Atlantic Cities

The Suburbs Are Dead, Long Live the Suburbs

The Suburbs Are Dead, Long Live the Suburbs
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Regular readers of The Atlantic Cities will be familiar with most of the social trends that Leigh Gallagher of Fortune magazine tracks to produce the title argument of her new book, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving. Population growth is on the rise in city centers (though total population still favors suburbs), Millennials seem less keen to drive than their parents were, urban home values are increasing faster than suburban ones. The list can and does go on.

What any interested reader will recognize, however, is how well Gallagher welds this enormous amount of data together. The result is a post-mortem worthy of the great American suburban experiment. Which, let's face it, housed so many of us for so long — and which isn't quite over, as Gallagher explains, but will never be the same again.

"I think I marshaled so much evidence partially because I knew I might get attacked, and partially because every stone I turned over yielded these beautiful flowers of evidence," she tells Atlantic Cities. "It was really everywhere."

You call the book The End of the Suburbs, but you add pretty quickly that it's really just the end of the suburbs "as we know them."

It's not that every single suburb in America is going to vaporize. My thesis is that there are a lot of reasons why the suburbs were poorly planned and poorly designed and are making millions of people really unhappy. That's happening. Those people are looking for and moving into different kinds of options. Based on what's happening with demographics and preferences of the younger generation, as you guys have well covered, those trends are just going to accelerate.

But to say that everyone wants to live in a 50-story skyscraper in New York City is not at all practical or realistic or in touch with how people want to live in this country. So a big part of the future will be "urban burbs." Suburbs that are adapting or already exist in this fashion. Where they have a walkable downtown, a pleasant place to take a stroll and bump into people, and where it's possible to live in closer proximity to the things you need to do everyday.

You're using "urban burb." It has always struck me that we don't really have a good name for these new urban-style suburban developments.

I thought I was going to come up with a brilliant coinage that would get in the book and get me on the talk shows. I never came up with that. "Urban burbs" — they look like so many different things.

That gets to what you say at the very end: the American dream won't be singular anymore. There will be different dreams.

And they will be dreams. They won't be houses. They won't be buildings. Somewhere along the way the American Dream morphed from being a dream, an opportunity, to being a house. That's no longer the case for a lot of people.

The developer Toll Brothers kind of exemplifies this larger shift in your book.

Toll Brothers was the home-builder who perhaps better than any other really captured what the suburban home-buyer wanted before the housing boom.

Very early on, in 2003, they started a division called Toll Brothers City Living. They started with a few communities in Philadelphia and Hoboken, and over the years they've really doubled down, and doubled down again, and again. They have something like 30 buildings here in the New York City market alone.

At the same time, they're also making changes to suburban homes. They're still making the suburban homes they make, but it's a smaller percentage of their overall mix. They're tinkering with the "urban suburban" model as well.

Some people will argue that population growth is still heavy in the suburbs, but when you look at this demand of rental valuations and building projects in cities, those are clearly increasing.

You have to look at the valuations, the rental demand, and even the way that properties are holding or losing their value. It's reversed. Properties values fell further in the furthest suburbs than they did in the cities. Normally, in most recessions, that's reversed. Things have fallen faster in the cities and held up better  in the suburbs. That's just one of so many reversals you're seeing.

You say, at the end, that the suburbs "overshot their mandate." What do you think that mandate should have been?

The mandate was to give people an affordable place to live with good schools for their kids, where people could be part of a community and have a happy, meaningful life. It did that for a while. I talk a lot about my own suburban childhood. And it really was great. But the suburbs changed. They just got bigger and bigger and deposited people further and further away from their jobs and from other people.

The future you outline are these "urban burbs"-style developments where people don't have to drive more than a mile or two and they can reach other urban burbs by transit. How close are we to that on a broad scale?

We're far away from being these network of nodes where everybody is hooked up to everyone else by public transit and we all read three hours more a day. We're far from that. But the important thing is, people are recognizing that we can't just keep doing what we've been doing. It's not satisfying people. And it's no longer meeting the market demand. Home-builders only react when they think the market wants something. And they're starting to react.

Top image: spirit of america/Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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