Reversal of Fortune: A Shift Back to Cities

At the Atlantic, Christopher Leinberger, a professor of urban planning, predicts dire things for the suburbs, and forecasts a shift back to urban, walkable living.

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

Leinberger also notes how this move away from the suburbs is reflected in the media:

These days, when Hollywood wants to portray soullessness, despair, or moral decay, it often looks to the suburbs—as The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives attest—for inspiration.

This is in contrast, and a reaction to, the forces behind the birth of film noir in the 40’s, captured by Richard Schickel in his Wilson Center article, Rerunning Film Noir, which I’ve linked to before:

After [WWII], however, the city’s glamour became much darker and more menacing. Noir quickly noted the gathering flight to the suburbs and the countryside. Or, at least, the desire of many people to join that flight. The genre began to offer this dichotomy: the suburbs as a clean, spare, safe, if not very interesting place to love a plain little woman and to raise healthy, normal children, versus the city, whose glamour was at once more menacing and more tempting than it had ever been.

Back in real life, Leinberger doesn’t think there will be a total reversal, but he does see it moving more towards equilibrium:

Despite this glum forecast for many swaths of suburbia, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture—the shift that’s under way toward walkable urban living is a healthy development….I doubt the swing toward urban living will ever proceed as far as the swing toward the suburbs did in the 20th century; many people will still prefer the bigger houses and car-based lifestyles of conventional suburbs. But there will almost certainly be more of a balance between walkable and drivable communities—allowing people in most areas a wider variety of choices.

I find Leinberger’s article interesting, both because of the media reflections, and because our family lives in a small city house, within a mile of many things. Due to circumstances, we had little choice but to buy our house at the top of the bubble, but this gives me hope that we’ll eventually recoup at least some of that value, as well as continue to cultivate a one-car, walkable lifestyle.

(I thought the Leinberger link came from Arts & Letters Daily, but I can’t find it there. Apologies for the lack of proper linkage.)

3 Responses to “Reversal of Fortune: A Shift Back to Cities”

  1. Amy Says:

    Interesting. As a ‘burbs girl, I think there’s both truth and not-so-true to the arguments. I’m the first one to make fun of Eden Prairie (and trust me–there’s plenty to make fun of!), and yet I don’t think of it as soulless. I wish it was walkable. But we have a very responsive city government, excellent city services (um…snowplowing in EP vs. Mpls? Sorry, EP wins big time), beautiful and well-maintained parks and trails…and yeah, a certain amount of suburban-y ick. I guess yet another topic for discussion when we meet again!

  2. kirk Says:

    There has obviously been a recent trend for a certain market to move back to the cities. And you don’t have to move too far along the logical progression to see gentrification in the cities and many of the poor being forced out, so it’s likely that we will see more of a balance and that’s probably a good thing for everybody. I’m just glad that not everybody wants to live in the city because then I’d never be able to afford it.

  3. girldetective Says:

    Amy, how is the housing market in EP; are there many houses empty, or that remain on the market for long? There’s no doubt that there are a lot of great things going on there; the schools, plus a famous local chef whose kid is in the schools is trying to get organic local food in cafeterias. (I forget his name; used to be exec chef at Cosmos)

    I would guess that EP is an example of the type of well-established burb that isn’t TOO far out that will continue to do well exactly because of all the things you describe. Others, though, that got expanded with development at the top of the bubble, are the ones likely to be foreclosed, not bought, and left empty.

    And Kirk, I think you’re a good example of the type of young, single professional who wants to and can live well in the city now that it’s nicer and safer than before.