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This Landsat 7 image shows the Phoenix Mountains Preserve (darker areas), which consists of scattered, undeveloped islands in the middle of a sprawling city that consumes "an acre of desert an hour."
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

The creature didn’t eat just Sheboygan: It’s chomped up Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, too. Across America, “boomburbs” — rapidly growing suburban cities — are overtaking many urban centers in size and influence, according to a new study.

There are 53 such cities, an analysis of 2000 census data by the Fannie Mae Foundation says. It defines these burgeoning locales as places with 100,000 or more residents that aren’t the largest city in their area. Four of them have more than 300,000 residents: Mesa, Ariz.; Santa Ana, Calif.; Arlington, Texas; and Anaheim, Calif.

They match, or dwarf, many major metropolitan areas. Miami, for example, has just over 362,000 residents; Buffalo has just under 300,000.

“Mesa, which few people actually know about, is larger than places like Minneapolis and St. Louis,” said Patrick Simmons, director of housing democracy for the Fannie Mae Foundation.

Even Atlanta, with its 416,474 residents, barely squeaks past Mesa’s 396,375 people.

Arizona as a whole had the most stunning sprawl, with some cities, such as Chandler and Peoria, growing more than 4,000 percent since 1950. But growth was marked throughout the South and the West. Arlington, a sleepy burg of 7,600 a half-century ago, is now home to almost 333,000. Aurora, Colo., one of Denver’s many thriving suburbs, grew from 11,421 to 276,393 — a leap of more than 2,300 percent.

That doesn’t mean the whole country saw similar growth. The only boomburbs in the Midwest or the East were Naperville, Ill., near Chicago, and Chesapeake, Va., near Norfolk. This latest data further affirms the growing westward trend across the United States, along with the heated growth of the Sun Belt.

“These metropolitan areas are fairly low-density when you compare them to the Northeast and Midwest,” said Simmons.

Urban size, suburban feel
However, the report notes, the lack of large suburbs in the East doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of growth. Cities like Atlanta have spawned an ever-expanding swath of smaller suburbs.

Still, those smaller suburbs in the East and the South have generally shown a fragmented approach to regional planning, the report said. The massive Western suburbs face special problems because of their rapid growth — including tremendous traffic and overwhelmed public utilities — but their size allows them to better plan for larger, regional solutions.

And while these cities have the size to wield significant political power, their growth along interstate beltways around major cities and their usually sprawling layouts allow them to function less like a concentrated urban city — with a downtown and dense residential neighborhoods — and more like an overgrown suburb. They almost always lack a concentrated business district, relying instead on malls and commercial strips, and are highly reliant on cars for transit. As the study pointed out, “Boomburbs are urban in fact, but not in feel.”

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Among all metropolitan areas, Los Angeles reigned as the leader in large suburban cities, with 18 boomburbs comprising nearly 3 million people, a significant chunk of the region’s 16.3 million residents. It’s not surprising, of course, that Southern California, which often seems more like a continuum of development than a patch of individual cities, would lead the pack.

Yet the growth of suburban cities can promote just the opposite: ever-growing density closer in to major cities. Physical boundaries — the mountains and Pacific Ocean around Los Angeles County; the Everglades in South Florida — also hedge in spreading development as density grows in suburban areas, Simmons said. The need to provide water to residents, especially in the Southwest, has also kept many communities from continuing their outward spread.

Affluent and diverse
Next came Phoenix, with seven boomburbs, where more than 4 in 10 Phoenix-area residents live. Other metropolises following the trend: San Diego, San Francisco, Denver, Miami, Tampa, Chicago, Las Vegas, Portland, Dallas, Salt Lake City and Seattle.

Among the factors that accounted for the growth was the preference, largely in Western states, for enormous planned communities that chew up unincorporated land. The size of the cities surpasses their municipal definition — in many cases, these communities turn into large cities before they’ve realized they’re no longer sleepy towns.

While most of the 53 cities are affluent, almost all contained lower-income pockets and were ethnically diverse — especially in California.

To choose the cities, Fannie Mae selected places with populations over 100,000 that weren’t the largest city in their region. They screened out places without 10 percent or more growth in each census period since 1950 — thus eliminating cities like Newark, N.J., or Yonkers, N.Y. The 53 cities comprised a population of some 8.8 million people, about 3 percent of the U.S. population.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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