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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Frank Duffy

Check out the work of British architect Frank Duffy for a skeptical view on the relevance of high density structures to the future of humanity.

not going to happen

It is not just the schools. The social classes are moving farther apart in America and people with money and education are not going to subject themselves to the problems of the underclass. There are not enough yuppies to save Detroit or any other city.

Except IT IS happening

Certain cities, such as Seattle, Atlanta, Portland, Boston, are doing a MARVELOUS job revitalizing themselves, and it mostly is yuppies, people who benefit from the cheap rents that dilapidated neighborhoods give, love the quirky and eccentric services and curiosities nearby and want a short commute and have no special need for healthcare or good schools, who revitalize these places. Knight Park in Atlanta, Georgetown in Seattle, various areas of Portland and the areas along the River Charles in Boston are all perfect examples of neighborhoods remaking themselves.

Yet the statistics show that, nationwide, this is not the trend, because for every Atlanta, Seattle, Portland or Boston getting better, there is a Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Newark falling deeper in to despair. So what makes the difference?

The difference is economics. Seattle has a splendid manufacturing and high-tech sector, building everything from microchips and software to Kenworth trucks, Boeing airplanes, and ship engines. Portland until very recently was the Semiconductors Kingpin, and is still one of Americas top seaports at the center of the Columbia-Willamette-Snake inland seaway. Atlanta is a growing center of consulting and engineering and the center of the North American air grid, while Atlanta banks have been a port in the storm. Boston is the best there is at high tech industry, and the most affordable and economically stable Northeastern city. Portland has suffered bad times recently however, so how much longer they will continue to improve themselves is anyones guess. Meanwhile, Detroit continues to ruin businesses with both bad culture and bad economic policy, Los Angeles and San Francisco are in California, and Newark is the victim of Americas most destructive welfare state. Good planning, although useful, is not enough - you must also have a good economy overall.

Aint gonna happen

This is not going to happen as long as the public schools in the city suck.

This is not going to happen because most people want some land.

My view as an old white person whose kid has moved out and loves living in the city.

Dave Barnes

Bachelors don't need public

Bachelors don't need public schools, nor do families interested in sending their children to private schools.

Actually the book claims a back to the future moment

Recall before the coming of the street car (and subway) that downtown was where the rich lived and the further away from downtown you lived the poorer you were. Based upon information from the City of the Century on Chicago, once the electric street car arrived then there was an inversion where places like Hyde Park where Obama's house is. Between the street cars and the steam railroads cities spread out with tentacles. Fill in was accomplished with the coming of the auto.

Spokane - home of the poor people

One thing that may happen too is the exodus of the poor and even middle class to smaller cities where living costs are much lower and freight congestion for manufacturing is less severe. Many services may be provided with a small central office in the big city right near the airport where handfuls of workaholics and a much larger group of rich have their offices to skidaddle to somewhere halfway around the globe or a smaller city for 75% of their workweek, at the optimal location for skidaddling, and a "transportation class", almost entirely bachelors, remains in the big cities to service the freight that flows through them and needs that are too geographic in nature to be served elsewhere.