The End of the Suburbs

The country is resettling along more urbanized lines, and the American Dream is moving with it

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A major change is underway in where and how we are choosing to live. In 2011, for the first time in nearly a hundred years, the rate of urban population growth outpaced suburban growth, reversing a trend that held steady for every decade since the invention of the automobile. In several metropolitan areas, building activity that was once concentrated in the suburban fringe has now shifted to what planners call the “urban core,” while demand for large single-family homes that characterize our modern suburbs is dwindling. This isn’t just a result of the recession. Rather, the housing crisis of recent years has concealed something deeper and more profound happening to what we have come to know as American suburbia. Simply speaking, more and more Americans don’t want to live there anymore.

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The American suburb used to evoke a certain way of life, one of tranquil, tree-lined streets, soccer leagues and center hall colonials. Today’s suburb is more likely to evoke endless sprawl, a punishing commute, and McMansions. In the pre-automobile era, suburban residents had to walk once they disembarked from the train, so houses needed to be located within a reasonable distance to the station and homes were built close together. Shopkeepers set up storefronts around the station where pedestrian traffic was likely to be highest. The result was a village center with a grid shaped street pattern that emerged organically around the day-to-day needs and walking patterns of the people who lived there. Urban planners describe these neighborhoods, which you can still see in older suburbs, as having “vibrancy” or “experiential richness” because, without even trying, their design promoted activity, foot traffic, commerce and socializing.  As sociologist Lewis Mumford wrote, “As long as the railroad stop and walking distances controlled suburban growth, the suburb had form.”

Then came World War Two, and the subsequent housing shortage. The Federal Housing Administration had already begun insuring long-term mortgage loans made by private lenders, and the GI Bill provided low-interest, zero-down-payment loans to millions of veterans. The widespread adoption of the car by the middle class untethered developers from the constraints of public transportation and they began to push further out geographically. Meanwhile, single-use zoning laws that carved land into buckets for residential, commercial and industrial use instead of having a single downtown core altered the look, feel and overall DNA of our modern suburbs. From then on, residential communities were built around a different model entirely, one that abandoned the urban grid pattern in favor of a circular, asymmetrical system made of curving subdivisions, looping streets and cul-de-sacs.

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But in solving one problem—the severe postwar housing shortage—we unwittingly created some others: isolated, single-class communities. A lack of cultural amenities. Miles and miles of chain stores and Ruby Tuesdays. These are the negative qualities so often highlighted in popular culture, in TV shows like Desperate Housewives, Weeds and Suburgatory, to name just a few. In 2011, the indie rock band Arcade Fire took home a Grammy for The Suburbs, an entire album dedicated to teen angst and isolation inspired by band members’ Win and William Butler’s upbringing in Houston’s master-planned community The Woodlands.  Although many still love and defend the suburbs, they have also become the constant target of angst by the likes of Kate Taylor, a stay-at-home mom who lives in a suburb of Charlotte and uses the Twitter name @culdesacked. “If the only invites I get from you are at-home direct sales ‘parties,’ please lose my number, then choke yourself. #suburbs.”

There is still a tremendous amount of appeal in suburban life: space, a yard of one’s own, less-crowded schools. I don’t have anything against the suburbs personally—although I currently live in Manhattan’s West Village, I had a pretty idyllic childhood growing up in Media, Pennsylvania, a suburb twelve miles west of Philadelphia. We are a nation that values privacy and individualism down to our very core, and the suburbs give us that. But somewhere between leafy neighborhoods built around lively railroad villages and the shiny new subdivisions in cornfields on the way to Iowa that bill themselves as suburbs of Chicago, we took our wish for privacy too far. The suburbs overshot their mandate.

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Many older suburbs are still going strong, and real estate developers are beginning to build new suburban neighborhoods that are mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly, a movement loosely known as New Urbanism. Even though almost no one walks everywhere in these new communities, residents can drive a mile or two instead of ten or twenty, own one car instead of two. “We are moving from location, location, location in terms of the most important factor to access, access, access,” says Shyam Kannan, formerly a principal at real estate consultancy Robert Charles Lesser and now managing director of planning at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA.)

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As the country resettles along more urbanized lines, some suggest the future may look more like a patchwork of nodes—mini urban areas all over the country connected to one another with a range of public transit options. It’s not unlike the dense settlements of the Northeast already, where city-suburbs like Stamford, Greenwich, West Hartford and others exist in relatively close proximity. “The differences between cities and suburbs are diminishing,” says Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program director Bruce Katz, noting that cities and suburbs are also becoming more alike racially, ethically, and socio-economically.

Whatever things look like in ten years—or twenty, or fifty, or more—there’s one thing everyone agrees on: there will be more options. The government in the past created one American Dream at the expense of almost all others: the dream of a house, a lawn, a picket fence, two or more children, and a car. But there is no single American Dream anymore; there are multiple American Dreams, and multiple American Dreamers. The good news is that the entrepreneurs, academics, planners, home builders and thinkers who plan and build the places we live in are hard at work trying to find space for all of them.

Adapted from The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright (c) Leigh Gallagher, 2013.