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

Leigh Gallgher

Review by: Kristopher Larson, AICP, President & CEO, Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.

the end of the suburbs coverWith a title that sounds like a classic horror film from the 1960s, Leigh Gallagher’s The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Movingis less a Kuntsler-esque doomsday scenario and about the slow and steady progression of forces that are transforming population dynamics within American cities than the title might suggest. While most Downtown practitioners are familiar with the middle class flight of the 1950s-1970s that created the imperative for our industry, The End of the Suburbs also explores the pre-text of the flight by compiling and analyzing the various social, political, and economic considerations that gave the flight its wings.

Following the detailed historical perspective, Gallagher transitions into a literature review of emerging studies examining contemporary housing preferences and the different variables that are influencing the modes of lifestyles that are reversing the trends of exodus from center cities. According to the book, national trends in population growth have confirmed that urban areas are now growing faster than their suburban and rural counterparts – a dynamic we haven’t seen in more than a century. For the first time since Henry Ford rolled out the primary agent of suburbanization, population growth between urban and suburban areas reversed. Evidently, something we urbanist-types were doing worked – even if the outcomes of today are only spuriously caused by the ideas of yesterday.

In particular, Gallagher spends quite a bit of time examining the emerging preferences of our younger adult generations. What needs will need to be met to ensure that our younger generations – those that will power the workforce of tomorrow – find our city livable according to their preferences? The book serves as a clearinghouse of information that helps to reinforce its central hypothesis. It details the reasons why people are choosing urban lifestyles, both in cities like Grand Rapids and across the country. We certainly know that the way that Americans prefer to move is changing. A popular maxim to describe this phenomenon: “they’d rather text than drive” perfectly capitulates to allure of re-capturing time otherwise lost behind the wheel. As our eyes and minds are imprisoned by our smart phones, our needs to email, tweet, comment, and rock some candy crush outweigh our desire to worry about oil changes or parallel parking.

It turns out that mobility is a key theme throughout the book. The book reinforces its theme with strong statistical evidence, such as the recent finding that the average American aged 16-34 drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than the average person in the same age group in 2001. Additionally, mobility trends have also affected the auto manufacturers: while people between 21-34 purchased 38 percent of new cars in 1985, they accounted to just 27 percent of new cars in 2010. As a nation of many demographic profiles – the results are similar across ages, races, and genders: downward. From 2008-2010, the total number of registered automobiles in the U.S. decreased by 4.5%; in California – historically one of the most auto-centric states – the total number of cars over the same period decreased by 10%. American driving, on a per person level, has decreased every year since 2005, a full 9.3% lower than its peak in 2005 and has retracted to levels comparable to that of 1994.
In the 1960s, the car may have been the ultimate symbol off individual freedom – but today that freedom fits in our pockets. Americans are choosing to structure their lives to afford themselves autonomy from their cars, and these trends are only expected to grow. As such, Gallagher comprehensively lays out her case in a convincing and encouraging way, and book is a valuable resource for Downtown practitioners to better educate and orient themselves on the reasons behind the population shifts that are currently favoring our Downtowns.

Order the book from Amazon, or search for your local bookstore.