What’s a First Tier Suburb, Anyway?

This is a guest post by Councilmember John Holman of Auburn, Washington.

There is a good likelihood that you are an elected official from a first tier suburb. An older, less-used term is ring suburb. Simply put, if your city is influenced by a large, urban, metropolitan area, chances are you are one of us.

Here is a test: When telling someone from out of your area where you are from, do you follow it up by stating the name of the large metro area near you? My conversations go something like this:

“Where are you from?”

I’m from Washington. The other Washington, the state, not DC.

“Oh, What part of Washington?”


“What’s that near?”

It’s right between Kent and Sumner.


Seattle … I’m from Seattle. The United States of Amazon. I was bottle fed Starbucks. I rode the Monorail to school and the lunch lady threw fish at us. I speak SQL, C++ and have lunch at the Space Needle once a week.

Never mind that Bill Gates lives in Mercer Island and Microsoft is in Redmond, Boeing airplanes are made all over the place, but not in Seattle, and the Seattle Seahawks are from Renton. Trust me, it’s just easier to say Seattle.

It’s not about size. Bedford, Ohio, a first tier of Cleveland is 5.3 square miles and has a population of 13,000. Arlington, Texas, a first tier of the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex, is 100 square miles and has a population of 400,000. Both of these cities are members of first tier Suburbs.

Some of our cities are young: Huber Heights, a first tier suburb of Dayton, Ohio, was founded in 1981. Some of us are even older than our urban neighbor: Petersburg, a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, was founded in 1645. Young or old, we all face complications that our proximity to an urban metropolitan area brings.

Our cities are unique in many ways. Except, we all feel the gravitational pull of the large urban core city we surround. Sort of like moons orbiting a planet. Moons orbit the central globe, but in return they contribute to, and influence, what happens on the core planet.

Sum the metrics from the first tier suburban cities that surround your metropolitan core.  Chances are the collective of your first tier cities has more people and generates more capital than your large metropolitan city. In my best Rodney Dangerfield voice: How do we get the respect we deserve? One way is to act collectively.  At First Tier Suburbs Council (FTS) we recognize that we have more in common with each other than we do differences.  So are you with us?

Great benefit is derived from having access to the collective knowledge and experiences of other member cities. First Tier Suburbs Council is very much a hands on, show and tell, NLC member driven council. If you are looking for real life solution to a problem or new ideas for your city, chances are you will find it in the FTS Council. We also share our failures, what didn’t work and why. That can be even more important than the successes.

And here’s another thing: I’m delighted to announce a new opportunity for my fellow first tier suburb communities. We’ve launched an Economic Development Pilot Program to help one city—or a group of cities in a region—identify and leverage their economic strengths and opportunities.

Learn more about the pilot program here.

Over time, our cities have evolved and of course they continue to change. Nothing we can do as elected officials will bring back the Montgomery Ward Catalog store that was once fundamental to a suburban cities’ Main Street. But what we can do is to think and plan generationally.  We need to look well beyond our terms of office. Many of our cities were once agrarian, farm communities that evolved into what we are today. The great post-WWII push that created the ca- based commuting community was the beginning of the suburb. Today we are comfortable with being a suburb. But many may be troubled as we our cities transition from suburban to urban in nature.  Join us to gain needed generational perspective. Paraphrasing the song from the TV sitcom “Green Acres”: First Tier Suburbs is the place to be …

15_Holman_JohnAbout the author: John Hayes Holman began his service on the Auburn City Council in January 2012. He was reelected in 2015 to his second, four year term that expires in December of 2019.  He has previously served as Auburn’s Deputy Mayor.  Locally he serves on Auburn Cities & Schools and the Green River College Foundation Board.

Nationally, he serves on the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Community & Economic Development Committee and is chair of the NLC’s First Tier Suburbs Steering Committee.  He previously served five years as a board member and chair of the Washington State Boundary Review Board.