Sick of the Sprawl
Leigh Gallagher author of The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving says Americans are waking up to the drawbacks of life in auto-dependent enclaves.
By Green Builder Staff
GB: People strive for the American Dream. They want that nice house and white picket fence, but you’ve said that the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward the cities and metropolises.
LG: It’s a powerful trend that I think is relevant to everyone. What I hope to do is give an overview of an epic transformation when it comes to how and where Americans want to live. That’s happening on a national level, which I document in The End of the Suburbs. It’s important to note I don’t actually hate the suburbs—in fact, I had a wonderful childhood in a suburb of Philadelphia called Media. My parents still live there.
GB: And where do you live now?
LG: I live in New York City in the West Village, which is a highly desirable neighborhood for a lot of people. But I don’t necessarily think that’s the answer for everyone, either. The reason I talk about my wonderful childhood in the suburbs, which was really kind of Norman Rockwellian, is to show I don’t have any bias. I really came at this topic from a journalist’s perspective.
GB: What got you into this subject?
LG: A couple of years ago, I came across census data that showed that, for the first time in more than 90 years, the population growth in the cities had outpaced the population growth in the suburbs. So I looked into it a little more, and every stone I turned over—whether housing valuations or preference studies or demographics—told me that something really big was happening: that the American suburbs, this sort of uniquely American way of life—best symbolized, as we all know, by a house, by a yard, a cul-de-sac, a white picket fence, a couple kids and a car—that iconic lifestyle just doesn’t hold the same place in our culture that it once did.
GB: Interesting. So how did you go about researching this further?
LG: During my couple years as what I call a “suburbologist,” I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of different people about their experience in the suburbs today. Here’s a little of what they told me: “I slowly realized it was not the life I wanted to lead.” “We’re only here until the kids are done with school.” This one is my favorite: “I live in a sterile, superficial suburb after having lived in Chelsea for 12 years—and am dying, slowly, one day at a time.” One of the most important things that I found is that it’s not the end of the suburbs entirely. There’s a revolution underway to urbanize our suburbs and create this new category that’s neither city nor suburb, but something in between. To understand all these changes I think it’s important to understand how our suburbs evolved.
GB: After World War II, right?
LG: That’s right. Levittown was the iconic post-war suburb on Long Island; it was really the first suburb built on mass production housing technologies. But they started out as one thing—leafy enclaves—and morphed into suburban sprawl. The suburbs started out as the ones we know from shows like The Wonder Years, those sepia-toned memories of kids running around outside, everyone knew each other, and so on. Then they evolved to the modern cookie cutter suburbs shown in the Showtime series Weeds, where, as the show’s theme song cheerfully declared, everything looks just the same.
LG: That was the model we decided to cut and paste and supersize and deposit across our landscape, and then of course it all went on steroids during the housing boom. This pattern of arrangement has led to a number of unintended negative consequences. One of the biggest ones is a long commute and heavy traffic. There are about 3.5 million people who do “extreme commutes” every day. That’s a commute of an hour and a half each way every day; that’s three hours in the car.
GB: That's too much.
LG: I talked to a lot of people about their commutes, but one of the worst tales came from the inland empire of California, which is where a lot of sprawl happened in our country. I talked to a schoolteacher there who taught in Orange County. She and her husband moved to Temecula, California, which is a so-called commuter town about 62 miles from L.A. To get to her classroom in Orange County on time, she had to set her alarm for 3:50 in the morning and leave the house at 4:00 in her sweatpants. If she left one minute later, she had no control over the traffic situation. She would arrive at her classroom at 5:15 in the morning. School didn’t start until 7:30, so she would go back to sleep under her desk.
GB: That's pretty awful.
GB: That's so different from neighborhoods you hear about from the 40s, when everyone knew each other.
LG: In another suburb in New Jersey, the houses are so far apart it becomes problematic on Halloween. Parents don’t want their kids walking that distance. It’s dark, it’s unsafe, and from a kid’s perspective, there’s no way you would collect enough loot at those density levels. So the parents got together and created a solution: they decided everyone would drive to the local K-8 school, park their cars in tailgate formation and the kids would trick-or-treat from car-to-car. The parents loved it: it was social—they decorated their cars. The kids loved it too because it was really fun and they got lots more candy. I think it says a lot about how far we’ve come from natural, organic communities to the point where we’re creating faux communities out of cars.
GB: Do you think this kind of situation is symptomatic?
LG: When you Google the words, “Suburbia is,” what comes up is kind of interesting: “Suburbia is hell,” “Suburbia is dead,” “suburbia is where the developer bulldozes.” It’s not overstating things to say that in this country, when it comes to where you want to live, you have two big-bucket options: you can live in a big urban city or you can live in a cul-de-sac—there’s very little in between. And that’s what’s starting to change. Kentland, which is a suburb of Washington D.C., is one of the first New Urbanist suburbs. It was very carefully designed. It has a mixture of townhouses and regular houses, a downtown and lots of places to gather. Someone described it as if you had cut and paste Georgetown and dropped it in the middle of suburbia. The thing about Kentland is that it’s been a financial success since it opened in 1993.
GB: Do you have some more examples?
LG: Sure. Libertyville, Illinois was developed by John McLinden. He built traditional sprawl for many years, but decided a few years ago that people might want something different, so he developed this community of what is essentially 26 single-family homes wedged together. The traditional Main Street is called Milwaukee Avenue and has dozens of establishments. This community was developed and built in the middle of the housing crisis and it sold out within 18 months. The local press called it an aberration. McLinden is duplicating this kind of community in Skokie, Illinois and Steamboat, Colorado, and he’s building a massive 800-home community for the Mormon Church in Utah.
GB: So it must be profitable.
LG: Many of these communities are rising out of the ashes of dead or dying shopping malls. Belmar is in Lakewood, Colorado, literally where there used to be a giant indoor shopping mall with a JCPenney and Montgomery Ward. Now it’s a neighborhood with 1100 condos, apartments, offices, lofts, studios. There are cafes, restaurants, bars, art galleries and installations. It’s really lively and fun.
GB: Sounds better than the typical mall experience certainly.
LG: These communities are coming up in places where you wouldn’t think they would. Atlanta is a good example of conventional sprawl, but Glenwood Park is a lively city neighborhood two miles from the center of downtown Atlanta. There’s a guy that moved into this community who said that, within six months of moving there—without changing his diet or exercise patterns—he lost ten pounds, simply because he was out of his car and on his feet a little more. So there’s a health angle to all this as well.
GB: That would be a pretty compelling marketing angle. Can you talk a little about marketing?
LG:What’s interesting is that you can really see the void these developers are trying to fill in the words and phrases they use to describe these new communities. Here’s an example from a website for a development in Leesburg, Virginia. The provocative question is, “Have you met your neighbors?” Other communities talk about the “carefully designed streetscape” or “the exciting Main Street environment.” Another development likes to tout, “You can leave the car keys at home.” The things that they’re promoting are the walkability, the proximity and urban design, and they’re touting these things the way that, not too long ago, developers may have played up the three-story foyer.
GB: So what are the key ingredients here?
LG: Remember the movie, Silver Linings Playbook? It was filmed in an inner-ring suburb of Philadelphia called Drexel Hill, which happens to be where my father grew up. These older, inner-ring suburbs were built on a different model and blueprint. New developers are trying to replicate that. If you remember from the movie, the neighborhoods had narrower streets, the houses were slightly smaller scale and closer together, but they were still beautiful houses. Most importantly, they were really close to everything they wanted to do. They could walk to the little movie theater where they had the big fight. They could walk to the famous diner where they had their big date. Everything was nearby, which is something everyone thinks the next generation of home buyers, the Millennials, are going to gravitate to.
GB: I was hoping we'd talk about changing demographics at some point.
LG: The New York Times did an interesting piece about a year ago about just these kinds of towns—places like Hastings-on-Hudson and Dobbs Ferry. The article says these towns have just what young people are looking for, and in fact many of the people who were priced out of Brooklyn moved here. Brooklyn is where the hip people want to live but it’s become so popular that it’s unaffordable for most people. It coined a great term for these old-school suburbs with a walkable environment: Hipsturbia. So, I actually grew up in a Hipsturbia.
“The government in the past created one American Dream at the expense of almost all others: the dream of a house, a lawn, a picket fence, two children, and a car. But there is no single American Dream anymore.”
LG: Oh, absolutely. One of the main principles and tenets of New Urbanism is that the car’s entry and exit is in the back through alleys, so when they go out on foot, they go through the front door. It also means when you walk past a row of houses, you’re not interrupted by cars backing out of their driveway. Another thing that happened was that everyone wanted the deck when it was invented. Decks sent everyone to the back of the house, which became sort of these gated communities to themselves. Now we’re starting to see a resurgence of the front porch.
GB: Also, with some of these homes, there's little to no yard. Is part of the allure the convenience of, "I don't have to cut my grass or take care of any landscaping"?
LG: Yes. Yards and big lawns, especially when they’re really big, are a pain to maintain. A lot of people want a backyard, but maybe it doesn’t have to be as big. The suburbs were spawned for the predominant kind of household of their time, and that was the nuclear family. That is rapidly becoming a minority household type in this country. The birth rate is falling; people are getting married later; they’re not having children or they’re having fewer children. The whole makeup of our households is changing dramatically. That’s going to change the kind of houses the home-buying population wants.
GB: If they even want to live in the burbs.
LG: That’s right. The other side of this whole trend, of course, is about cities. Across the country, our cities are undergoing a renaissance, the likes of which are really only seen once a century. New York City is wildly resurgent. If you told anybody in the 1970s what New York would look like right now, they’d think you’re crazy because it’s such a night and day story. Real estate valuations have gone through the roof. There’s a neighborhood in New York called Tribeca which used to be kind of edgy industrial-chic, and now it has so many strollers and families living there it’s called TriBurbia. Schools are bursting at the seams. Crime is reaching perplexing lows.
GB: So where else is this happening?
LG: What’s interesting about the city revitalization story in this country is that it’s not just the cities you know so well. We did a little list of the possible “Next Brooklyns” which are hip and hot. Cleveland now has three different neighborhoods you could now argue are the new Brooklyn. The list also includes Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky, and Providence, Rhode Island, which has this beautiful waterfront now.
GB: Isn't the trend driven in part by jobs, and what types of jobs are being created in big cities?
LG: Job creation is a big issue in both the city and suburbs across the country; I think it’s the one thing we’re waiting to turn around in the recession. The evolution of job growth in the ‘70s through ‘90s was mostly going out to the suburbs. But now people work in so many different places it’s hard to lump everything together. There’s a lot of suburb-to-suburb commuting, for example. I think that as a lot of these headquarters move back to the city, more jobs will be created there. San Francisco is a great laboratory for this. The hottest new companies are starting in the city, not in Silicon Valley anymore.
GB: Because young people want to live and work in the hip urban centers.
LG: Another trend that’s beginning to happen is that more and more companies are leaving their beautifully landscaped but isolated fortresses to open new headquarters in the downtowns of cities. In Chicago you’ve seen United Airlines, Motorola Mobility and Sara Lee (which is now called Hillshire Brands) all move back into Chicago from the suburbs. Late last year Panasonic opened a gleaming skyscraper in Newark, New Jersey.
GB: Kind of the opposite of "white flight." Are there other indicators?
LG: Definitely. One of the most interesting reversals taking place between cities and suburbs is the activities of the Toll Brothers. They’re the big luxury production home builders that rose to fame building the suburban mega-home. But one of their more recent projects is a building called 205 Water Street in Brooklyn, in the industrial-chic neighborhood called Dumbo. This building is very hip and cool. The wood in the lobby is reclaimed from the Coney Island boardwalk, and there’s a roof garden. It’s completely sold out at prices from $800,000 to two million. That’s not even the most expensive property the Toll Brothers have on the market in New York. That would be the Terrain, which is on 65th and Lexington. The McMansion meets the McCondo, I like to say.
GB: There's major gentrification happening in places like New York and San Francisco now. Are you seeing this in other growing popular cities?
LG: This is the next big issue that cities and other municipalities are going to have to deal with. I live in New York City, and it’s almost unaffordable for anyone who’s not working in an extremely lucrative industry to live in Manhattan. It’s becoming impossible in Brooklyn, too. People in the middle- and lower-income brackets are so important for a city’s economy and culture, and all the things that make a city a city. What’s going to happen to all these people? I’m hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are leaving cities when they can’t afford to stay in them, and buying foreclosed or deeply reduced homes in the exurbs.
GB: What do you think is going to happen ultimately?
LG: Jane Jacobs, the legendary urbanist, once said that the suburbs would one day go out of fashion. That’s a funny thing to say, as if the suburbs were shoulder pads or UGGs, but it’s not an overstatement to say that that’s exactly what happened: we’ve reached “peak burb.” But it’s only the end of the suburbs as we know them. After so many years of this binary landscape—this kind of one-size-fits-all landscape where you could either live in a city or a conventional subdivision—it’s now being replaced by a whole range of options in between. I think this multiple choice, choose-your-own-adventure approach is what’s been missing from our landscape for so long. These changes signal so much, but most of all, I think they signal the arrival of a new American Dream and multiple American Dreams, because we have multiple American dreamers.