Stranded in Suburbia: Why Aren’t Americans Moving to the City?

by Greg Hanscom in a Grist cross-post

Somewhere on the way back to the city, Americans got sidetracked.

Polling by the real estate advising firm RCLCO finds that 88 percent of Millenials want to live in cities. Their parents, the Baby Boomers, also express a burning desire to live in denser, less car-dependent settings. But in the past decade, many major cities saw population declines, and the overwhelming majority of population growth was in the suburbs.

The trends have spawned stories like this one, from America’s Finest News Source, headlined, “Family Of Five Found Alive In Suburbs.”

BUFFALO GROVE, IL-The Holsapple family, long feared missing or spiritually dead, was found alive in the Chicago suburbs Monday, somehow managing to survive in the hostile environment for more than eight years.

Rescuers discovered the five-person clan after a survey plane spotted a crude signal fire the family had created in a barbecue grill.

All ended well for the Holsapple clan, thanks to paramedics who rushed them back to civilization, but what about the roughly 150 million other Americans who are still stranded out there, out by the mall, in all those creepy look-alike subdivisions?

As one commenter on this website recently wrote, “Saying people prefer living in suburbs in the new century is a bit like saying people really liked living in East St. Louis, Watts, or Oakland in the 1970s.”

Watts? Really? I mean, I know that the real estate crash hit some suburbs hard, but last time I ventured out past the city limits they had the rioting relatively under control. The gun battles in the streets were down to just a couple a day. Heck, you could still get a tank of gas for less than I pay for a bag of groceries at my neighborhood Whole Foods.

Methinks we may have jumped the gun on the whole collapse of the suburbs bit.

So what’s really up with Americans and our weird relationship with the city? There are a lot of explanations for the discrepancy between where we live and where we say we’d rather.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Boomers, watching their suburban real estate values balloon and their kids prepare to graduate from college, could imagine selling high, ditching the McMansion, and moving to a condo downtown. Then the bubble burst, and those plans were put on hold indefinitely.

For the Millenials, the showstopper was jobs, or lack thereof. They managed to survive the last few years of college, but lacking paying work in the city, they’ve moved back in with mom and dad. So now they’re all kicking it in the TV room back on Deerhaven Drive, watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia reruns and dreaming of big city living.

There are other factors that have slowed down the great urban migration that predate our recent economic woes: Crime rates are down nationwide, but that has done little to diminish the perception that cities are dark, violent places. Poverty, addiction, and blight still haunt many urban centers. Then there are the kids. The Millenials aren’t the first generation of young people to get all stoked about the city. The ones before them continue to pick up and leave as soon as Junior hits school age.

Of course, much of this is the result of ill-advised investment: We’ve poured money into unsustainable suburban development while starving the urban centers. (One writer on this website recently argued convincingly that subsidized sprawl is a giant Ponzi scheme.)

But I think there is a deeper force at work here. Here’s another headline that reads like it could have come out of the Onion: “Almost half of Americans want to live somewhere else.”

It’s actually from USA Today, and the accompanying story looks at a 2009 PEW Research Center poll that found that 46 percent of the public “would rather live in a different type of community from the one they’re living in now — a sentiment that is most prevalent among city dwellers.”

Among other things, the survey found that “Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal community type.” The respondents divided themselves about evenly between small towns, suburbs, rural areas, and cities.

Could it be that we’re just conflicted people? That we fantasize about doing one thing, but do something different entirely?

Listen, I don’t mean to belabor this point. This is all just to say that the urban renaissance is not fait accompli.

And that’s why, in the coming months, I’ll be exploring ways that we can nudge the great urban revival along. I’m going on the assumption that while Americans seem to have an ideal vision of urban living, the reality of it often fails to stack up to the fantasy. I also think that our discontent often fails to provide the motivation to change our less-than-ideal, but perfectly comfortable suburban way of living.

As University of Illinois-Chicago anthropologist Arthur Cox said of the Holsapple family, “Shocking as it is, one eventually becomes acclimated and then numbed to the theme restaurants, cinema multiplexes, and warehouse-sized grocery stores.”

Yes, it’s bad out there in the ‘burbs. But it’s not half bad enough.

Grist special projects editor Greg Hanscom has been editor of the award-winning environmental magazine High Country News and the Baltimore-based city mag, Urbanite. He tweets about cities and the environment at @ghanscom.

8 Responses to Stranded in Suburbia: Why Aren’t Americans Moving to the City?

  1. todd tanner says:

    At the risk of offending a fairly high percentage of the readership here, along with Greg Hanscom, the reason that we aren’t rushing to live in cities is that they, um, suck.

    Too many people. Not enough nature.

    Cities are a monoculture. The fact that they’re made up of people rather than corn or soybeans is essentially irrelevant. Why would you want to live in a monoculture when there are far more interesting habitats around? Why would you consciously sign up for a serious case of nature deficit disorder?

    The fact that we aren’t rushing to live in cities is a good thing. It speaks to an underlying sanity in our species. We need to spend more time in nature, and in natural places, not less.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    People like space, and rents per square foot are typically at least double in the cities. This is a product of bad land use planning and subsidized suburbanization, but we’re stuck with it for a while.

  3. Bill Goedecke says:

    I like living in the city. I live in San Francisco and it’s a fantastic place. Hardly a monoculture – but I take it that SF is pretty different than most American cities. Seattle is nice too. I lived in Atlanta and that wasn’t an enriching experience. I think it is more about the type of city – whether or not it is a walking city and has small shops. SF has lots of pedestrian traffic and mostly small shops. Atlanta, except for Decatur, is very car bound.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Can’t afford the gas to get there.

  5. Chad says:

    Actually, Mike, it is mostly due to real differences in construction cost. Typical suburban homes cost around $100/sqft, while mid-rises cost closer to $200/sqft and high rises around $400/sqft.

    This is mitigated by the fact, however, that you simply don’t need so many square feet when you live in the city. The city fills your life with plenty to do, so you don’t need all the junk that a typical suburbanite buys.

  6. Mutmansky says:

    While someone commented above on the costs, I don’t think that really makes it clear what the costs actually are. I live in the Pittsburgh area now. When my wife and I moved back from the DC area about ten years ago, we wanted to buy a townhouse in the city.

    We picked out a location where we felt crime was reasonably low. Not in downtown, but a short bike ride away. Walking distance to grocery store and my job (South Side neighborhood for anyone from PGH). All seemed good. 2 bedroom, 2 car garage townhouse: $300k+. We figured we would have to be a 2 income family indefinitely to be able to afford something like that. Not sure how it would have effected our family plans. We even put down a deposit, but eventually reconsidered. Ended up buying a 3 bedroom, 2 car garage house about 11 miles out from downtown for $157k.

    Recently I switched jobs to a company in the Squirrel Hill neighbor hood in Pittsburgh. Squirrel Hill has a small business district, but is mostly residential. Not far from the Universities in Pittsburgh, so it’s a highly desirable neighborhood in the city. This prompted my curiosity as to whether I might now be able to afford to live in the city. Passed a single family home in the neighborhood near work (walking distance). 4 bedroom, detached 2 car garage (a little bigger because I have 3 kids now). $415k.

    The economics make it impossible for me to consider living in the city. The schools would factor in too. I’m very happy with the public schools where I live now, but would at least have to consider private schooling in the city given the poor quality of the schools. There’s just no way a person can afford the same standard of living in the average American city. I hate to say it, but I think it’s true. To top it all off, Pittsburgh is considered a moderately to low priced city to live in. Imagine if I had stayed in the DC area!

  7. kermit says:

    I’ve lived in city, suburbs, and countryside. There’s a lot to be said for the city, especially for a young adult – so many things to do! Theater, social groups of many kinds, martial arts and sports, restaurants, etc. But my sweetie and I bought a house ten years ago in the suburbs at the edge of a small university city – three bedrooms and room to garden for $120,000 US. We’ll have the mortgage paid off in four years; I retire in five. A couple miles out in the country would be nice (bigger garden!). But somewhere between 5 and 25 years from now we won’t be able to drive safely, and could be seriously isolated, especially if there is stress or even breakdown of society (not so hard to imagine for readers of this blog). As it is, we are within a mile of a grocery store, a hardware store, various shops and even a dreadful big box store. But our neighborhood looks much like 1955, with kids playing in the streets and walking to school, and a park nearby. I’m not sure we would want to be in the city when things get really stressful. Cities are the rational way for modern humans to live, I think, but they are likely to be less friendly before they get better (if ever).

    Fresh from the garden tomatoes, on Soylent Green – yum!

  8. Lou Grinzo says:

    One of the most frustrating things I run into is my fellow enviros talking about urban/suburban issues. It’s frustrating because they so often fall in love with an idealized vision of city life (and a demonized view of life in the ‘burbs), and then ignore reality.

    In theory, living in the city is great, for all the obvious reasons. In practice, it’s often anything from a challenge to a nightmare, depending on things like housing costs, how lucky one is with the neighbor lottery, and a host of other local factors, nearly all of which are beyond a person’s control. How far do you have to travel to work (many jobs are in the ‘burbs now)? What’s it like getting into and out of the city at various times of day? How much gardening do you want to do? Is parking a problem (or merely insanely expensive) if your family has more than one car?

    And let us not forget one factor I keep bringing up: The trends of cheaper solar power and the electrification of transportation (EVs and PHEVs) make the ‘burbs more attractive. Suddenly, the per-mile cost of commuting will drop, and who has control over their own roof to install solar panels and drive their electricity costs even lower? People in the ‘burbs.

    I urge everyone talking about this topic to pay close attention to the details individuals face in making such decisions; it’s a much more complex problem than many know or are willing to admit.