A somber look at suburbia’s future
Author Leigh Gallagher stresses she’s not a suburbs-basher, but forecasts tough times ahead for suburbia. (E+ photo / September 13, 2013)
September 13, 2013
Is the suburb you’re living in a future slum? Should you shove a for-sale sign into your front yard, pack your bags and light out for some lively urban neighborhood before it’s too late?
Leigh Gallagher doesn’t know the answer to those questions, but she certainly doesn’t have an optimistic vision of the future of America’s post-bubble bedroom communities. Gallagher, an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, believes there’s a passel of evidence pointing to a growing societal preference for cities over suburbs.
In her newly published book, “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving,” she wrote that the financial crisis, demographic trends, and the end of our love affair with driving collectively point to hard times ahead for suburbia in general.
In an edited interview, she talked about pressures that are weighing on the traditional suburban American dream.
Q: Let’s start with the most obvious question. Why did you write this book, which maintains that, despite decades of generally vigorous suburban growth, numerous forces are converging to render our suburbs unnecessary, even undesirable?
A: I was looking around at all the ways our lives had been impacted by the financial crisis. I came across this vague outline of a big story, in the form of some of the data from the update of the 2010 census. It showed that for the first time in 100 years, the rate of growth in cities was faster than in their suburbs. I started wondering if our love affair with the suburbs might be peaking. I thought, this is a huge deal if this is even close to being true. And it was true beyond what I suspected. Every stone I turned over yielded some other, different kind of proof.
Q: So which demons are breathing down suburbia’s neck?
A: There’s a lot. To begin with, the nuclear family, which filled our suburban houses, is no longer the norm — marriage and birthrates are steadily declining, while the number of single-person households is growing rapidly. If the demand for good schools and family-friendly lifestyles has historically been the main selling point of suburban life, those things aren’t going to matter so much in the future.
Another thing is that Americans are just sick of driving. They’re sick of commuting. The number of miles driven per year is in decline. And the cost of gasoline has meant that homes on the suburban fringe are not such a bargain.
At the same time, cities, in general, are making a comeback, especially among young adults and even among families with children.
Q: Among the factors you write about in the book, which one is the biggest influence?
A: One of the things that’s the most potent of all of these factors is the demographic situation — the birthrate is falling, the marriage rate is falling, the nuclear family is rapidly becoming a minority household type in this country — 70 percent of households won’t have any children in them by 2025. When you look at those figures and the way our population is changing so dramatically, it hits home — we have built all these houses for a type of household that isn’t going to exist anymore.
Q: What happens to those miles and miles of suburban towns? Do they just vanish?
A: Some demographers and planners think some far suburbs are going to be the next slums, and there’s going to be a good argument for that. There are a lot of zombie subdivisions out there. A lot of people think they will fall apart because they were put up so quickly — they weren’t built to last 100 years.
Nonetheless, I think there’s always going to be a market for suburbia for a segment of the population. One group is probably going to stay put — the first soup-to-nuts, fully suburban generation will be staying put because they have deep roots. I think that inner-ring suburbs will do well, especially with young people. Older suburbs that were built before single-use (single-family home) zoning came, those will be in a much better position. The exurbs will not do well.
Q: I noticed in the book that you took pains in several places to reiterate that you’re not a suburb-basher. Why did you feel the need to state that?
A: I was anticipating getting attacked from all sides, getting tons and tons of hate mail. That hasn’t happened. I wasn’t coming at this from an activist perspective. I’m not a lobbyist or a new urbanist (a philosophy that promotes the development of smaller-scale, walkable neighborhoods built on traditional town planning methods): I’m a journalist.
It was important to me not to come across as a condo-dwelling, New Yorker elitist snob who thinks the suburbs should just burn. That’s not who I am. I was purely documenting a trend that’s happening. Good or bad, I think this is totally happening.