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Urban U.S.A. Remade: A ‘Grand Inversion’?

Neal Peirce / May 11 2012

For Release Sunday, May 13, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceHow fast are our downtowns, neighborhoods and regions truly changing? Are cities on a clear comeback path? What’s the future of suburbia?

Opinions abound. Some analysts predict spirited and expanding revival of once-neglected center cities, even while far-out, “drive ’til you qualify” suburbia virtually withers on the vine. Others contend that suburbia and America have become synonymous, that our love of space will in time refuel sprawling housing tracts expanding to farthest suburban frontier, no matter if gasoline prices soar.

If you’d like a clear-eyed view, check Alan Ehrenhalt’s new book, “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City” (Alfred Knopf). Ehrenhalt leans to the side of cities on the rebound. He makes a strong case for how today’s young adults, in sharp contrast to the choices their parents made, are opting for lively, walkable urban streets with parks, shops, transit and school choices.

But it’s not just urban hype. Equally important, Ehrenhalt notes: Large numbers of African-Americans are moving out of cities, into once typically white suburbs. And high proportions of recent immigrants aren’t repeating the historic choice of inner cities, but selecting suburbia instead.

Atlanta offers a prime example. The center city is on the brink of losing its black majority as whites move in and blacks move out. Two huge Atlanta suburban counties, Clayton and DeKalb, now have black majorities. In the meantime, a mélange of Hispanics, followed by foreign-born from India, Vietnam, South Korea and Eastern Europe, have flooded into once overwhelmingly white Gwinnett County on the region’s outskirts. Anglos are now a minority in Gwinnett, once prototype of the white-fight-escape-and-settlement American suburb.

To significant degree, the same massive population shift is being repeated nationwide. The population of lower Manhattan, south of the World Trade Center, doubled to 50,000 in the decade after the terrorist attack of 2001. Chicago saw its fashionable lakeside “Loop” soar 48 percent in population in just seven years.

Such cities are clearly taking on the demographic pattern of 19th century Europe and Paris today — the better-off middle-to-upper classes heavily represented in the historic and colorful city centers, the poor and newcomers living in the outskirts.

This is Ehrenhalt’s “great inversion,” a division of people, the more fortunate to the urban centers, the less fortunate to the outskirts. It’s a pattern that’s arguably typified most cities through most of history, with post-World War II America the grand (but perhaps temporary) exception.

But the pattern will surely not be consistent. Our affluent, established suburbs aren’t about to depopulate. A steady and increasing inflow of youth, joined by the affluent and comfortably retired, is predictable for the centers such as Washington, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. But surely far less for our Buffalos and Detroits, and in relatively more modest numbers for such cities as Cleveland, Charlotte, St. Louis, Houston and Phoenix. In many places, Ehrenhalt notes, cities are trying consciously to attract youth and the affluent. But with notable exceptions, the population gain — so far — has been “modest in absolute numbers.”

There are obstacles to rapid “inversion.” One is worry about the quality of schools — though it’s also true that schools (including the country’s growing number of charters) tend to improve after the middle class arrives. Another is fiscal: high city taxes, exacerbated by a menacing overhang of cities’ pension obligations.

But today’s pro-city trends are arguably much greater. First, choosing tighter space in town seems increasingly feasible as many people remain single and delay marriage, cohabitation rises, and families have markedly fewer children than a generation ago. And there’s a growing retiree group with high numbers of healthy and active adults in their later years, opting for the historic color and convenience of living in a city.

Plus, the safety and quality of urban life has increased. Random street violence has declined dramatically, with crime levels far below those of the 1970s and ’80s. The massive high-rise public housing complexes that generated crime and fear in post- World War II America — St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe, Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green, Baltimore’s Murphy Homes and others — have mostly met the wrecker’s ball.

None of this means all is well in our big cities. They still have their sections of massive devastation, like North Philadelphia. Some areas — New York’s South Bronx is a shining example — still have poverty but have witnessed heartening recoveries.

But there’s one huge difference from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — the problems are no longer exclusively those of the central cities. More and more of the poorest, most destitute Americans have moved to once white suburbs. It’s no longer possible to equate “suburb” with “success” or — as youth’s move to our urban centers proves — “city” with “poverty.”

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Posted May 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    There are some huge, challenging, and sad ironies here. The desire of an increasing number of people (clearly the fastest growing sector of the real estate market) to live in more urban, mixed use, and less auto dependent areas of our cities (which would be a significant step in addressing many of our critical economic, housing, and environmental problems) not only will not be robustly supported now through proactive urban planning by our fiscally constrained cities and states (much less by our bankrupt federal government) but is now prohibited in many city areas suited for this type of redevelopment by local NIMBY zoning controls. Is this what happened in Atlanta? While talking the sustainable talk (think the Atlantic Station development), Atlanta somehow apparently lost over 20% of its estimated population in the last ten years. Infill and redevelopment in our urban areas needs to be at a larger neighborhood scale and at higher European style densities (25-100 units per acre) (think of Atlantic Station as just a slice of the potential neighborhood pie) to achieve the aesthetic, economic, housing, mixed use, and transit benefits of quality urban living. We may just be on the fast track to building a higher density but still highly automobile-dependent and auto-friendly urban lifestyle (think of rows of apartments isolated behind Home Depot), and one that is regionally unsustainable (think LosAngeles and Jakarta here). Our future (which seems perceptible in the abscence of regional planning) of automobile dependent urban living will perhaps be the worst of all possible modern worlds.

    God help us!

  2. David
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Great article. Two factors affecting this new urbanism are the fact that young people don’t like driving as much as earlier generations. 21 to 34 year olds are driving about a thrid less than they did just 20 years ago. Also there are 10,000 new retirees every month. They are living longer lives and they’re living more independently and they prefer walkable areas. Atlanta definitely needs more population dense development as well as neighborhoods that discourage the use of the automobile but we are moving in that direction.

  3. Marc Brenman
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    It’s a long hike to better city schools and cities being safer than the suburbs. While young adults may like living in cities, when they get married and have kids, it’s back out to the suburbs they go. Another point on safety– I don’t buy this “cities are so safe now” stuff. There are still big neighborhoods where one takes one’s life in one’s hands at night. While it’s a rare suburb that is that dangerous.

  4. Posted May 13, 2012 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    Neal Peirce’s nuanced comment and Alan Ehrenhalt’s pathbreaking book, and his discussion of inversion, leaves me with three hopes.
    1. We learn from the experience of Western European cities where poor people (often Muslim immigrants) were abandoned and isolated by the wealthier central cities. As the inversion occurs what steps should we take to avoid that dreadful European experience.
    2. With the ongoing inversion how do we build on constructive examples of metropolitan/regional cooperation. Such cooperation can be particularly important in education and health.
    3. The inversion, and the shifting racial composition of center cities and near suburbs, provides an opportunity to have redistricting reflect competitive districts so that we move away from “safe” districts which turn into “rotten boroughs.”
    David Cohen,
    Washington DC

  5. Posted May 13, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Students are being guided out of cars and forced into urban planned developments from the phony green garbage they are indoctrinated into in school. They graduate laden with debt and can not afford a home or car. They are indoctrinated into mediocrity and to accept the plight that government has to offer like subsidized housing. The only choice they can make is a government approved choice like live in the city and volunteer (slavery).
    The purpose of these programs is to eliminate private property and look from what I have been reading: “mission accomplished.” Get Marxism out of the schools, teach American exceptualism and free market and you will see quite a different dynamic.
    Show me one transit system that is profitable and does not require government assistance. Only the auto is owned and controlled by the individual affording individual mobility which is unacceptable and therefore called not sustainable. Therefore the auto must be replaced by mass transit. Control, Control. Through mass transit scheduling you get curfews. Wake up. Sustainable developments a Marxist failed model = serfdom.

  6. Ellen McCarthy
    Posted May 14, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Karen Schoen –

    You’re kidding, right?

    Young people want to live in cities because cities are far superior. They have a choice between suburbs like those in which they grew up, spending hours a day in a car while mom schlepped one sibling to gymnastics, later another to Girl Scouts, to the grocery store (in fact, anywhere that one needed to go, since it was not possible to walk or bike anywhere), or they can live in a city where there are restaurants, clubs, bars, bakeries, yoga studios and gyms, art museums, shops — all within an easy walk or bike. Getting to work in cities is also simple, using transit, walking or biking, without having to worry that gas is topping $4.50 per gallon. Streets are safe because there are so many other people using them, and residents keep an eye out for those passing by. Schools are improving dramatically, with the added plus of students enjoying the benefits of learning in a culturally diverse environment.

    Your comment about transit is bafflling — no transit pays for itself out of the farebox, which makes sense because it is a public benefit. In addition, the phenomenal growth of car sharing makes it possible for city residents to easily access a car when they need it, without having to worry about car payments, insurance or the cost of parking. Since young people are more interested in hanging out in “third places”, they are willing to trade off more space for the convenience and desirability of living in the city. College graduates are 91% more likely to live in a city or a close-in suburb, NOT because anyone is forcing them, but because they recognize the value of living in lively, vibrant places.
    Try it sometime….

  7. Posted May 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Great article! This inversion has definitely started in Nashville. One thing that concerns me as an older retiree who moved downtown, is lack of elder care, assisted living, etc. I have lived downtown for more than 10 years, but when I need assisted living I will be forced to go to the suburbs. Lack of planning? Too much focus on the young?

  8. Art Lewellan
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    My participation in Portland Oregon planning led me away from New Urbanism toward (metropolitan area) Regionalism as the more important guideline for future development. Principles of New Urbanism are simpler to understand at single district level – mixed-use and transit oriented development . Principles of Regionalism apply to the many districts within large metropolitan areas also address the imbalances between urban core and surrounding suburban development.
    Addressing first the onerous problem of cross-county traffic and various automobile-related costs and impacts requires transit oriented redevelopment throughout urban/suburban regions. Economically balanced suburban cities, towns and commercial districts disempowers market forces that drive gentrification of restored and attractive city centers.

  9. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Once metro areas develop, their competition makes it inter metro rivalry.
    Jordan Rappaport has found that cities and suburbs have shared fortunes today.
    The Shared Fortunes of Cities and Suburbs. Economic Review. 33-60. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Kansas City, MI.

  10. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I should also mention that EU led to rise in regionalism in Europe as the inter regional competition was an incentive for more cooperation. Of course, having France being located there (which took this route first in 1890 due to excessive systemic fragmentation) has given Europe a head start.
    One thing Americans seem to have lost in fog of history is that the fragmentation of the system harkens back to the type of system the British had before they regionalized their system in the late 1800s. America’s larger land area permitted expansion;whereas Britain’s more limited area forced to face the dysfunctionality of urbanization in the Industrial era and the Enclosure Movement which sent many former rural residents to urban areas.

  11. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Whereas there is more need for regionalism in US, it has long been known that the cities are dysfunctional. They tend to benefit some areas at expense of others. In the 1800s this led to the rich seeking the suburbs, then the middle class ion the 1950s onwards and more recently the working poor.
    Kotkin points out it in an interview; but, he is only stating what others have found: kotkin-the-man-urbanists-love- to-hate/
    Joel Kotkin: The man urbanists love to hate
    Rethinking the Dual City , vol. 42, no. 5
    Alexander Reichl
    This article examines social polarization in New York City …in the 1990s. … the data reveal a striking contrast between the spectacular gains of core areas and the widespread stagnation and decline across low-, middle-, and high-income neighborhoods outside the core. Polarization has not proved a viable political issue because it becomes subsumed in racial/ethnic politics; yet the data suggest that progressives might prevail with a dual-city discourse that highlights the significance of polarization for neighborhoods outside the core.

    Exit, Voice, and Electoral Turnover, vol. 47, no. 2
    Lapo Salucci, Kenneth Bickers
    “from a 2002 survey of residents of four of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, along with census data about their neighborhoods and data on electoral turnover in their municipal governments. We find evidence that intentions to leave a city are indeed conditional both on dissatisfaction with key collective goods and services (in particular local public schools and neighborhoods) and on lack of effective opportunities for the replacement of locally elected public officials. We find evidence of racially-driven motivations for exit, but the direction is inconsistent and the magnitude of the racial effect is smaller than that deriving from dissatisfaction with services where electoral turnover is low.

    “This movement of people and industry was not merely a search for living space, but the product of discontent with life in the cities.”
    “Great cities, when badly administered, cannot be sold or abolished; they simply become dirty, unhealthy, unsafe, disgraceful, and expensive” pmc/articles/PMC1914996/pdf/ pubhealthreporig00092-0049.pdf
    Edeleman, S. (1962, August). Legal Problems of Planning in Metropolitan Areas. Publiic Health Reports.Vol 77. No.8 (689-697)

    A step to address this problem is to have decentralized cities. This is why I think what Quebec has done in its 2000-2002 reforms is very important for North America. Even more so than the 2 regional systems it has implemented also in this period.

  12. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I do not thing you should use Paris as an example of this pattern. The reason is the forces are different. In Paris there is limited land area. Even the La Defense area is outside Paris. Poor immigrants also live in crammed housing in Paris ( as there is a shortage of subsidized housing in the city so those who live there live in cramped conditions as a 2005 fire highlighted);but, not in large housing facilities. Whereas London boundaries were extended in 20th century reforms, Paris boundaries have not been extended since 1800s. This is why they built blocks for working poor immigrants outside the city . Also the reason the conditions of poor communities hasn’t been improved for the immigrants living in outskirts is because French regions do not have strong redistribution powers. This is because the Departments and Communes resisted their becoming more empowered. I think allowing direct election of regional governments has also hampered this. Quebec was wise not to repeat this French feature in its 2 urban regional bodies.