Tarnished Dream

Suburbs Are Dying, Say Urbanists, but the Obits May Be Premature

Leigh Gallagher’s ‘The End of the Suburbs’ is the latest in a long line of books predicting the demise of neighborhoods on the edge of town.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There’s a gleeful undercurrent in much of what’s written about the decline of the suburbs, as though it’s not enough that cities are more environmentally sustainable, creatively fecund, and wealthy—choosing to live in them also has to be morally good. It’s easy to get a whiff of this righteous schadenfreude just from the titles of some recent books: Cities Are Good For You, declares one; The Triumph of the City, trumpets another.

There’s such a strong history of city versus suburb sniping that Leigh Gallagher takes pains to point out early in The End of the Suburbs that although she’s writing about the demise of the suburbs, she has nothing against them personally. Others are less dispassionate. According to Gallagher, when she would tell people at New York social events that she was writing about the end of suburbs, the response was often high-fives.

But these days urban sneering is way down on the list of the suburbs’ woes, which lately have become considerable. Young people are having children later, so big suburban houses aren’t appealing. Plus, millennials flat-out prefer cities, and they don’t particularly like cars. On the other end of the generational spectrum, baby boomers, whose kids have moved out, don’t need big houses anymore and are looking to live in places where they don’t have to drive all the time. Meanwhile, rising gas prices are making long car commutes unaffordable.

Gallagher’s diagnosis is correct. There’s debate over how permanent the trend toward cities will be--whether things will swing back toward the suburbs once millennials start having kids—but Gallagher’s interviews with developers, planners, and business analysts suggest that the trend will be long lasting.

That doesn’t mean all suburbs will disappear. Gallagher’s book is more about the end of the sprawling car-dependent late-20th-century suburb than about the end of suburbs period. She makes a convincing case that the suburbs of the future will be denser, easier to navigate on foot, and more integrated with mass transit.

She also points to cultural shifts, a new “anti-stuff mentality,” in her words, “a realignment of our societal priorities.” In this view, the recession was cathartic, breaking a mania for bigger houses and more things to put in them and ushering in a new era of small, well-designed, minimalist living spaces of the sort advocated by Graham Hill, founder of LifeEdited and Treehugger, whom she cites approvingly.

Perhaps unwittingly, her discussion of these cultural trends highlights the extent to which the flight from the suburbs is driven by the wealthy. Minimalism is in vogue, and living a less cluttered life is probably good for your mental health and for the environment. But it’s also easier to do those things if you have a lot of money—you don’t need to keep a lot of stuff around if you can buy what you need when you need it. Money also greases the act of moving to the city itself.

A growing number of people may want to leave the suburbs for cities, but a shrinking percentage of people have the option. Demand for urban residential space far outstrips supply. According to Pew, about the same percentage of people want to live in cities as suburbs, but far more currently live in the latter. The result has been skyrocketing rent and property values in places like San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C. Millennials may be the most city-loving generation in recent history—77 percent want to live in an “urban core,” according to an oft-cited survey from real estate firm Robert Charles Lesser & Co.—but they’re also the generation most likely to be living in their parents’ basements.

There are numerous reasons why the urban housing supply hasn’t caught up to the new demand. It takes time to build new buildings, especially in big cities with layers of codes and regulations and permits. Many cities also have rules that make building denser housing difficult, such as height restrictions, minimum unit size, mandatory parking spaces, and other anti-density regulations. (For a good explanation of the ways regulations limit density, read Matthew Yglesias’s short e-book The Rent Is Too Damn High.) Some of these restrictions were well intentioned, many stem from blatant NIMBYism, but the result is that it’s hard to build tall, dense residential buildings in the urban areas where people want to live, so rents go up. Those who can afford those rents move in, and those who can’t move to the periphery.

This is why Alan Ehrenhalt called his recent book The Great Inversion: what’s happening now is as much about people with money leaving the suburbs for the cities as it is about people without money moving to those suburbs. The suburbs aren’t being abandoned, but in places like Atlanta and Houston—where suburbs are growing fast—they’re increasingly becoming places for low-wage workers and new immigrants.

In their recent Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, the Brookings Institution's Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube make the case that it’s not just high urban rents that are driving up poverty in the suburbs, but also the fact that people moved to the suburbs for low-wage construction and manufacturing jobs that were the first to go when the housing boom went bust. Rising gas prices make commutes to urban centers unaffordable, and many suburbs don’t supply adequate public-transit alternatives to allow people to get to work. Further compounding the problem, the dispersed nature of many suburbs makes it hard for social services geared toward dense urban areas to reach people.

Gallagher cites increasing poverty in the suburbs as one more example of their decline. But she also focuses on where the wealth is moving, interviewing developers, industry analysts, and people who, for example, moved from cities to the suburbs only to find themselves spending too much time driving kids to gymnastics or suffering from suburban malaise and move back. That should give you a pretty good idea of the socioeconomic class that The End of the Suburbs is concerned with. Insofar as it’s the class that the housing market responds to, the focus is perhaps justified. Still, when there’s a habit of framing the choice between city and suburb as almost a moral decision—between creativity and conventionality, ecology and waste, modesty and ostentation—it’s all the more important to point out that an increasing number of people don’t have a choice at all.

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The strength of Gallagher’s book is in the picture it gives of the business side of the current reconfiguration: how developers and home builders are thinking about people’s changing housing preferences and adjusting their products accordingly. Builders such as Toll Brothers and Pulte Homes, which a decade ago built sprawling McMansions, are now building high-rise downtown condos and dense suburban communities, more like the pre-car, railway-centered suburbs of the late 19th century than the far-flung exurbs of the late 20th. Toll Brothers CEO Doug Yearley, explaining the more diverse mix of housing options he sees in the future, compares the change to gay marriage: “We’re not saying the suburbs are wrong or should go away,” he says. “Just like we’re not asking to stop heterosexual marriage just because we want gay marriage. We just want to have a choice.”

In this they’re merely responding to demand. Many of the surveys used as evidence that millennials want to live in cities are really just evidence that they want to live in places that have characteristics that, right now, are mostly found in cities: density, central social spaces, walkability, and so on. That Pew study that found about equal numbers of people wanting to live in cities and suburbs found that even more people wanted to live in small towns.

Urbanizing the suburbs, as it’s called, won’t be easy. Zoning regulations often don’t allow mixed-use buildings and smaller spaces, and it’s proven difficult to graft good transit onto places built for cars, but it might provide a way to create a third option between paying obscenely expensive rent and enduring punitively long commutes. Maybe it’d take some of the emotion out of the suburb versus city debate, too, so both sides can talk rationally about how to create more equitable, sustainable housing.