Are cities still kicking suburbs’ asses? That is what Gawker, the new eBible, claims in reaction to the release of new statistics that shows that inner urban areas are still growing slightly faster than suburbs, whose seemingly inexorable growth imploded in 2008.
The Wall Street Journalbegs to disagree. “Suburbs Regain Their Appeal,” their headline in Thursday’s newspaper trumpets; “More Americans Returning to the Land of Lawns and Malls, Census Data Show.”
So who is right, or does it just prove that you can make data prove anything? Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan is right if you look at pure growth; the Journal’s Neil Shah points out that the rate of change (the beta, as economists like to say) is shifting back to suburbs: cities are growing less fast, and suburbs are picking up in their growth.
Here’s my take: the differences are so miniscule (a question of a single percent) that it makes little difference. What the Census figures confirm is that older, richer, and hipper people are moving back to the city, while the suburbs continue to be the place you live with a family and where you increasingly are if you have less money. I think that, in the end, inhabitants will join office workers in making our downtown cores into the Emerald Cities where company headquarters, government, and cultural monuments are located and the people that run these places live, while the less power and money you have, the further out you work, live, and play. It’s actually kind of medieval.
And that—as I have pointed out before, most recently in discussing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing “plan,”—is the real issue. In this instance, it's the free market reinforcing segregation through economic and social means, not the government through policies.
There are two answers to this.
The first answer would be for the government to build both housing and employment opportunities in our inner cities. But I'm sorry, this is not going to happen in a country that still sees all social housing as being like Pruitt-Igoe.
The second answer would be to make suburbs work. And this might actually be the simpler answer of the two. But for this to work, we first need sensible land planning that protects open space, watersheds, and other important aspects of the natural environment. Second, we need mobility infrastructure that includes not only mass transit, but perhaps also subsidies to help ride sharing (akin to Zipcar initiatives that have arisen in urban cores), as well as increased Internet access. Third, we need the sort of cultural and social nodes that bring people together and anchor both their social interactions and a sense of citizenship. Another thing you need, decent schools and safety, are actually already more present in the suburbs.
The New Urbanists have been screaming this for years, but their solutions are so restrictive and expensive that they only work for the rich and the conservative. Strategic Urbanists have been looking at how to make the city work; now they need to turn their attention to where the real opportunities are: out there on the frontier, where millions with hopes and dreams find themselves isolated, cut off, and using natural resources in unsustainable ways. That is where we need to rebuild the American Dream.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.