How and Why American Cities Are Coming Back
The previous century's great shift in people and economic activity to the suburbs is starting to reverse itself. In his new book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, Alan Ehrenhalt, the former editor of Governing magazine, outlines the key trends that are powering this shift in the way we live. "The truth is that we are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end," he writes. "And we need to adjust our perceptions of cities, suburbs, and urban mobility as a result."
Ehrenhalt took some time to chat with Atlantic Cities about the "great inversion" and what it means for communities across America.
You dub the shift in our geography the "the Great Inversion." What exactly does that mean and what does it entail for our cities and urban areas?
The inversion is a trading of places within major metropolitan areas. For the past half-century, we've gotten used to thinking of central cities as enclaves of the poor, and suburbs as the refuges of the affluent. But in the past decade, suburbs have become the entry points in which immigrants settle when they first arrive in a metro area, while the center -- in places such as Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, and Boston -- have become magnets for a largely affluent and professional class of young adults in their 20s and 30s. In Atlanta, virtually no newcomers from foreign countries settle within the city limits anymore; they all go to suburbs like Gwinnett and Cobb counties. Meanwhile, neighborhoods in the center are gaining population and becoming more expensive to live in. I believe that the problem for central cities in the coming years won't be creating a demand to live there; it will be creating a supply of housing adequate to meet the demand.
You have a great section in the book where you talk about the model of urban areas and of urban form developed in the early 20th century by sociologist Edward Burgess and the great University of Chicago School of urbanism. Tell us about that, and how you see that model, and reality of cities and urban form, changing today.
The Burgess model, first put forward in 1924, was a remarkably accurate description of how cities and suburbs were organized geographically for much of the 20th century. Virtually every city in the country had a downtown, where the commercial life of the metropolis was conducted; it had a factory district just beyond; then it had working class residences just beyond that; and finally suburbs for the wealthy and the upper middle class at the far end of the spectrum. This was reality in 1924; it was reality in 1974. But industry has moved out of cities now, and the working class families that used to live just beyond the factories are outside the city limits as well. With factory and warehouse grime and noise largely gone from the central city, there's an opportunity for downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods to be reinvented as attractive places to live, the way Soho and Tribeca have in New York. Meanwhile, many poorer people are being priced out of the center, and middle-class residents from other countries are finding the space of suburbia an attractive change from what they were used to in their previous homes.
America's demography is changing: People are getting married later, more people are staying or becoming single. How are these factors reshaping our cities and urban areas?
When one thinks of the larger demographic changes that have taken place in America over the last generation -- the increased number of people who remain single, the rise of cohabitation, the later age of first marriage, the smaller size of families, and at the other end, the rapidly growing number of healthy and active adults in their later years -- it's hard to escape the notion that we have managed to combine virtually all the significant elements that make a demographic inversion not only possible but likely. I want to emphasize that I'm not predicting a massive invasion of the cities by middle-aged suburbanites and their children. I'm mostly suggesting that the emerging millennial generation -- the second largest generation in American history, second only to the baby boomers -- will find an urbanized form of life attractive. They will move to cities as singles; as couples; as young married families with small children. Will they want to live in the city when their children reach school age? I believe many of them will, but there is certainly room for debate on this subject.
Gentrification has become something of a polarizing issue in many cities, with some urbanists arguing it has gone too far, that housing has become too expensive, the working and middle classes are being priced out, and these areas are becoming more homogenous, bland, and boring. What are your thoughts on all of this?
It would be foolish to pretend that demographic inversion doesn't price people out of the central city, or that some displacement of the original residents doesn't occur. But scholars disagree about how much displacement actually takes place; Lance Freeman, Jacob Vigdor and others have done studies concluding that gentrifying neighborhoods are highly transient anyway, and that most newcomers to these neighborhoods aren't really kicking anyone out. In several cities, gentrification has revitalized areas that scarcely had any residents before, such as the Financial District in Manhattan. Finally, it's worth pointing out that original residents who manage to stay in gentrified neighborhoods almost invariably benefit from the increased level of services and amenities that come with the change. But it's a mixed bag. I think local governments need to be more creative in finding ways to enable longtime residents of an area to stay in their apartments when an inversion begins to occur.
You devote two chapters to the suburbs. How are they being reshaped? What is their future?
There's an important debate taking place right now, as you know, about what will happen to the suburbs and particularly the more distant exurbs when economic conditions and the real estate market pick up a little more. On one side are the suburbanists, such as Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, who believe that the march of the affluent to distant locations will simply continue, and we will be building more subdivisions 30 and 40 miles out from the cities. Then there are the urbanists, such as Christopher Leinberger, who argue that the Great Recession marks a demographic turning point, and communities far from the urban center are going to be much less attractive to the next generation of affluent homebuyers. Leinberger goes so far as to predict that the exurbs will be slums in 20 years. I wouldn't go nearly that far; I would simply say that exurbs are going to be points of entry for immigrants and others struggling to achieve places in the American middle class. But I do believe the exurbs will be moving downscale. In addition to the overall values of the millennial generation, which I referred to earlier, there's the price of gasoline and the burden of commuting to discourage massive new single-family development far from the center.
It¹s clear that great urban centers, like New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco are back, but what is the future of more hard-hit cities like Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, or Newark, where I was born?
Demographic inversion will occur -- is occurring -- in many places, but it can't occur everywhere at the same time. Even at a given level of demand among would-be urbanites, it depends to a great extent on the job base in the metro area and particularly downtown. Cities such as Chicago, Washington and Atlanta, where the central job base is strong, will be the centers of demographic inversion. Places such as Detroit and Cleveland, that lack this job concentration, may see it in a very gradual and attenuated form. But I do believe that demographic inversion will ultimately occur in many more places than the numbers would lead us to predict at the moment.