The American Dream is Moving

America’s love affair with the suburbs began after World War II, and has thrived for most of my adult life. I’ve never really understood the desire for a tract house on a quarter-acre lot, or a McMansion set even farther away from the nearest neighbor. I’m a congenitally urban person–and I’ve always been a bit envious of European cities, where those who could afford it live in the center of well-maintained and loved cities, and those who are less fortunate are relegated to the suburbs.

Only in America does such an enormous percentage of the middle-class live in such low densities on so much land.

I have always chalked up this predilection for grass to the “to each his own” category, and assumed my own urban preferences would always mark me as a minority. But if two books I read last week are to be believed, we may be seeing a welcome shift–an increased appreciation for the many charms and conveniences of city living.

In The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving, the authors point to several significant signs that times are changing. The most recent census data suggests that–after 50 years of pretty constant growth–the suburbs have stalled. Recently, cities and high-density suburbs have grown twice as fast, with the largest cities growing faster than their suburbs for the first time in a hundred years.

Meanwhile, home values have inverted. During the Great Recession, housing values held up much better in urban centers than in suburban ones. And construction activity has reversed, with higher percentages of building permits being issued for “walkable, urbanized” locations and for multi-family developments than for traditional suburbia.

Poverty, too, has migrated. As of 2010, a record 15.3 million suburban residents were living below the poverty line, up 53% from 2000. Crime, of course, often follows poverty; new crime data shows that homicides have fallen sharply in cities while rising in the suburbs. (Indianapolis is an exception–as I’ve noted previously, our murder rate is substantially higher than New York’s.)

What’s driving the changes?

Household size has been steadily shrinking. People marry later, or not at all, and women wait longer to have fewer children. The suburbs were built for families with children, but Ozzie and Harriet have moved to an assisted living facility, and their grandchildren, according to the data, “hate the burbs.” Seventy-seven percent of Millennials express a preference for urban living. They also don’t care about driving: in 1980, 66% of all seventeen-year-olds had a driver’s license. In 2010, the figure was 47%. According to the data, they don’t want cars and they don’t want cul-de-sacs. Meanwhile, the price of oil continues to rise, and concerns about the environment have sparked an “anti-stuff” revolution.

Finally, the authors note that suburbs were poorly designed. They spread people far from each other, from their routine destinations, and from their jobs, making residents totally dependent on cars that get more expensive to operate every year. The suburbs’ low density complicates efficient provision of services, and fails to generate enough tax revenue to pay for the infrastructure needed to support them.

This book, together with The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, provided plenty of thought-provoking data, and I’ll continue to share some of it in subsequent posts. Perhaps the most compelling finding, highlighted in both books, was the importance of public transportation in attracting new residents, jobs, and young people–and enabling economic development.

Both books shared lots of success stories. The common threads running through those successes included visionary leadership, collaborations between governments, nonprofits, universities and the business community, and good public transportation.

It won’t surprise you to find that Indianapolis wasn’t mentioned.

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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