I recently read The End of the Suburbs, written by Fortune journalist Leigh Gallagher. On one hand, the book does a nice job describing some recent trends involving, but, on the other hand, the book is mistitled and I think she misses some key points about suburbs.
1. If I could title the book, I would name it something like “The End of the Sprawling Suburbs” or perhaps “The End of Sprawl.” Neither title is as sexy but she is not arguing that the American suburbs will disappear, rather that demographics and other factors are shifting toward cities. There is a big difference between ending suburbs and seeing them “grow up,” as one cited expert puts it.
2. Some of the key trends she highlights: the costs of driving (the whole oil industry, maintenance/gas/insurance/stress for owners, paying for roads/infrastructure), a changing family structure with more single-person and no-children households, changes among millennials and baby boomers who may be looking to get out of the suburbs in large numbers, a push toward New Urbanism in new suburban developments to increase density and strengthen community, and builders and developers, like Toll Brothers, are looking to build denser and more urban developments with more mixed-uses and smaller houses.
3. But, here are some big areas that I think Gallagher misses:
a. While she highlights the benefits of New Urbanism, does this lead to more affordable housing? In fact, the need for more affordable housing is rarely mentioned. As certain areas become more popular, such as urban neighborhoods that attract the creative class, this raises prices and pushes certain people out.
b. The main focus in the book is on big cities in the Northeast and Midwest. While she mentions some Sunbelt cities, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, there is a lot more to explore here. There are particular patterns in Northern cities compared to newer, more sprawling Sunbelt cities. And in a book talking about the end of sprawl, how could she not mention Portland’s fight against urban sprawl in the last few decades?
c. It is an intriguing idea that cities and suburbs are starting to blend together. But, some of the examples are strange. For example, she talk about how there is increased poverty in the suburbs, which then could make cities more attractive again. There are still some major differences between the two sets of places, particularly the cultural mindsets as well as the settlement patterns.
d. She highlights thriving urban cores – but what about the rest of big cities? While Manhattan and Chicago’s Loop might be doing all right, what about the poorer parts of those cities? The recent mayoral race in NYC involved this issue and many have complained in Chicago that most of the neighborhoods experience little government help. In other words, these thriving urban and suburban developments often benefit the wealthier in society who can take advantage of them.
e. It isn’t until the last chapter that she highlights some defenders of sprawl – people like Joel Kotkin or Robert Bruegmann – but doesn’t spend much time with their ideas. Indeed, the book reads as if these trends are all inevitably moving toward cities and defenders of suburbs would argue critics of suburbs have been making these arguments for decades.
4. Two questions inspired by the book:
a. Just how much should the American economy rely on the housing industry? Gallagher suggests housing is a sign of a good economy based in other areas rather than one of the leading industries. Sprawl can lead to boom times for the construction and housing industries but it can also face tough times. Perhaps our efforts would be better spent trying to build up other industries.
b. Is the century of sprawl in America (roughly 1910 to today – there were suburbs before this but their mass development based around cars and mass housing really began in the 1920s) an aberration in our history or is it a deeper mentality and period? Gallagher suggests we are at the end of an era but others could argue the suburbs are deeply culturally engrained in American life and have a longer past and future.
Overall, this is an interesting read summarizing some important trends but I also think Gallagher misses some major suburban trends.