By Annette Hinkle
The suburbs have long been the epitome of the American Dream. Tidy houses, neat lawns, happy children playing with other happy children and a good sized garage for a car (or two…or three).
But in reality, suburbs and their attraction as a way of life have changed in the years since the Cleavers lived next door. Today, suburban living can mean a hellish commute, lack of community and lost family time… even the kids have fled, leaving suburbia to their graying parents. And while much of the loss in suburban appeal can be traced to the housing crisis which left half finished subdivisions all over the country, that’s only part of the story.
The truth is, suburbia began waning as a way of life long before questionable mortgage practices came along.
The demise of suburbia is a topic that intrigues author Leigh Gallagher, an assistant managing editor at Fortune who has written “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving.” The book, which came out in early August, takes an in depth look at the social, demographic and economic forces feeding the next generation’s desire to downsize to communities where amenities, public transportation and neighbors are all close at hand.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have a lot of nostalgia for a lifestyle that doesn’t exist,” notes Gallagher referring to adults who had idyllic childhoods in the suburbs. “I like writing about societal trends rooted in economic data. I started seeing census data that said cities are growing faster than suburbs.”
“I thought it was really fascinating,” she adds. “We all know what suburbia means in America and the cultural place it has in society. More than just a justification of a way of life, it’s the American Dream. And if that’s changing, it’s a big idea.”
This Saturday, Gallagher will be at Canio’s Books to discuss the topic of suburbia. It’s an appropriate venue given that Gallagher wrote part of her book during a two-month stay in Sag Harbor, a place that embodies much of the attraction of older communities created on a human scale.
Gallagher notes suburbia, in and of itself, wasn’t a bad idea. The first examples were built before cars and located near cities, anchored by a train station with homes and apartments close to a Main Street. In other words, the entire community was accessible by foot, because that was the way people got around.
Then came the car and Americans discovered freedom, expanding far into rural areas where cheap post World War II housing (starting with Levittown) was built for returning soldiers and their burgeoning families.
And we never looked back.
Gallagher notes the car “unhooked” our need to be within walking distance of our daily lives. Housing developments became just that — single family dwellings linked to other developments of single family dwellings via busy feeder and arterial roads. Those roads delivered residents to shopping malls or directed them to the highways that would take them back to the cities for work. Kids boarded buses to centralized schools and downtown became a memory.
“Then we went too far,” says Gallagher, referring to the suburban expansion of recent decades as more people sought out the American Dream of home ownership. “We supersized suburbs. People who could least afford it were going the furthest.”
They were also spending more time in their cars than being physically and socially active with friends and family.
“A lot of this is about time – while I was writing this book, a couple people said ‘You can buy anything you want, but you can’t by time,’” explains Gallagher. “I thought I would find more defenders of suburbia than I did. But a lot of people seem to be on this side of the argument.”
While opinions and anecdotes about suburban living tell part of the story, Gallagher notes statistics fill in the details.
“We can talk about how poorly designed suburbs are and that they’re not healthy, but there are also demographic forces you can’t fight,” says Gallagher. “There has been a very steep decline in suburban populations where there are now more baby boomers and seniors.”
“On top of that you have the whole play date culture, the serendipitous nature of going outside and finding friends is gone,” she adds.
Then there’s the driving. The suburbs are based on a model of cheap gas and Gallagher has found many people who opted to drive 20 or 30 miles further in order to buy a cheaper and bigger home without realizing the true cost in terms of gas and time.
Meanwhile, Gallagher notes urban areas are booming, especially among singles and young families who have fewer children and don’t need big houses (just look at places like Williamsburg or even Jersey City). As post-war model suburbs flounder, urban areas and first generation suburbs from the late 19th and early 20th century centered around downtowns and train lines are now in high demand.
“We’re seeing a lot of data that older suburbs are increasing in value and even studies that link the age of a community to the happiness and health of residents,” says Gallagher. “Those types of suburbs were built on a different blueprint and different DNA, and that DNA makes for a richer community. It’s what makes them look and feel totally different than newer suburbs.”
And the latest incarnation of the suburb is one built on urban models with mixed use zoning and walkable commercial centers.
“Housing starts are coming back, but much of it is focused on multi family housing — apartments with four units or more,” explains Gallagher.
Which begs the question, what happens now to all that suburban housing stock out in the hinterland?
“Many experts believe we’re sowing the seeds for a big imbalance,” says Gallagher. “A lot of people are aging in place. But when the baby boomers vacate their homes in the suburbs there’s not going to be a market to take over the homes they’ll be vacating. There’s a real argument that those homes won’t be suitable for the next generation.”
The answer for some subdivisions — especially bank owned properties — has already been the bulldozer. But if the trends Gallagher shares in her book play out, we may just see rising in their place a totally new kind of suburban development.
And this time around, it may look surprisingly like what we already have right here in Sag Harbor.
Leigh Gallagher will be at Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor on Saturday, August 31 at 5 p.m. to discuss “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving.” In the meantime, check out the walkability rating of communities across the country (including Sag Harbor) by visiting walkscore.com.