Suburbs Are Out, Cities Are In — Now What?

American public policy massively subsidizes a way of life that appeals to a shrinking number of Americans. Photo: @fineplanner/Twitter

Today’s Times devotes two pieces to the “suburbs are out, cities are in” phenomenon that has taken root in much of the country over the past few decades — the great inversion, urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt has dubbed this reversal of the suburbanization wave that swept through the U.S. in the last century. Though both pieces will pretty much be old hat to Streetsblog readers, they’re interesting nonetheless, both as signposts and for what they leave out.

Suburbs Try to Prevent Exodus as Young Adults Move to Cities and Stay,” by Times Westchester beat reporter Joseph Berger, has some startling figures on the dwindling population of young adults in iconic Northeast suburbs. Between 2000 and 2011, Berger reports, Rye had a 63 percent drop in 25- to 34-year-olds, and 16 percent fewer 35- to 44-year-olds. Outside Washington, DC, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds fell 34 percent in Chevy Chase, 19 percent in Bethesda, and 27 percent in Potomac. The same pattern holds in suburbs ringing Chicago and Boston.

Although Berger noted last month, in his trenchant article about the toll squeeze facing the new Tappan Zee Bridge, that “young Americans are not as enamored of the automobile as their parents’ generation, and are less likely to have drivers’ licenses or own a car,” his piece today largely skirts the car issue. What ails the suburbs, he suggests, are expensive housing, insufficient diversity, a lack of well-paying jobs, and not enough urban “pizzazz.” All true, as is the observation by one of his sources, Christopher Niedt at Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies, that “younger adults are becoming more drawn to denser, more compact urban environments that offer a number of amenities within walking distance of where they live.” Yet the article makes no mention of the high cost to own and operate an auto (or two) in car-dependent suburbs, the boredom of driving in a landscape of strip malls, the time lost to traffic jams.

Berger cites efforts under way in Long Beach — my home town, in Nassau County — to attract young people by “refreshing its downtown near the train station” and adding “apartments, job-rich office buildings, restaurants and attractions” like the replacement boardwalk built after Hurricane Sandy. And indeed, Long Beach’s rectangular street grid, small lot sizes, and main street shopping give it a creditable Walk Score of 64, which doubtless helps residents live affordably with 25 percent fewer cars per household than the county average (1.41 vs. 1.90, according to my calculations based on the Selected Housing Characteristics dataset in the 2012 American Community Survey).

Nevertheless, when it comes to the contest for young people’s allegiance between revived central cities and their suburbs, there are deeper forces at play than even livable streets and freedom from the auto monkey. Here’s how a recent article in Tech Crunch about the Bay Area’s housing crisis put it:

San Francisco’s younger workers derive their job security not from any single employer but instead from a large network of weak ties that lasts from one company to the next. The density of cities favors this job-hopping behavior more than the relative isolation of suburbia.

In short, as lifetime employment at the suburban office park disappears, urban connectivity isn’t just an amenity, it’s a necessity.

The other Times article today is an op-ed by architect and Columbia planning professor Vishaan Chakrabarti, grandly titled “America’s Urban Future.” It’s a useful bookend to Berger’s reporting, and does a worthy job of connecting the big dots: “cities are filling up,” “compact urban living [is] easier” (especially for millennials who are postponing having children), cities are more attuned to future-looking social values like cultural diversity and marriage equality, and so forth. And Chakrabarti calls out the “huge wealth transfer” from cities to suburbs via entrenched tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction and antiquated federal appropriations as an enormous obstacle to local efforts to improve urban infrastructure, education, and opportunity.

Yet for all its right-thinkingness, I sense something missing from the op-ed. There’s no sense of the suburban-rural chokehold over Congress and state legislatures, including New York’s, and the way it tilts the national cultural conversation against urban density and diversity. Nor does it touch on how working class people are being whipsawed not only by globalization and de-industrialization, but locally by NIMBY-abetted housing shortages that are driving out residents who don’t collect paychecks from the new knowledge economy.

Okay, there’s only so much you can cram into the Grey Lady’s 850 words. For that deeper discussion, I suggest you turn to America’s Undeclared War, Dan Lazare’s still-pulsating 2001 classic on the Hamilton/Jefferson divide that still dominates our national political culture (spoiler alert: Hamilton is still losing), and that Tech Crunch article, which provocatively places galloping gentrification in the Bay Area (and beyond) in a larger context of entitlement, class, and political power.

  • Jonathan R

    Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia points out how suburbs since their inception have always functioned as a wealth-transfer device from public budgets to private land developers.

  • J_12

    I think the jury is still out … the biggest appeal of suburban living is to families during the years when children are in school. Urban crime rates that have been falling for 25 years help attract and keep people in cities, but there is a multi-decade disinvestment in urban infrastructure (transportation, education, and various other areas) which will tilt the competitive balance toward suburbs for families with children with years to come.

  • JamesR

    Right. There’s that, and the fact that we just don’t do urban living all that well in the US. The building codes encourage construction of units with too little sound insulation between floors and walls as well as inadequately thick window panes. Young families with overworked, sleep deprived parents don’t want to listen to car alarms and honking on the street and don’t want to hear footfall and TV sound over their heads as they’re sitting down to dinner. These factors absolutely serve to repel families from urban living and toward a single family detached home in the suburbs.

  • Bolwerk

    Another glaring oversight in the articles is lack of consideration for transit. Applying German or French transit planning attitudes, Long Beach would probably have means to circulate people from Queens to its job centers by tram. In American thinking, Long Beach is too small for that kind of investment because it only has 30,000 people in it.

    There are plenty of New York suburbs with New York City level of density that nobody would dream of investing more transit in. They should be seamlessly interconnected by a robust transit network, just like the Five Boroughs (kinda) are.

  • car free nation

    I don’t agree. I think the biggest appeal of city living is when you have kids in school. A lot of parents (like me) are raising their kids in the city because they remember the soul-sucking suburban teen lifestyle. And if schools were better and we were able to build higher and keep real estate prices in check, there’d be more.

  • PQR

    Long Beach has job centers? Anywhere near the LIRR station there?

  • Bolwerk

    Perhaps I should have said “intends to have [a] job center[s]”, but from above:

    Berger cites efforts under way in Long Beach — my home town, in Nassau
    County — to attract young people by “refreshing its downtown near the
    train station” and adding “apartments, job-rich office buildings,
    restaurants and attractions” like the replacement boardwalk built after
    Hurricane Sandy.”

    Been a while since I was there, but I think it’s pretty mixed use.

  • Bolwerk

    That last sentence probably nails it: the schools can be terrible, even now, and it hurts us when attracting families.

  • Michael Klatsky

    Most homes in New York City are single family detached homes.

  • qrt145

    Just falling within the jurisdiction of the city does not make a place not-a-suburb, IMHO.

  • Ian Turner


  • Komanoff

    In Queens — which I picked as a litmus test for NYC — 18.8% of occupied dwelling units are single family detached homes, according to this table,, which took me 2 minutes max to locate, after Googling the ACS reference at the end of the 4th graf in my post.

    I’m not invested in that particular stat; just griping that more commenters don’t feel obliged to take a few minutes vetting the assertions they’re so hot to make.

  • Michael Klatsky

    Most *buildings* are single family homes. Not units.

  • Komanoff

    You’ve watered down your original assertion in two ways: by changing homes to buildings (why is “buildings” the relevant metric, anyway?), and by changing single family detached to single family. Uh … okay.

    Doubly watered, your assertion might squeak by. Again, though, since you’re the one asserting it, why don’t *you* look up the housing stock numbers and do the math?

  • Michael Klatsky

    Leaving out detached was a mistake. My observation is that if you flyover the city, the vast majority of structured you observe are single family detached structures.

    I was addressing James, who stated that living in the city meant you will inevitably hear your neighbors, car alarms and sirens on a daily basis.

    However, geographically that isnt true – outside of a few high density neighborhoods the city is not like that.

  • qrt145

    The city is not for buildings, but for people. It doesn’t “help” if most buildings are detached houses, if only a small minority of people live in them. If anything, it just shows what an inefficient use of space the houses are.

  • Komanoff

    Thanks. I appreciate the clarification. But if the majority of *dwelling units* are “attached,” then the majority of *households” will potentially be exposed to immediate neighbors’ sounds, etc. The possibility that a majority of *buildings* may not be so exposed, is irrelevant.

  • Bolwerk

    But does that even matter so much? With modern construction and soundproofing, there is probably very little need to hear your neighbors in a new construction. Perhaps older tenement construction is louder.

    Even in my century-old multifamily, most of the more heinous noise comes from a certain culprit that took over the street. And then only if I have my windows open.

  • Michael Klatsky

    You are correct, but that does not take anything away from what I responded to James- many urban neighborhoods exist with single family detached homes without all the annoyances he claims urban areas have that will make young families need to move to suburban sprawl.

  • Joe R.

    For what it’s worth, you can still end up with a reasonable population density if you have detached 1 to 3 family homes on small (i.e. 20’x100′ to 40’x100′) lots, along with occasional blocks of small apartment buildings. The key is to not waste space on anything else, like freeways or parking lots. We here at Streetsblog claim to be proponents of urban living. Urban living does not preclude owning your own home, provided it’s not a McMansion on a 3/4 acre lot.

    The reasons for desiring to own instead of rent go way beyond just noise considerations. There are financial considerations as well. Once the house is paid for, the operating costs are predictable and typically rise no faster than inflation. You’re not at the mercy of landlords who can double or triple your rent when the lease expires if rents in other buildings are going up. Moreover, you’re not dependent upon a landlord renewing your lease. And you’re not at the mercy of having filthy neighbors who may infest your apartment with vermin (that’s actually one of the biggest reasons to own a detached home instead of renting).

  • Joe R.

    Very true. I happen to live in such an area. The only thing you forego with an urban house is a huge yard but frankly huge yards just to grow grass and shrubs are a waste of space. At least if suburbanites grew vegetables and planted fruit or nut trees all that space would serve a real purpose besides being a seldom used recreation spot.

  • valar84

    The issue is how much space each single-family home occupies. Though in Japan single-family homes tend to have a density of around 15 dwelling units per acre (going up to 25), most single-family homes are much bigger in the US. Which means that even if homes are only 18,8% of all housing units in Queens, they probably occupy most of the land.

    I’ve personally noticed this phenomenon when I saw how about 66% (two thirds) of Vancouver was zoned exclusively for single-family homes, I went on Google Maps and saw square miles of houses all around the dowtown area, then I saw statistics revealing that only 18% of housing units in Vancouver were single-family homes.

    Single-family homes just take a lot of space compared to other housing arrangements. They also house more people per unit on average.

  • aslevin

    The sound insulation issue seems like something that could be fixed more rapidly given the demand for new construction. In the last decade many cities have updated few years many cities have updated building standards for greater energy efficiency, and in the last several years have updated street design codes to complete streets. A similar initiative could tweak building codes for better sound insulation.

    I have no idea what it would take to get this done in the New York area, maybe that would indeed take decades, but in the Bay Area that sort of standard could propagate through regional planning and funding guidelines, creating draft ordinances that cities could adopt. Specific references to what the standards ought to be would be most welcome.

  • aslevin

    Schools are an issue, but isn’t there evidence that a child’s performance follows their parents even more than the school system? Also, how long does it take to recover schools when a neighborhood increases in average income level? The collapse of urban school systems happened quite rapidly with middle class flight and disinvestment. How long does it take when educated, affluent people move into an area to improve schools? Are there case studies of improving school districts in urban areas that have seen re-investment?

  • davistrain

    I looked at a review of “America’s Undeclared War” and the reviewer mentioned a “collectivist ethic” that espoused “social efficiency” over “private freedom”. I can just imagine what the reaction of my right wing colleagues would be to this point of view, probably starting with “Over My Dead Body!!!”

  • Kid Charles

    ” How long does it take when educated, affluent people move into an area to improve schools?”

    This is where the insidious effect of private schools comes in. The option (and the perceived necessity) of private schools for young professional urban parents will slow the improvement of urban public schools. If every one of these parents sent their kids to their local public school, stayed involved, and exerted political pressure to improve the schools, it could happen in a few short years, and could benefit all children who go there. If instead they all send their kids to private schools, the problem will persist indefinitely.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Well it’s a bit of a catch isn’t it? I live within walking distance of what is thought to be the best elementary school in my city, but I still send my daughter to a private school. In theory I could send my kids there, get involved, and by the time they are leaving the school will be looking up, but that only helps the average person several years down the road and isn’t the best thing for my own children individually.

  • HamTech87

    My teenager, a bit of a foodie, takes me to restaurants and storefront windows in neighborhoods I would have avoided 25 years ago.

    What are the “ingredients” for his exploration of NYC?
    (1) Safety: An assuredness of safety, wherein he and his friends don’t worry about being mugged or worse the way we were;
    (2) Transit: A robust transit system, especially the subways, that take him almost anywhere;
    (3) In-for-ma-tion (I’m hearing Seinfeld’s Newman in my head): Specifically, websites like Yelp that tell him where the best places are, and suggestions on what to order.

  • Nathanael

    Soon, that won’t be a difference. As suburbs become poorer, suburban schools are sinking in quality very fast and becoming awful. (And as for rural schools… oy vey. They’ve been awful for a very long time.)

    I wish this wasn’t the way the suburban and urban schools were equalizing; I’d prefer to see the urban schools going up, rather than watching the suburban schools go down. But this IS what is happening.

    In a few years the suburban schools will suck badly enough that nobody will consider moving to the suburbs “for the schools”. There will simply be a lot more parents saving for private school. There may be a lot more private schools; the cheaper “second tier” and “third tier” of private schools will probably make a comeback.

  • Nathanael

    Rowhouses can also create a pretty high population density. So can duplexes. Both seem to be *very* popular where they exist.

    It doesn’t have to be all apartment buildings.

  • Nathanael

    (Rowhouses seem to command huge prices, so they must be quite popular. They are unfortunately banned by many zoning laws these days.)

  • Bolwerk

    Yeah, but that’s still incredibly bad news. Unless (until?) the status quo changes markedly, the suburbs’ sinking won’t benefit cities. Instead, Washington and Albany will start taking more and more to prop them up.

    Really we need to find a way to at least make inner suburbs sustainable. Maybe outer suburbs can’t be saved.

  • Eric3497

    It also keeps the neighbors (most of them at least) out of hearing/annoyance range.

  • Eric3497

    As have tax subsidies for urban development.

  • BBnet3000

    This might be an overbroad generalization. The suburbs are splitting, big time, between extreme wealth and poverty. NYC has wealth extremes, but its BOTH extremes within one municipality. The rich suburbs are going to stay rich (and with great schools), if you can afford to live there. The poor/working class and some middle class ones are on the trajectory you describe.

  • neroden

    It is pretty terrible news, isn’t it.

    The suburbs are also depopulating, so I wouldn’t expect to see DC or Albany spending more money to prop them up. The bigger problem is that the entire country is watching its public education system circle the drain. An uneducated populace is a bad thing.

  • neroden

    In Ye Olden Days, the private land developers understood that their suburbs were dependent on the cities. The streetcar suburbs were definitely designed as schemes for private land developers to profit by, but the same developers made sure to upgrade the downtowns of the cities they were building suburbs for — you don’t build a nice streetcar line to the suburbs without building a nice downtown streetcar line.

    Something got much worse when the auto-centric suburbs started being built.

  • Jonathan R




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