I recently read The Great Inversion, a book by Alan Ehrenhalt (see an interview about the book here), about how more Americans are seeking denser living areas. This is not a new idea as plenty of commentators have addressed this in recent years but this book attempts to provide a broad overview of the phenomenon. Here are four thoughts about the urban trends discussed in this book:
1. This book is built around case studies. This is both a strength and weakness. As a strength, Ehrenhalt examines several American cities such as Phoenix, Atlanta, and Denver that don’t get as much attention from urban sociologists. Even as urban sociologists admit that the urban landscape in America has changed a lot since the beginnings of the Chicago School in the early 1900s, most studies examine “traditional” American cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. But these case studies seem more impressionistic than anything else; hard data is difficult to find in this book. There are few figures about how many Americans have actually made the choice to move (versus surveys that suggest Baby Boomers and Millennials desire denser homes). The case studies often look at smaller areas of a metropolitan region, such as the Sheffield neighborhood in Chicago, but don’t address the big picture across regions or throughout the United States.
2. Ehrenhalt is careful to try to straddle the middle line between urbanists and suburbanists (defined a few times as people like Joel Kotkin). But the problem with this is that I don’t think he makes his argument very strongly. Here is what he wants to argue: American urban areas will look quite different in a few decades as more Americans seek out denser housing. However, he doesn’t want to argue this too strongly and backpedals from this at points. Here is his conclusion about Tysons Corner, the last case study of the book:
I’m convinced of that because I see all around me a generation of young, mainstream, middle-class adults who are looking for some form of midlevel urban experience: not bohemian inner-city adventure, but definitely not cul-de-sacs and long automobile commutes. There are more of them coming into the residential market every year. They like the idea of having some space, but they aren’t feeling in terror at the mention of density. They aren’t willing to sell their cars, but they appreciate the advantage of having another way to get around. If Tysons Corner is rebuilt on a reasonable human scale and with a modicum of physical appeal, they will go for it, imperfect as it may be.
And then we will begin to see experiments of this sort in suburbs all over the country, launched by developers and local governments that may still be a little nervous about density but will know one thing for sure: If Tysons Corner can be reborn, nothing in the suburbs is beyond hope. If the effort to rebuild Tysons Corner somehow succeeds, it will become a national model for retrofitting suburbia for the millennial generation.
It is less of an argument that there is a strong push for these options and more of an argument that demographics will change urban forms. This may be correct but it seems like Ehrenhalt seems unwilling to push too hard for this.
3. Ehrenhalt suggests our cities will look more European in a few decades as poorer Americans move to the suburbs and wealthier Americans move back to the cities. This may indeed happen but I think Ehrenhalt generally downplays the cultural factors behind American suburbia and the difficulties that may occur in this demographic inversion (see #4 below).
4. This book reminds me that there are a lot of potentially interesting things that could happen in American suburbs in the coming decades. In particular, the densification of suburbs has the potential to change the character of a number of larger and/or thriving suburbs. Many communities might turn to retrofitting out of desperation in order to start generating tax revenues from vacant properties. However, while Ehrenhalt thinks that demographics will push in this direction, I think there will still be substantial pushback in some places. I’m thinking of a suburb like Naperville, a community that definitely could incorporate high-rises in the downtown and along the I-88 corridor but has thus far resisted big projects. Perhaps circumstances could change but I imagine it might take a while for this to happen.