?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.?
For nearly 70 years, the suburbs were as American as apple pie. As the middle class ballooned and single-family homes and cars became more affordable, we flocked to...
“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.”
For nearly 70 years, the suburbs were as American as apple pie. As the middle class ballooned and single-family homes and cars became more affordable, we flocked to pre-fabricated communities in the suburbs, a place where open air and solitude offered a retreat from our dense, polluted cities. Before long, success became synonymous with a private home in a bedroom community complete with a yard, a two-car garage and a commute to the office, and subdivisions quickly blanketed our landscape.
But in recent years things have started to change. An epic housing crisis revealed existing problems with this unique pattern of development, while the steady pull of long-simmering economic, societal and demographic forces has culminated in a Perfect Storm that has led to a profound shift in the way we desire to live.
In The End of the Suburbs journalist Leigh Gallagher traces the rise and fall of American suburbia from the stately railroad suburbs that sprung up outside American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries to current-day sprawling exurbs where residents spend as much as four hours each day commuting. Along the way she shows why suburbia was unsustainable from the start and explores the hundreds of new, alternative communities that are springing up around the country and promise to reshape our way of life for the better.
Not all suburbs are going to vanish, of course, but Gallagher’s research and reporting show the trends are undeniable. Consider some of the forces at work:
The nuclear family is no more: Our marriage and birth rates are steadily declining, while the single-person households are on the rise. Thus, the good schools and family-friendly lifestyle the suburbs promised are increasingly unnecessary.
We want out of our cars: As the price of oil continues to rise, the hours long commutes forced on us by sprawl have become unaffordable for many. Meanwhile, today’s younger generation has expressed a perplexing indifference toward cars and driving. Both shifts have fueled demand for denser, pedestrian-friendly communities.
Cities are booming. Once abandoned by the wealthy, cities are experiencing a renaissance, especially among younger generations and families with young children. At the same time, suburbs across the country have had to confront never-before-seen rates of poverty and crime.
Blending powerful data with vivid on the ground reporting, Gallagher introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters, including the charismatic leader of the anti-sprawl movement; a mild-mannered Minnesotan who quit his job to convince the world that the suburbs are a financial Ponzi scheme; and the disaffected residents of suburbia, like the teacher whose punishing commute entailed leaving home at 4 a.m. and sleeping under her desk in her classroom.
Along the way, she explains why understanding the shifts taking place is imperative to any discussion about the future of our housing landscape and of our society itself—and why that future will bring us stronger, healthier, happier and more diverse communities for everyone.
The suburbs are in many ways a uniquely American phenomenon—no other nation has them in such abundance. But their future is in doubt. Gallagher, assistant managing editor at Fortune, marshals ample evidence that the suburbs are in decline, as the financial crisis, long-term demographic trends, and increased environmental awareness conspire to drive Americans away from residential subdivisions. “Simply speaking, more and more Americans don’t want to live there anymore,” she writes. Through conversations with home builders, designers, and consumers, and a review of relevant data concerning suburban real estate, Gallagher heralds a future of “smaller-scale” communities and urban spaces characterized by walk-ability, socioeconomic diversity, and mixed-use development. The promise of more human-centered design will appeal to many readers. Gallagher’s ideal community seems to be a combination of Brooklyn’s Park Slope and Media, Penn., her own childhood suburb. Many of Gallagher’s ideas are more concerned with rejecting past excesses than with offering truly new perspectives. The same statistics and experts are quoted throughout this short tome, giving one the feeling of driving past a series of identical cul-de-sacs. (Aug.)
Fortune editor and public speaker Gallagher presents illuminating, persuasive data on the recent preference for vibrant city life over softer suburbia. An admitted West Village "city girl," the author reminisces about her "almost comically idyllic" childhood in suburban Media, Pa., and then smoothly examines how attitudes about the upholstered American dream of life in a bedroom community with "a house and a yard" have permanently shifted. She attributes this urban renaissance to several factors: lengthy, impractical commutes; environmental consciousness; an influx of poverty-stricken citizens into the suburbs forcing the wealthy to the city; changing familial demographics; and, most importantly, the economic crash that either plunged many mortgage-bound homeowners underwater or made them fear foreclosure. This point is highlighted best with Gallagher's story of her drive through a once-flourishing subdivision in Las Vegas, now riddled with foreclosed homes poorly camouflaged by desperate realtors. The author presents suburbia from a historical perspective that's entertaining and educative and juxtaposes the old with the new using unfiltered opinions from builders, homeowners, "sprawl refugees" who fight for suburban redevelopment, and developers pushing rural, mixed-use "city replicas." Though she focuses on a marked downturn in suburban affinity, Gallagher's reportage is evenhanded and comprehensively researched. In fairness, she notes that there are a large number of suburbs attempting their own reinvention in an effort to adapt to the changing climate of smaller communities and the myriad challenges they face. Good or bad, "a new kind of Great Migration is taking place," though the author admits it's still too early to elaborate further on any concrete solutions for those still harboring that pastoral American dream. A somewhat melancholic reality report made pleasant and palatable by the author's congenial delivery and promising vision.
LEIGH GALLAGHER is an assistant managing editor at Fortune, where she edits feature stories and oversees several Fortune franchises. She is a regular guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and public radio’s Marketplace, appears frequently on CNN, CNBC and other outlets, and is a frequent public speaker. Earlier in her career she was a senior editor at SmartMoney magazine and a writer for Forbes. This is her first book.