Changes in Suburbia

Thursday, August 08, 2013

At the Museum of Modern Art: A thoughtful exhibit looks at the ways in which the U.S. might rethink it's cities. Shown above: A piece by architect Teddy Cruz examines how to adapt suburban housing. At the Museum of Modern Art: A thoughtful exhibit looks at the ways in which the U.S. might rethink it's cities. Shown above: A piece by architect Teddy Cruz examines how to adapt suburban housing. (Carolina A. Miranda)

Leigh Gallagher, Assistant Managing Editor of Fortune Magazine  and author of The End of Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving (Portfolio, 2013), explains why since the recession more Americans are opting out of the suburbs for car-free city life. 

The End of Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving--Excerpt 

When I set out to write a book in the spring of 2011, I originally planned to explore the future of our economy and how the aftereffects of the financial crisis would bring permanent changes to various aspects of our lives. But the more I researched, the more I discovered that the most dramatic shift involved where and how we choose to live—and it wasn’t a result of the Great Recession at all. Rather, the housing crisis only concealed something deeper and more profound happening to what we have come to know as American suburbia. Simply speaking, more and more Americans don’t want to live there anymore.

The reasons are varied, but several disparate factors all point to a decrease in demand for traditional suburban living: many Americans are tiring of the physical aspect of the suburbs, the design of which has changed dramatically over the years to gradually spread people farther and farther apart from one another and the things they like to do, making them increasingly reliant on their cars and, increasingly, on Thelma and Louise –length commutes. Big demographic shifts are seeing our population grow older, younger, and more diverse seemingly all at once, while powerful social trends are shrinking and transforming the American nuclear family, long the dominant driver of suburbia. An epic financial crisis coupled with the rising cost of energy has made punishing commutes also unaffordable, while a new- found hyperawareness of environmental issues has shaken up and re-ordered our priorities in ways that stand in direct conflict to the suburban way of life.

This has all been happening for years, but it’s now being backed up by data. The rate of suburban population growth has outpaced that of urban centers in every decade since the invention of the automobile, but in 2011, for the first time in a hundred years, that trend reversed. Construction permit data shows that in several cities, building activity that was once concentrated in the suburban fringe has now shifted primarily to cities, or what planners call the “urban core.” At the same time, demand for the large, single-family homes that characterize the suburbs is dwindling, and big suburban home builders like Toll Brothers are saying their best markets are now cities.

Many of the builders present at the NAHB show in Orlando know this and have started changing the way they do business. Like Ralston, they’ve started breaking their own bones by tearing up old floor plans, adjusting land acquisition strategies, and shifting their focus to include smaller houses and more urban developments. “Gone are the master bathrooms you can land planes in,” said Boyce Thompson, the editorial director of the Builder group of magazines at the housing research and publishing firm Hanley Wood, during a presentation on market trends. Many of the attendees took part in educational sessions on “multifamily” housing units, design strategies for a shifting market, and the changing preferences of the new home buyer. During one such session, the audience watched an ad for builder Shea Homes’ new “Spaces” line in which pleasant-looking suburbanites talked about what they wanted in their new homes. “A typical home in the suburbs for me?” one house- wife asks. “It’s just not the way things are done anymore.” The 2012 annual Builder magazine “concept home,” at the show, always an important barometer of where housing trends are headed, was instead a series of three different homes targeted to three different generations, all featuring smaller—or “right-sized,” since “small” is still a word that goes unsaid by this group—floor plans and more efficient  use of space. “Change is the only path to tomorrow,” Larry Swank, chairman of the NAHB’s conventions and meetings committee and a leading builder in Indiana, advised an audience in a breakout session.

Not every home builder is hurting. Floating around at the NAHB show were people like John McLinden, a longtime builder in Chicago who had spent the past few years developing a kind of replacement for the conventional subdivision:  a neighborhood of compact, upscale bungalows steps from the train station in the middle of Libertyville, Illinois. His sales were going gangbusters. “Nothing exists like this— certainly not in the suburbs,” he told me eagerly. “And we did it in the midst of a housing crisis.” Indeed, one of the biggest trends in home building right now is remaking our suburbs to look more, well, urban. Like McLinden, developers in suburbs from Morristown, New Jersey, to Leesburg, Virginia, to Lakewood, Colorado, are rebuilding their downtowns as urbanized centers with streets that combine stores, restaurants, and apartments, while nearly every home builder now has a town house or condo division. Even Toll Brothers, the Horsham, Pennsylvania–based home builder that rose to fame on the wings of the suburban mega-home, says what it calls its “suburban move-up” houses are now roughly 50 percent of what it builds and sells, down from 70 to 80 percent just a few years ago.

This brings me to an important point: when I talk about the “end of the suburbs,” I do not mean to suggest that all suburban communities are going to vaporize. Plenty of older suburbs are going strong for reasons we’ll explore later, and many newer suburbs are reinventing themselves to adapt to the times. But when the people who have de- livered the same kind of one-size-fits-all suburban subdivisions over the past few decades are tearing up their blueprints, venturing gingerly into urban markets, and actually fainting at the thought of what the future holds, something big is afoot. The reliable expansion of our suburbs, the steady growth of the housing industry, and the seemingly unending supply of new single-family homes—and home owners— that we became used to over the past several decades may well be a thing of the past. Robert Shiller, a Yale University economist, founder of the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, and the forecaster who predicted both the dot-com and housing bubbles, has said we may be in for a new normal. According to Shiller, U.S. suburban development since the 1950s was “unusual” in its reliance on the automobile and the highway system; the bursting of the bubble may result in a bigger, more structural change. “The heyday of exurbs may well be behind us,” he has said. “Suburban prices may not recover in our lifetime.” 


Leigh Gallagher

Comments [13]


San Antonio is the 9th largest city in the country. But almost no one lives in the downtown area of San Antonio. Instead, people live in the suburbs. Texas has some of the fastest growing cities in the country, and they are growing by creating suburbs, not a cityscape. Raleigh, NC, is another example of a city that has grown, but only through expanding suburbs.

Financial news reports constantly mention the housing market, paying close attention to new home sales. The development model of building suburbs isn't dying. Public transportation projects were abandoned in Raleigh and Madison because people prefer to drive, even if they get stuck in traffic.

The only way to escape the suburban life is to move to a real city, of which there are arguably only three: New York, Chicago, and Boston. Although, Denver is developing into a real city, with apartment space being built in its downtown area and a constant expansion of its light rail.

People living in the crabgrass frontier don't want high-rises in their manicured, bedroom communities. Suburbanites don't want to take advantage of vertical space, preferring sprawl, instead.

I find most American suburbs to be detestable places. Many suburbs have a paucity of sidewalks. Most suburbs are poorly planned and laid out, with roads going in every which direction and houses placed in willy nilly fashion. Suburbs are exemplary in their inefficiency. Perhaps the worst part is the lack of a sense of community in the suburbs. There often isn't a community focal point. In the burbs people pass each other in vehicles instead of passing each other on the streets and saying hello. It's a compartmentalized existence. Most interactions happen at the shopping malls, where people get angry at each other in the parking lots.

I detest all those lawns in the burbs. What a waste of space. What a waste of resources, all that water and fertilizer and weed killer used to maintain an area that is often just for show. Stupid. Then there are the landscaping crews which work seven days a week to tend to these vacant spaces, the hum of mowers and weed whackers buzzing from early morning until evening. Forget about a peaceful summer day in the burbs as you'll hear the constant whine of landscaping equipment.

There is no fixing the suburbs. They are what they are. They've been built by municipal planners who knew nothing about planning. It's not like you can raise all the homes and start over and build grid patterns and park plazas. Best just to try to leave the US altogether.

Aug. 09 2013 11:01 AM
Annie D

OK, the Cosby show was not a dream of suburban utopia... IT WAS SET IN BROOKLYN

Aug. 09 2013 10:12 AM
Anna from westchester

hate the driving---love the gardens
but I'd stay in the suburbs if they build alot more sidewalks, seriously increase apartment inventory in a visually pleasing way, tear down the strip malls where most offensive and create better public transit

Aug. 09 2013 08:00 AM

I was wondering how many of the 16-18 year olds who don't have a license are sans wheels because their parents can't afford the insurance? Was that accounted for?

Aug. 08 2013 11:51 AM
nick from NJ

I just moved back to the US from Japan and almost every suburb and city was a walkable community and on a train line. I really preferred it to my current car centric living now.

Aug. 08 2013 11:45 AM
e from hastings

in middle class suburbs new parents are driving long term residents into poverty and demeaning the quality of education by dominating school budgets as to hike up school taxes to pay for multi-million dollar sports facilities for themselves more than their little kids who likely will get nothing from them!

Aug. 08 2013 11:44 AM
Gabriel from New York

The world 'BOOK' was repeated 28 times so far

Aug. 08 2013 11:44 AM
h l

Just like the new Manhattan vs the old Manhattan. Bloomberg's Manhattan is like a suburb. The large buildings now in the east village, SoHo has none of the little shops anymore.

Aug. 08 2013 11:40 AM
John from NYC

You don't have to drive too far to see a comparative example of the "new vs old" suburbs, come to Staten Island to see a development disaster.

Aug. 08 2013 11:37 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

The only "American Dream" is the constitutional guarantee to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." You can pursue happiness all you want, but there is no guaranteed right to it.
Suburbia was always a mirage. A piece of post-WWII mythological Americana. It could only exist thanks to coming out undamaged in WWII and thanks to our production of relatively cheap oil at the time. In the '70s, when our own cheap oil ran out, we began to bring it in from Arabia. We have been sustaining this artificial lifestyle on debt, and that bubble finally burst 5 years ago. Suburbia quickly turned from Dream into Nightmare. What might save some of it could be the electric car and solar power, which use a fraction of the energy as gasoline-powered cars. Short of that, suburbia is doomed.

Aug. 08 2013 11:35 AM
mr nyc

moved to a suburb northeast queens a few months ago after a lifetime in the city. i have space, light, green surroundings, and quiet. plus i can walk to the supermarket and some restaurants. there's also great public schools and a nice community. love it!

Aug. 08 2013 11:34 AM
Rich in NJ from NJ

A song about the suburbs:

Aug. 08 2013 11:32 AM
antonio from baySide

Does this mean the burbs will finally get denser and a couple of streetcars? Or is the outlook city folks i.e. more affluent here..... and poor folks all the way out stop riverhead!!!

Aug. 08 2013 11:04 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.