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New American Narrative: Strong Cities, Suburbs Allied?

Keith Schneider / Jul 23 2008

For Release Sunday, July 27, 2008

Keith Schneider That insistent rumble and scraping you hear. It’s the sound of the American story of the 20th century colliding with the new American narrative of the 21st.

More so than anyplace else, the shift is loudest and most visible in the nation’s cities, signalled by the steel on steel shriek of light rail and commuter lines carrying the most riders in 50 years.

And there’s a new buzz, too. The coffee shops and bars and lofts and shops and entrepreneurial businesses in Denver and Dallas, New York and Boston and dozens of cities in between, are being fired up by America’s bright, young, and ambitious people.

Meanwhile, the advent of $4 gas has triggered the biggest traffic downturn in a generation. Growing numbers of suburbanites sit in their McMansions’ great rooms clicking away on laptops, buying online instead of going to the mall.

If the half century after World War II was the great age of the suburb, the first half of the 21st century is unfolding as the era of a stronger, more cohesive American citistate of combined center city and much more urban suburbs. Today’s economy, politics, and culture mirror that shift. The nation’s survival – our sustainability – will depend on it.

Here’s why. The spread-out civilization that America invented in the 20th century was largely the result of a handful of major market trends — cheap energy, cheap land, rising incomes, formidable government wealth. Our drive-through economy, and the culture of convenience and plenty (and anonymity) that it fostered, was possible because families could afford the homes and cars, and government built the highways and subsidized the housing that tied it all together. The big losers were cities, which hemorrhaged jobs, and marooned millions.

That description, though, now applies to hundreds of American suburbs, especially those without public transit, located far from city centers. In many of these, housing values have dropped 40 percent or more in the last 18 months. Yet nearer to the city center, in the seasoned older suburbs where transit and parks and sidewalks and neighbors are in closer proximity, America’s successful 21st century suburban form is taking shape. And we’ll be needing these more efficiently conceived, metro-connected suburbs in a nation that will add 140 million people by mid-century.

Meanwhile, according to recent studies, a growing number of cities are attracting residents and seeing their housing values either hold their own or slip much less precipitously than many suburbs. There are exceptions in still-struggling areas like Cleveland and Buffalo. But check San Francisco – it’s the only city in the Bay Area that saw housing prices actually rise — about 1 percent in the last year. Or Seattle, expected to grow to 680,000 residents and add 84,000 new jobs by 2022. Chicago is building more than 10,000 new units of housing within blocks of its $475 million Millennium Park, near the Lake Michigan shoreline, the prosperity wave including neighborhoods that were blighted a decade ago.

These trends represent an absolutely sane response to critical new 21st century realities — high energy prices, high land costs, static family incomes, scarce resources, government deficits, flagging competitiveness, global climate change, and strong U.S. population growth.

But even as downtown, neighborhoods and smart suburbs start to coalesce, they need to move – quickly and courageously – to assure they’ll become success points of a new American Dream.

More than $200 billion in private and public capital needs to be invested over the next decade to build rapid transit for our metro regions, plus regional high-speed rail lines to connect them. Maximizing energy efficiency in community design, and in buildings and homes, is essential to cope with the energy crisis and address global warming. And we need new zoning to locate people and businesses and shopping and schools alongside each other, something that’s now actually illegal in many American communities (and critical if we’re to promote biking and walking and combat our alarming obesity epidemic).

The heartening news is that some cities have revived once all-but-dead downtowns, overcome the doubters to start building a new generation of rail transit, reformed zoning to link new residential hubs, enlarged parks, cleaned up and redeveloped once-abandoned industrial properties, made new office buildings more energy efficient and environmentally sensitive. Increasingly, such cities as Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Boise and Grand Rapids are showing how much steps create cleaner, greener places bustling with jobs and Millennium generation attitude.

Now, as we become a nation experiencing a new future- driving less, riding transit more often, living closer together – a new vision is taking root. It’s that our major cities, many wrecks 30 years ago, are positioned to be the livable, desirable centers of the metro regions that embody our top wealth, talent and hopes. Our ambition should be nothing less than pushing them to number among the most livable, energy-efficient and prosperous places on the planet.


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