shops. Urban suburbs are the epitome of small-town America, and they are magnets for small businesses in part because rent is typically cheaper than in city centers. Small businesses can take advantage of proximity to both city and suburbs by drawing clientele from both areas as well as their own neighborhood. It’s likely you’ll be on a first-name basis with your local bartender, florist or dry cleaner in no time.

Walkable communities with actual sidewalks. Many suburban communities don’t require sidewalks at the edge of the road, despite many of their throughfares seeing heavy traffic. The sidewalks in an urban suburb make it easier to get around, though it also means homeowners are responsible for the upkeep of the sidewalk itself, as well as shoveling snow and similar maintenance.

Human scale. Many urban suburbs have not been subjected to the intense real estate development that happens in many cities. This means more buildings of a human scale, and fewer high-rises. Expect low-density housing, with more single family homes than multi-family rentals. However, the age of some of these communities means construction may have pre-dated planning ordinances, so you may wind up with business or light industry in some unexpected places.

Pro Con
Pro Small town feel
Con “Everyone knows everyone” can be intimidating
Pro Less bureaucracy to deal with
Con Sometimes no pay for local officials, so you get less of their focus
Pro Walkable access to libraries, parks, schools, and more
Con Potentially longer commute to work
Pro Less intense real estate development
Con Business or light industry in some unexpected places
Pro Sidewalks!
Con A responsibility for their upkeep
Check out the top urban suburbs in the U.S.

Author: Melanie Linn Gutowski

Melanie Linn Gutowski is a writer and public historian from Pittsburgh, PA.

The Pros and Cons of Living in an “Urban Suburb”