Is the ‘End of the Suburbs’ Near?

In her new book, “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving,” Leigh Gallagher, an editor at Fortune magazine, argues that powerful economic, social and demographic forces are converging to render suburban living unsustainable.

Gallagher’s provocative book claims that suburbia as we know it is ending, after seven decades of middle class movement away from cities. Some of her arguments to support the death of suburbia: population growth in city centers, Millennials who prefer urban rather than suburban living, the “end of the nuclear family,” (that’s the title of chapter 5), poorly planned exurbs and a rapidly aging Baby Boomer population, which she claims, will abandon Mayberry.
Her thesis, however, is an old and tired theory that urban-loving intellectuals have been forecasting for decades. The only problem with their theory is that it hasn’t come true. Most Americans are still suburbanites living in low-density, single family homes and there’s no mad rush to move to downtown Detroit. She parades a who’s who of New Urbanism thinkers to back up her argument, including Jan Jacobs, Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Richard Florida. Even Al Gore and James  Howard Kunstler take the stage to eulogize the suburban American Dream.

New Urbanism predictions like Gallagher’s death of the suburbs are overblown. Judging from all the new suburban developments springing up in Orange County, Calif. — over 50 new suburban projects since September 2012, according to the Orange County Register — the shift is moving towards suburbia not to the urban core, at least in California.

While there are certainly cities that are seeing urban revival — including D.C., Manhattan and San Francisco — there are just as many Rust Belt cities experiencing urban decay, including bankrupt Detroit, St. Louis and Philadelphia, to name just a few.

The only problem with the back-to-the-city movement is that excessive government real estate zoning and restrictive so-called “smart growth” land-use policies have made high-density, urban housing accessible only to the ultra- wealthy. The cost of living in cities is astronomically high and unaffordable to most American homebuyers. In Manhattan, $1.3 million gets you a two-bedroom apartment. A single-family home in San Francisco costs $1million. To live in D.C. costs $800,000. A lot of folks want to live downtown, but they simply just can’t afford it.

The Great Recession has decimated the American middle class. Millions have lost their homes to foreclosure. Seven million Americans are unemployed and 47 million are on food stamps. With most Americans living from pay check to pay check, I doubt there will be a mad dash to walkable, urban centers described in “The End of the Suburbs.”

What I find amusing about the tireless genre of new urbanism books like Gallagher’s and their claims of urban renaissance is the utter housing amnesia when it comes to high-density, inner-city housing. Gallagher never discuss urbanite housing failures like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis Mo., the 33, 11-story buildings  that were demolished in 1976 due to high crime and unsustainability. Nor is a word uttered about Chicago’s Cabrini Green, which was shuttered in 2010. And who can forget that urban utopian gem in the Big Easy, like the Magnolia, which was razed by HUD in 2007 after Hurricane Katrina.

While elitist urbanites in D.C. and New York will celebrate “the end of the suburbs,” most Americans will either flee denser, more expensive areas and migrate to low-density, low cost areas like Texas and North Carolina, while most Americans are stuck in the ‘burbs’ because they can’t afford to move to gentrified, glass-and-steel, high-rise urban silos Gallagher and others live in and worship. The death of the American suburb has been predicted before. And we’ll probably see more titles like this one in the near future.

Meanwhile, urban hipsters living in Manhattan, D.C., Boulder, Portland or San Francisco will love this book. Everyone else will get a good laugh at the many reasons why the suburbs as we know it will not soon disappear.

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