Gallagher, an assistant managing editor at Fortune, argues that while the suburbs suffered the worst during the housing bust, the recession is a catalyst for a much larger trend. She cites three primary reasons:
- The nuclear family is no longer the norm, with marriage and birth rates in decline, although they have recently plateaued at a lower level.
- As the price of gasoline increases, people are driving less, buying cars less often, and, in some instances, even forgoing a driver’s license.
- Cities are booming, while the suburbs are seeing more poverty and crime that they may be ill-equipped to deal with.
John McIlwain, ULI senior fellow, is quoted in the book as saying, “It doesn’t mean that all of a sudden there will be these huge wagon trains moving in and deserts in the cul-de-sacs.”
While developers and planners are most likely aware of these trends, Gallagher distills some of the history, personalities. and data that are driving these shifts.
Gallagher spoke with Urban Land about the book in a phone interview.
How do you respond to the idea that suburbs are still viable and that not everyone can or will want to live downtown in a high-rise apartment complex?
We’re going to see this urbanization of everywhere.
The future is not just in big skyscrapers in Manhattan. [The book] is about people finding places to live that satisfy their needs better than conventional suburbs. As part of that, some suburbs may still do very well.
I know people want a house with a yard, and you can still have all that, but you might be much happier than in a cul-de-sac that’s 70 miles from any urban center.
There are cities where you can still have a single-family home; look at Austin or Seattle as great examples.
To what extent is this driven by high gas prices and lower crime rates in the urban cores?
That explains a huge part of it. The gas prices alone are making it unaffordable for the people who live the furthest away to continue living there.
Especially the way things worked in the housing boom, people were driven further and further away. The suburbs were built with the expectation that gas would always remain cheap.
Haven’t we also seen some of the appeal of the suburbs go away?
Poverty rates and crime are spiking in suburbs. The financial incentives are a little out of sync for development. This reminds me of the suburbs of Paris, which are essentially high rises for the poor.
Is there any technology on the horizon like driverless or electric cars that you could see reversing the trend?
Driverless car are great, but it’s not going to make a 70-mile commute in traffic more appealing.
Do you also see health implications for communities becoming denser and walkable?
I talked to Dick Jackson [professor and chair of environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health at the University of California at Los Angeles] about this. New Yorkers weigh about six to seven pounds less than the average suburbanite partly because they walk so much.
We’ve put everyone in their cars and thought that made them safer. The percentage of students who walk or bike to school has plummeted in the last 30 years, and that’s dependent on how schools are located.
We’ve also designed away serendipitous play in a lot of communities.
What about inner-ring, urbanized suburbs, like West Hartford in Connecticut?
West Hartford is a great little model. A lot of people think the future is lots of these little nodes—just not conventional suburbs.
What kind of time frame do you think we are looking at?
I’m not trying to pinpoint a specific time frame. These changes are gradual, but we’re going to see changes in the next 20 years for sure.
Some people think that some of the houses built in the exurbs have a lifespan of only 30 years.
It’s very interesting how people are going to build new. Builders can change on a dime.
Is this trend being echoed in places like China?
Peter Calthorpe is doing great work on what’s happening in China. They want to copy us in a way but they are copying all of our bad habits.
To what extent can new urbanist principles be incorporated into existing suburbs to make them more viable?
I went to the Kentlands [a Maryland community built according to new urbanist principles] and I was surprised—it’s a beautiful community. It reminded me of my hometown of Media, Pennsylvania. It’s admirable.
We’ve been very black-and-white with a ‘city versus suburbs’ paradigm, and I think people may want something in between.