Review: The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City


Is gentrification the “fifth great migration,” that will fill old downtowns with upper-middle-class white folks, while the tract mansions of the outer ring become slums for immigrants? So suggests Alan Ehrenhalt, the former executive editor of Governing magazine. In The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, he proposes that a demographic shift is under way that is reversing generations of suburbanization and white flight.

This book will gain Ehrenhalt nothing but friends, admirers, and speaking engagements among the New Urbanist set, just as Richard Florida, perhaps today’s best-known urban theorist, has made a good living with his work. Ehrenhalt believes that “the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the 20th century is coming to an end.” Soon, he predicts, scarcely anyone “will be buying large, detached single family houses 30 miles from the city limits.” And, more specifically, “Chicago in 2030 will look more like the Paris of 1910 than like the Detroit of 1970.”

As corroboration of this vision of the future, he notes the undeniable fact that the ’burbs have not been lily white for decades. Their good jobs, good schools, property values, and low crime rates continue to attract great numbers of hard-working, middle-class Africa Americans and immigrants. Meanwhile, as some inner-city neighborhoods become safer, they are drawing the market segment that developers refer to as “the risk oblivious.” Often, these are intrepid young white people without school-age children who recognize that it was always nuts to ignore the marvelous real estate near the old downtowns. Frequently, they are followed by the somewhat less adventurous and more affluent.

For those of us who have long admired Ehrenhalt’s astuteness, however, this book’s theme is undercut by some real head scratchers: His “great inversion” thesis isn’t supported by the 2010 Census data, the location of high paying white-collar jobs, or the rise of the Internet as a social and economic force.

As demographer Wendell Cox and others have noted, suburbs are capturing a growing share of the population increase in the nation’s major metropolitan areas. “Historical core municipalities accounted for nine percent of metropolitan area growth between 2000 and 2010,” Cox writes, “compared to 15 percent in the 1990–2000 period. Overall, suburban areas captured 91 percent of metropolitan area population growth between 2000 and 2010, compared to 85 percent between 1990 and 2000.”

The old real estate mantra “location, location, location” applies to American jobs, too. If you imagined the map of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area as a waiter’s tray, with each white-collar job assigned the same weight, you’d discover that the balance point was just east of the “edge city” of Tysons Corner in Fairfax County, Virginia. New residential areas such as wealthy Loudoun County, Virginia, are booming because of their proximity to concentrations of high-paying jobs around Dulles International Airport, Reston, Fair Oaks, and Tysons. People living in these areas can go years without visiting the District of Columbia, much less commuting to it.

Because the Internet is, in effect, a transportation device, it is transforming the built environment. There are nearly 100 classes of real estate—including grocery stores, warehouses, and offices—from which cities are built, noted the late urban theorist William J. Mitchell of MIT. All are being transfigured more swiftly and dramatically than they were by the rise of the automobile.

In addition, the Internet is, counterintuitively, putting a new value on face-to-face contact. This has led to the rise of village-like places where people can easily meet. Some are embedded in old downtowns—the sort of places Ehrenhalt cites, such as Chicago’s University Village. Some are part of what traditionally have been regarded as suburbs. But the fastest-growing segment consists of places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico. Home to a world-renowned opera, charming architecture, distinguished restaurants, quirky bookstores, sensational desert and mountain vistas, and a great deal of diversity, Santa Fe, with a population of 68,000, is also little more than a village, far from the nearest metropolis. It represents aggregation and dispersal.

If and when real estate begins to increase in value, it may be instructive to look at the metropolitan areas that were appreciating fastest before the recent crash. Number one was Wenatchee, Washington. On the dry, east side of the Cascade Range, it has lots of sunshine, great skiing, and beautiful views, and thus attracted a lot of hip people who brought with them the arts, cafés and restaurants, and increased educational opportunities. Then came the Seattle-area software people, who extended their outdoorsy weekends using cell phones and laptops to stay in touch with the office, eventually moving there and starting their own businesses. Almost the entire top-20 list of fast appreciating metro areas similarly became urbane without really becoming urban.

Ehrenhalt is absolutely correct that “we are moving toward a society in which millions of people with substantial earning power or ample savings will have the option of living wherever they want.” Whether that choice will amount to a great inversion, in which the roles of cities and suburbs “will very nearly reverse themselves,” remains to be seen.

© 2012 Joel Garreau as first published in The Wilson Quarterly.

Joel Garreau’s is the Lincoln Professor of Law, Culture, and Values at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and aFuture Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation. His books include Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (1991) and Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human (2005). He is Director of “The Prevail Project: Wise Governance for Challenging Futures.”


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