New Urban Dream Stalled by Employers' Move to the Suburbs


new urban dreamIn the comments on my earlier post on Gen-Y and the housing market, Travis Robertson makes a number of excellent points. One of them I've heard time and time again when it comes to the Millennials and the new urban dream.

Travis writes, "I think we'll see a rise in smaller, urban-style, walkable communities. Lower-income families will move outward toward the suburbs that once signified the American dream post-war. We'll see many cities shift focus to urban renewal (many already are)."

This is very much in line with the New Urbanism movement sweeping through certain circles of urban planning and architecture communities. The vision of cities of the future, powered by renewable energy, widely available public transportation, and a variety of mixed-use buildings to create smaller, more intimate neighborhoods inside a large metropolis is an attractive one. I should know; I spent ten years in New York City, where walkability, public transportation, and intimate neighborhoods (SoHo, Tribeca, Hell's Kitchen, etc.) all reside inside the largest city in America. It was a great place to live as a young man.

Unfortunately, actual evidence suggests that the New Urbanism vision of the future is not likely to be reality.

Joel Kotkin of New Geography writes in Forbes that "The ongoing Census reveals the continuing evolution of America's cities from small urban cores to dispersed, multi-polar regions that includes the city's surrounding areas and suburbs." (Emphasis mine.)

Turns out, the major failing of New Urbanism is jobs. People might want to live in a nice 2BR
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condo in Tribeca, where they can walk to the cool and hip graphic design job in the East Village, but they move where the jobs are. And the jobs are being created, more and more, in the urban periphery.

Again, Kotkin:

"Sure, being cool is nice, but the obsession with hipness often means missing a bigger story: the gradual diminution of the urban core as engines for job creation. For example, while Chicago's Loop has doubled its population to 20,000, it has also experienced a large drop in private-sector employment, which now constitutes a considerably smaller share of regional employment than a decade ago. The same goes for the new urbanist mecca of Portland as well as the heavily hyped Los Angeles downtown area."

He goes on to point out that these new suburban communities are not your traditional "bedroom" communities filled with commuters to the Big City. The suburbs of New York and New Jersey (where I grew up and lived for years) are exactly those. But even there, when I moved to Millburn, N.J., I was commuting the other way, away from New York City, to my job in Parsippany, N.J. And guess what? Traffic was awful, suggesting that quite a few of my neighbors were going the same way, away from New York City, to their jobs.

Kotkin isn't making some sort of a "this is what we need to do" argument; he's simply interpreting the actual data from the actual Census.

This is New Suburbanism. Sprawl happening not on the basis of simply some low-income family's inability to live in high-rise apartment buildings in the glittering downtowns of major cities, but happening based on the fact that employers continue to move jobs out to these urban peripheries. And Travis's "smaller, walkable, urban-style" communities are getting built more and more outside the City in these peripheral suburban centers.

I'm sure Travis is right that many cities will reinvent the urban core to be more walkable and neighborhood-like. And the elites who have the money and the jobs in the urban core will of course flock back into cities where entertainment, dining, and lifestyle options are far more numerous.

But for the majority of future homeowners, future households, who need to get to work in the suburban office park where their employers have chosen to setup shop -- away from the enormous expense and hassle of running a major business in most of America's big cities -- the future is not New Urbanism, but New Suburbanism.


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