Book Review: 'The End of the Suburbs,' by Leigh Gallagher


Suburbia has been a favorite whipping boy of urbane intellectuals, who have foretold its decline for decades. Leigh Gallagher's "The End of the Suburbs" is the latest addition to this tired but tireless genre. The book lacks the sparkling prose and original insights one could find in the works of, say, Jane Jacobs or Lewis Mumford. Indeed, Ms. Gallagher's book is little more than a distillation of the conventional wisdom that prevails at Sunday brunch in Manhattan.

The author restages many of the old anti-suburban claims, and her introduction's section headings easily give away the gist of the argument: "Millennials hate the burbs"; "Our households are shrinking"; "We are eco-obsessed"; "The suburbs are poorly designed to begin with"; and so on.

Ms. Gallagher, an editor at Fortune magazine, fails to persuade. For starters, her focus on the recent past distorts her argument. She starts with reporting about a dismal home-building conference in Orlando in early 2012, when the housing market was still close to its post-bubble nadir. She portrays those dark times as the harbinger of a new reality that will see suburban living fade away. She quotes real-estate economist Robert Schiller saying that suburban home prices won't recover "in our lifetime." But given that prices have indeed risen, and are now reaching precrash levels in some markets, such predictions should be viewed skeptically.

There isn't much room for contrarian viewpoints here. All the usual anti-suburbanite suspects are marshaled to support the book's thesis: Al Gore suggests suburbs will die because they aren't green enough; the critic James Howard Kunstler makes exaggerated claims about how "peak oil"—the notion that we are running out of fossil fuels and that their cost will skyrocket—will bankrupt suburbanites; other experts claim that young people will desert suburbia for their entire lifetimes and that empty-nesters will abandon their stale suburban lives in favor of urban density.

Today barely 11% of Americans live in densities of more than 10,000 people per square mile, which is about the level of an inner-ring San Fernando Valley suburb, one-seventh of the Manhattan level and almost one-third of the five boroughs. Four out of five prospective home buyers in the U.S. prefer single-family houses, according to a 2011 survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors and the advocacy group Smart Growth America. In short, most of America isn't about to densify itself along Gothamite, or even Los Angeles, lines.

The author ignores most of these findings. She believes cities are poised to become the main beneficiaries of the suburban decline she projects. "To see that cities are resurgent centers of wealth and culture, all you need to do is set foot in one," she writes. To be sure, some American urban centers, most notably New York, San Francisco and Washington, have experienced modest population growth over the past decade or two, although still well below the national average. And even in these cities, there are many neighborhoods that sophisticated urbanites wouldn't really want to "set foot in." In newly hip, and now increasingly expensive, Brooklyn, nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. The borough's artisanal cheese shops and trendy restaurants are charming, but one in four Brooklynites receives food stamps. The urban renaissance is even less obvious in places like St. Louis, Cleveland and Detroit, which have lost residents in significant numbers over the past decade and whose gentrified zones are tiny.

Having misunderstood the past, Ms. Gallagher is likely off in her predictions of a high-density future. She insists that young people overwhelmingly want to live "in urban areas and don't want to own a car." But most millennials entering their 30s, according to surveys, are likely to get married and eventually have children. That is when they will start to seek out single-family houses in lower-density areas. They may well experience suburbia differently than their parents. More of them will work at home or close to home, or drive fuel-efficient cars on their commutes. Even so, most aging millennials can be expected to seek out homes in affordable areas with decent schools, meaning either the suburbs of older cities or lower-cost, economically vibrant regions like the Southeast, the Gulf Coast or the Mountain West.

Much the same can be said about the other key emerging demographic group, immigrants and their offspring. Nationwide over the past decade, the Asian population in suburbs grew by almost 2.8 million, or 53%, while that of core cities grew 770,000, or 28%. In Los Angeles, the region with the nation's largest Asian population, the suburbs added roughly five times as many Asians as the core city.

One reason: Immigrants are more likely to have families than the native-born. They don't share the conviction, held by many anti-suburbanites such as Ms. Gallagher, that we are seeing "the end of the nuclear family." The family, like suburbia, has been written off numerous times. But as Margaret Mead once observed, it "always comes back." High-density cities generally repel families, and they aren't conducive to middle-class aspirations. In New York City and Los Angeles, for example, the homeownership rate is 20% less than the national figure of 65%. Things are even worse for working-class and minority households. Metropolitan Atlanta's African-American homeownership rate is approximately 40% above those of San Jose and Los Angeles, approximately 50% higher than Boston's, San Francisco's and Portland's, and nearly 60% higher than New York's.

Many of those migrating to Atlanta, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and other low-density, lower-cost cities come from denser, more expensive areas. Between 2000 and 2010, 1.9 million net domestic migrants left the New York area, 1.3 million left Los Angeles and 340,000 left San Francisco, while 230,000 left San Jose and Boston, according to Census Bureau data. The death of the suburbs may suggest a pleasant prospect for the New York and D.C. urbanist crowd, but for most, the American dream remains a suburban one. As long as the American family and the national aspiration for a better life persist, the suburbs are likely to retain their pre-eminent role.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal.

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Cough, cough

"But most millennials entering their 30s, according to surveys, are likely to get married and eventually have children. That is when they will start to seek out single-family houses in lower-density areas."

Don't bet on it.

" the American dream remains a suburban one."

Albeit, a much poorer one.

Causation runs both ways

Causation runs both ways.

A higher cost of housing relative to incomes is a cause of people having less children and indeed of living in smaller homes. Look at the UK.

Add economic stagnation during which housing refuses to become affordable regardless, and of course there will be another drop in child-bearing AND an increased association of poverty with "having children".

The exception in the UK is of course Welfare Queens who get provided "social" housing just as large as necessary to accommodate their ever-growing brood at taxpayer's expense. Growing resentment among people who actually pay their own way has to result in reform of this.