As Americans flee suburbs, big cities aren't their only alternative
Something historic happened in America after the housing crash. For the first time in about a century, cities began growing faster than suburbs. As Leigh Gallagher puts it in The End of the Suburbs,
According to census data, population growth in outer suburbs, which had been the engine of residential growth for much of the 2000s, ground to a near halt from 2010 to 2011, increasing by just 0.4 percent. Cities and high-density inner suburbs, meanwhile, grew twice as fast, marking the first time in twenty years that city growth surpassed that of the exurbs. Our largest cities, meanwhile, grew at a faster rate than their suburbs for the first time in almost one hundred years.
Partially a response to the Great Recession and housing bust, Gallagher also notes that this is the “first time since the invention of the automobile that our outward migration pattern has reversed.”
More than a burst bubble
In 2008, the housing market decided that a 4,000-square-foot rancher built on a cul-de-sac an hour commute from downtown Phoenix was overpriced at $679,000.
But it’s more than the bursting of the housing bubble and the loss of investment value that is causing people to abandon the suburbs, says Gallagher. It’s also that:
- Poverty has followed white-flighters from the city to the suburbs
- Many cities are on the way back up from the nadir of garbagy streets and squeegee men in the 1980s
- Millennials hate the suburbs (haven’t young people always found the ‘burbs boring?) and they don’t like cars much either
- The price of oil is rising, making long commutes more expensive
- We’re all getting more eco-aware
Boomers, who are now retiring, are also leaving the suburbs, because they want smaller houses in walkable areas with restaurants, movies, art galleries and cafes that they can get to without a car.
Gallagher offers a convincing critique of outer-ring suburbs. They were never designed well in the first place, as she says. It’s no accident that suburbs became lonely places of driving, shopping and nesting in front of a big screen TV. That’s what suburbs were built for. They weren’t built for you to run into your neighbors walking to the market or bump into an old friend while catching some rays on an August day in a town square bustling with street musicians and office workers eating lunch.
Big metro bias
But Gallagher’s got a blind spot. Like so many other writers who dissect the suburbs and laud big cities, Gallagher seems to think that those are the only two places in America. No wonder — 80% of Americans live in either a city or its suburbs.
Yet, throughout American history, both before and after Thomas Jefferson urged Americans to follow an agrarian rather than an industrial path, Americans built small cities and towns, from Jamestown and Plymouth to New Netherland. Some, like New York and Charleston, grew to become great trading ports and ultimately, morphed into the modern big cities of the twentieth century. Others, like my home of Staunton, Virginia (founded 1749, population today of 24,000) remained human-scale up to the present day.
To offer these small cities as an attractive alternative to the thousands of Americans who are now leaving the suburbs for denser and more walkable communities, I’m now writing Calm, Cool, and Connected: How Small Cities Will Save America. For thousands of people fed up with the anomie of the suburbs but unwilling to endure the high costs and hassle of big cities, small cities are really where the American dream is moving.
While finishing the book, I’ll blog about some of the reasons why small cities are a third place — along with big cities and suburbs — that Americans need to take seriously in an age of high energy costs, climate change and an economy that will remain tough for decades to come.
If the topic of small cities interests you, I invite you to check out Calm, Cool, and Connected and subscribe to my blog.
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