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Suburbs Are Out, Cities Are In — Now What?

American public policy massively subsidizes a way of life that appeals to a shrinking number of Americans. Photo: @fineplanner/Twitter

Today’s Times devotes two pieces to the “suburbs are out, cities are in” phenomenon that has taken root in much of the country over the past few decades -- the great inversion, urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt has dubbed this reversal of the suburbanization wave that swept through the U.S. in the last century. Though both pieces will pretty much be old hat to Streetsblog readers, they’re interesting nonetheless, both as signposts and for what they leave out.

"Suburbs Try to Prevent Exodus as Young Adults Move to Cities and Stay," by Times Westchester beat reporter Joseph Berger, has some startling figures on the dwindling population of young adults in iconic Northeast suburbs. Between 2000 and 2011, Berger reports, Rye had a 63 percent drop in 25- to 34-year-olds, and 16 percent fewer 35- to 44-year-olds. Outside Washington, DC, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds fell 34 percent in Chevy Chase, 19 percent in Bethesda, and 27 percent in Potomac. The same pattern holds in suburbs ringing Chicago and Boston.

Although Berger noted last month, in his trenchant article about the toll squeeze facing the new Tappan Zee Bridge, that “young Americans are not as enamored of the automobile as their parents’ generation, and are less likely to have drivers’ licenses or own a car,” his piece today largely skirts the car issue. What ails the suburbs, he suggests, are expensive housing, insufficient diversity, a lack of well-paying jobs, and not enough urban “pizzazz.” All true, as is the observation by one of his sources, Christopher Niedt at Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies, that “younger adults are becoming more drawn to denser, more compact urban environments that offer a number of amenities within walking distance of where they live.” Yet the article makes no mention of the high cost to own and operate an auto (or two) in car-dependent suburbs, the boredom of driving in a landscape of strip malls, the time lost to traffic jams.

Berger cites efforts under way in Long Beach -- my home town, in Nassau County -- to attract young people by “refreshing its downtown near the train station” and adding “apartments, job-rich office buildings, restaurants and attractions” like the replacement boardwalk built after Hurricane Sandy. And indeed, Long Beach’s rectangular street grid, small lot sizes, and main street shopping give it a creditable Walk Score of 64, which doubtless helps residents live affordably with 25 percent fewer cars per household than the county average (1.41 vs. 1.90, according to my calculations based on the Selected Housing Characteristics dataset in the 2012 American Community Survey).

Nevertheless, when it comes to the contest for young people’s allegiance between revived central cities and their suburbs, there are deeper forces at play than even livable streets and freedom from the auto monkey. Here’s how a recent article in Tech Crunch about the Bay Area’s housing crisis put it:

San Francisco’s younger workers derive their job security not from any single employer but instead from a large network of weak ties that lasts from one company to the next. The density of cities favors this job-hopping behavior more than the relative isolation of suburbia.

In short, as lifetime employment at the suburban office park disappears, urban connectivity isn’t just an amenity, it’s a necessity.

The other Times article today is an op-ed by architect and Columbia planning professor Vishaan Chakrabarti, grandly titled "America’s Urban Future." It’s a useful bookend to Berger’s reporting, and does a worthy job of connecting the big dots: “cities are filling up,” “compact urban living [is] easier” (especially for millennials who are postponing having children), cities are more attuned to future-looking social values like cultural diversity and marriage equality, and so forth. And Chakrabarti calls out the “huge wealth transfer” from cities to suburbs via entrenched tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction and antiquated federal appropriations as an enormous obstacle to local efforts to improve urban infrastructure, education, and opportunity.

Yet for all its right-thinkingness, I sense something missing from the op-ed. There’s no sense of the suburban-rural chokehold over Congress and state legislatures, including New York’s, and the way it tilts the national cultural conversation against urban density and diversity. Nor does it touch on how working class people are being whipsawed not only by globalization and de-industrialization, but locally by NIMBY-abetted housing shortages that are driving out residents who don’t collect paychecks from the new knowledge economy.

Okay, there’s only so much you can cram into the Grey Lady’s 850 words. For that deeper discussion, I suggest you turn to America’s Undeclared War, Dan Lazare’s still-pulsating 2001 classic on the Hamilton/Jefferson divide that still dominates our national political culture (spoiler alert: Hamilton is still losing), and that Tech Crunch article, which provocatively places galloping gentrification in the Bay Area (and beyond) in a larger context of entitlement, class, and political power.

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