The American Dream is Moving

Ameica’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.


  1. Do you think European cities grew in a similar way — just a long time ago? Think of the desire to escape a dirty, smelly city of the 1800’s. Those with means escaped the health risks of urban living. Then, it became just too expensive/inconvenient to live so far away from the amenities everyone wants. So, people in charge (who often lived so far out) decided to change urban planning and policy to accommodate their own wants and needs with improved infrastructure and regulation of industry. Finally, Americans are starting to figure it out. That’s why I really wish emerging economies would learn from our mistakes and do a better job of developing their urban environments.

  2. According to several books I’ve read about life in the European cities in the nineteenth century and before, the aristocracy (read wealthy) did not stay in the cities all year. In the summer months, they left the density and disease of the cities and went to country estates or the seaside. The poor and lower classes had no recourse but to remain in the midst of bad or non-existent sewage systems, no regular garbage collection, privies and low water levels in rivers. Low water levels meant standing water and disease. On top of that, no one understood how disease was spread. Treatments ranged from quarantine to powerful purges to death in incredibly unsanitary “hospitals”.
    Under those conditions, it was not surprising that those with the resources abandoned the cities and its amenities for safer climes.
    Now more and more people realize that the “joys” of suburban living leave a lot to be desired when you have hours-long commutes for work, shopping and services.
    Recently a friend who had visited family in Japan told me that young people are not buying cars. The cost of the vehicles, maintenance and parking in large cities AND the availability of good mass transit have changed their options. They would rather spend their money on the latest electronics. This has had a significant impact on automotive production in Japan.
    Hopefully, the U.S. will see the same trends BUT only if we address mass transit. In Indiana? Hah!

  3. Address mass transit in Indiana? Like everything else, we will address that 30 years after we needed it. I-69, between Evansville and Indianapolis, should be ready for the 1970s traffic. Many years ago, they built the Wabash Erie Canal, at the cost of much treasure and lives, just before the railroads came in, but one of the big problems of building mass transit is that you need to build it before everything gets crowded so you don’t pay a huge amount per square foot. That will only be one problem with constructing mass transit in Indiana when they decide to do it. Lack of foresight is one of the prime characteristics of the legislatures and the population.

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