Sizing up the suburbs: A quest for the best

For generations now, the American Dream has meant a home in the suburbs. But today there are so many to choose from.

Some are quiet bedroom communities, like Leawood and Raymore. Some have quaint downtowns, like Parkville and Independence. Some are bursting with growth, like Olathe and Lee’s Summit. And some are far-flung small towns, like Grain Valley and Spring Hill.

So which ones offer the best overall quality of life?

The Kansas City Star set out to find out. The result: Kansas City’s first-ever comprehensive suburban ratings.

Beginning today, and continuing for the next week, The Star counts down the top 10 places to live in the area outside Kansas City. All 40 suburbs larger than 3,500 people were included.

Kansas City neighborhoods were not — it’s difficult to compare them to suburbs using the same statistical measures. The Star will take a closer look at Kansas City’s neighborhoods in the future.

The ’burbs were compared in some two dozen different ways, from crime rates to property tax rates, from school test scores to neighborhood diversity scores.

In the end, all these comparisons should help us understand what makes a good suburb.

Like it or not, the suburbs aren’t a phenomenon anymore. They’re mostly where we’ve chosen to live. The suburbs in the seven counties surrounding Kansas City hold two-thirds of the area’s population.

And for the most part, these aren’t your parents’ bedroom communities. The ’burbs have grown up. They’re where almost all the biggest new stores open and where most new tech jobs are created. Homes once derided as boxy and ticky-tacky are now desirable. Trees even tower over houses now in southern Johnson County.

To be sure, Kansas City’s center is growing stronger — a new arena and entertainment district are going up, and old buildings have found new life as residential lofts.

Yet, even with downtown’s new energy and momentum, sprawl remains the preferred lifestyle here and across the country, despite its legions of detractors.

“The battle’s over,” social trends analyst Joel Kotkin writes about metropolitan areas. “Now it’s time to call it a day and declare a winner.

“The winner is, yes, sprawl.”

In Kansas City, we’re pretty comfortable with that, whether it’s newer sprawl or older sprawl, small cozy ’burbs or larger spread-out ones. When The Star asked local suburban residents in an opinion poll about their quality of life, an overwhelming proportion said they were very or somewhat happy. Plus, some surveys show suburbanites here are more satisfied with their quality of life than suburbanites elsewhere.

After The Star crunched numbers, reviewed polls and talked with suburban officials, one thing’s for certain: No matter where people live around this metropolis, we love our suburbs.

Savoring area’s charms

Tom and Roxee Beaver are born and bred East Coasters. They expected to retire there. But when their children ended up attending college in Missouri and then moving to the Kansas City area, the Beavers moved too, to eastern Jackson County.

Now they tell friends and family this is the best place they’ve lived.

In their previous location, a suburb of Washington, D.C., Tom hated his commute. The beltway was a parking lot. The couple had a small home; it was all they could afford. And in nearly a decade there, they never went over to their next-door neighbor’s house.

Here, the first weekend they were in their Lee’s Summit home, the next-door neighbors invited them over. Tom’s commute to downtown is a breeze. And the couple lives on a lake in a house that’s the envy of their East Coast friends.

“I feel like I’m in the country,” Tom says. “You don’t have to go far to get away from the hustle and bustle here. It’s an absolute joy.”

Indeed, Kansas City suburbanites in general are more satisfied with their quality of life than suburbanites elsewhere.

During the last two years, a local research company called the ETC Institute has surveyed residents in 20 suburbs across metro Kansas City about their communities. At the same time, the company conducted similar surveys in suburbs across the country, from Naperville, Ill., outside Chicago, to Burbank, Calif., outside Los Angeles. On almost every question, our suburbs as a group scored higher.

Asked about their community as a place to live, 94 percent of local suburban respondents were satisfied, versus 84 percent elsewhere.

Asked about raising children, 87 percent of local suburban respondents were satisfied with their communities, compared with 71 percent elsewhere.

“Other places have mountains or an ocean,” says Chris Tatham, vice president of the ETC Institute in Olathe. “They seem to be more exciting and more cosmopolitan.

“But for people who have traveled or lived in other places, they know you can look at things like crime rates, schools, traffic, the cost of living and the overall quality of life, and (metro Kansas City) is a fine place to live and raise a family.”

Back to the basics

Suburbs as a whole, however, continue to get a bad rap.

They’re continually denigrated in popular culture. The latest hit television show about depravity lurking inside homes, “Desperate Housewives,” is set in suburbia. Even a noted observer of modern American life, David Brooks, derisively characterized a suburbanite in the newest suburbs as “Patio Man” living in “Sprinkler City.”

Then there are the architecture and planning elites who thumb their noses at the design of suburbs. Renowned architect Andres Duany has called these places “hollow” and “cookie-cutter” and full of “banality.” Author James Kunstler once told CNN: “We are spiritually impoverishing ourselves by living in these environments.”

A few criticisms do ring true — suburbs have not traditionally been models of racial diversity, and many still aren’t.

In most cases, though, critics judge the suburbs on urban terms, and that doesn’t make much sense to suburbanites. Architects like Duany, for instance, want to change how suburbs are built so that houses and stores are closer together, in the hope that people will walk more places. But in today’s go-go lifestyle, not many people have time to walk, even when a park is half a mile away.

The fact is, suburbs may be mocked, but they are the preferred form of living.

The 1990s were hailed as a decade of renaissance for big cities after decades of decline. Urban core cities in the 50 largest metropolitan areas gained 3 million people. At the same time, however, suburbs in those metros added 17 million.

Similarly, Kansas City’s downtown has added more than 1,900 new lofts and apartment units this decade as part of its remarkable renaissance. Still, that figure is the same as the number of new homes built during the same period in Lenexa or Independence, let alone Olathe or Lee’s Summit.

Sprawl, according to the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Robert Bruegmann in a new book about that subject, “is the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live.”

The reason is, the ’burbs provide more of what people seek in their quality of life.

Especially here. The Star asked local suburbanites what was important to their quality of life. It wasn’t hot nightclubs or the trendiest restaurants. That’s more for the urban core crowd. What mattered to suburbanites were the basics in life.

Like safety — the suburbs have much lower crime.

And schools — the suburbs have much better test scores.

And recreation — all the major lakes in metro Kansas City are located in the suburbs.

Kansas City, of course, remains the region’s dominant city, where major cultural institutions, sports teams and bar districts are located. But increasingly, suburbs offer things the city doesn’t.

Like BMX bike racing.

At a Blue Springs park, teenagers and preteens, wearing color-coordinated uniforms and helmets, race in their age groups around a dirt track under the lights. Up and down a hill, up and down another hill, around a horseshoe turn. Moms scream, “Pedal!” Dirt flies up from the back of the mountain-bike tires. Over a series of bumps, then a final sprint to the finish line.

Bicycle motocross is one of the more popular so-called extreme sports. But for kids in metro Kansas City, the only two tracks are in eastern Jackson County.

“It’s nice to have a town with a track in it,” says Jerry Rau, who operates Blue Springs’ track. “It gives the kids something else to do.”

A balance of strengths

Yes, local suburbs have plenty to offer and their residents are plenty satisfied with them. Yet, that satisfaction varied by location and tended to go up by income level.

In The Star’s poll, 92 percent of Johnson County respondents said they were happy in their suburb. In Jackson County suburbs, it was 72 percent.

That’s because local suburbs are all somewhat different. Suburbia isn’t easily pigeonholed. Harrisonville dates back more than a century, while Grain Valley consists mostly of newer homes. Prairie Village is just across the street from Kansas City, while Kearney and others are 25 miles or more away. Leavenworth is seen as welcoming toward minorities, while some like Mission Hills had a history of restrictive housing covenants.

What, then, makes a good suburb?

The answer, The Star found after making all the statistical comparisons, is: a little bit of everything.

“Part of the American folklore is that we think of suburbs as one endless subdivision, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says David Warm, executive director of the Mid-America Regional Council, a metrowide planning agency. “More suburbs today are growing into complete towns, not just subdivisions. They try to offer everything, a range of amenities and opportunities and an overall sense of place.”

No suburb has it all — low crime, good schools, newer housing, high housing appreciation, low taxes, major recreation offerings, neighborhood charm, some diversity, nearby shopping. The lowest-ranked may have only a few of these traits. The best have most of them. They still have weaknesses, but they offer a balanced portfolio of strengths.

In The Star’s rankings of local ’burbs, the No. 1 suburb doesn’t have the lowest crime rate or highest school test scores.

The No. 1 suburb doesn’t have the top score in the most statistical comparisons.

The No. 1 suburb isn’t the wealthiest or most charming.

The No. 1 suburb might even surprise you. In fact, you might find plenty of surprises in the next seven days.