Urban Governance in the Suburbs: Politics in In-Between Places

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum Local Elections Scholars Series.  If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Mirya Holman at mholman@tulane.edu.

By Hannah Lebovits

Much of our understanding of urban politics and local governance is shaped by a focus on large central cities. Yet, many US residents don’t live in these urban spaces. In fact, a report from the Brookings Institute, notes that the distribution of population in many MSAs is significantly dispersed between the central city and suburbs. And while research on local elections and political behavior is growing, literature on politics in suburban cities remains underdeveloped.

Inner-ring suburban areas- cities, CDPs and villages spatial closer to the central city and older in age than other suburbs- are in decline across the United States. However, the legal and political nature of these suburbs varies by state and even metropolitan region. Some of these suburbs are Census Designated Places that lack municipal incorporation and local political actors. Others are cities and villages that are not in the same state as their central city. Some are growth-restricted by outer ring communities while other have natural, environmental borders and space to expand and grow.

The canonical view of politics in all suburban cities, as told by J. Eric Oliver in their 2001 book Democracy in Suburbia, argues that the lack of diversity in the suburbs correlates with lower rates of civic participation, including attending local meetings and voter turnout. In a subsequent article, Oliver and Ha suggest that while suburban citizens appear to be disengaged from civic processes and issues, suburban voters are more engaged and educated about local politics than the average voter. However, while the article is based on survey data from 30 suburbs across the county, the authors do not differentiate between older and more diverse inner-ring and newer outer-ring suburbs. Additionally, while the minority population percentage is considered, the article does not discuss minority political representation.

Several inner-ring suburbs of Cleveland, OH are cities in which the population demographic trends indicate a majority of non-White residents. However, these cities have significantly different racial representation patterns and voter turnout. There is no discernible relationship, in these cities, between the percent of the population that that is African American, the voter turnout rate and the percent of the city leadership that is African American.

Table 1. Race, Turnout and Representation in Cuyahoga County Minority-Majority Inner-ring Suburbs

City African American % (Population) Voter Turnout % (All) African American % (City Leadership)
Cleveland Heights, Ohio 42.6% 32% 37.5%
Garfield Heights, Ohio 44.8% 23% 12.5%
Bedford, Ohio 54.7% 29% 0.0%
Euclid, Ohio 59.0% 24% 30.0%
Maple Heights, Ohio 71.6% 22% 88.9%
Bedford Heights, Ohio 72.1% 26% 87.5%
East Cleveland, Ohio 90.0% 21% 100.0%
Warrensville Heights, Ohio 91.9% 21% 100.0%

Source: (ACS Table DP05, 2016 Estimates; Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, 2017; City Websites, 2018)

While this small sample of suburban cities shows little relationship between the voter turnout rates and the percent of population or the city leadership that is African American, there appear to be interesting spatial trends within each city. Cities may be diverse according to American Community Survey estimates, but they are rarely integrated. Based on the home addresses of the city council members, mayors, and city managers, local leaders in diverse cities often do not physically live in the areas of the city that are home to racial minorities and those living in poverty. Another valuable finding is that many local leaders, regardless of race, live in areas with higher median housing values.

Figure 1. City Official Address with Race over Percent African American


Figure 2. City Official Address with Race over Median Family Income


Figure 3. City Official Address with Race over Median Housing Value


Source: (ACS Table DP05, 2016 Estimates; Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, 2018). Data retrieved by the author, maps created by Dr. Mark Salling of the author’s institution.

Inner-ring suburban cities are at a unique crossroads and can be great places to test theories of urban governance. Would a larger sample of majority-minority inner-ring suburban cities show a more significant connection between voter turnout rates, population demographics and minority leadership rates? Do the residential locations of city officials impact their policymaking practices? Future research on political trends in inner-ring cities can provide new insight to urban governance scholars, guide policy makers and cultivate citizenship and new forms of civic engagement.

Photo by Bart Jaillet on Unsplash


Hannah Lebovits is a PhD student and policy researcher. Her areas of interest include local governance, public administration and urban affairs with a specific focus on suburbs and small cities. Hannah resides in Cleveland, OH with her spouse and two young children. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahLebovits



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