What exactly is an exurb?

What defines an exurb seems to shift from state to state.

Distance from the city is one piece of what makes an exurb in Minnesota, where neighborhoods spread out in concentric circles from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro. Emerging on the outskirts of the urban areas, the suburbs make up the first ring and the exurbs comprise the second.

Atmosphere is another piece of what makes an exurb here. Minnesota exurbs usually have rural ties and lots of green space and lack the characteristic concrete jungle strip malls of suburbs like Maple Grove or Eden Prairie.

They are often townships with sprawling homes, large lawns and few sidewalks.

Looking at Minnesota, an exurb is a community located outside of a suburb in a more rural area within commuting distance to a large metropolitan area.

But when you take this definition to other states, it doesn’t always hold up. Surprise, Arizona, for instance, is considered an exurb even though it sits less than 13 miles from Glendale — a city large enough to host its own professional baseball and hockey teams — and only 27 miles from Phoenix.

In a story about the area, the magazine High Country News, describes it as though it’s a suburb, while referring to it as an exurb:

“Home Depot and Wal-Mart rise like islands from an ocean of pavement, and late-model SUVs gleam in the midday sun. Homes with red-tiled roofs line up like stucco boxes on a giant supermarket shelf. There’s little to distinguish this from the hundreds of square miles of housing developments that have sprouted around Las Vegas and San Diego. If it weren’t for the palm trees, you could be in suburban Salt Lake City.”

While that sounds nothing like the exurbs of Minnesota, there is something that is tying places like Baldwin with places like Surprise. Sprawl and an unrealistic housing market led both to boom, and foreclosures have left both asking, “what’s next?”

While Surprise may look more like a suburb than an exurb to a Minnesotan, its history of quick development followed by crashing house prices and a glut of empty homes is reminiscent of exurbs everywhere.

Probably because of its distance to major metro areas, it was able to lure in big box stores and build, build, build, not just homes, but national chain stores. Now many of those are closing or already sit vacant and Surprise is left with a concrete jungle ghost town.

I think what places like Baldwin or Princeton can learn from Surprise is that there is a silver lining to big boxes avoiding your area if they deem it’s not big enough — you’re left with open space instead of a ghost town of strip malls.

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