“The End of the Suburbs”

The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher is a wonderfully accessible book for beginning urbanist that need grounding in the demographic trends that are creating opportunities for cities like Trenton.

Last year the Trenton Times carried a review of the book but it seems appropriate for Reinvent Trenton to add a few words.

Ms. Gallagher has honestly built her narrative of the drivers of new urbanism on the backs of authors that have come before her including Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida and James Howard Kunstler.   This is important for Trentonians attempting to come up to speed on the best thinking about what can drive Trenton’s growth.

The basic theme in Gallagher’s book is that fundamental demographics and attitudes are driving a shift back from suburban to urban living.  This is good news for cities and bad news for suburbs that have likely overextended their spending and debt.

The demographic trends involved include an older child bearing age, lower number of married couples and therefore fewer children.   This, coupled with a shift in attitude amongst millennials that shows a preference for urban living and against owning a car, has started a profound shift in American lifestyle.

The trend has been with us for many years says Gallagher but become most pronounced during the Great Recession that has left great swaths of suburban McMansions abandoned while home values in cities suffered only slightly.   In fact cities are now growing at a faster pace than suburbs and according to Gallagher, home builders like Toll Brothers, the Godfathers of the McMansion, have noticed.  Builders have shifted their efforts to building luxury condos, lofts and New Urbanist development that mimic older cities.

Cities like Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore have already felt the benefit.   New Jersey towns like New Brunswick, Montclair and even the post-Sandy Jersey Shore are being built with a New Urbanist feel.

The question for Trenton is will we lift a finger to ride this fundamental wave of migration?

For us it means pitching developers like Toll Brothers on our city, offering a sane development environment that works with developers instead of against them.  It includes a new tax structure.   It includes increasing our walkability, perhaps by rethinking our transit system in favor of trolleys.  And most of all it includes a small well-disciplined government that can support new development.

There are millions of young people living in our region who, given the opportunity to live in a great urban space would jump at it.   It’s up to Trenton to make help facilitate an environment that allows buyer and seller to come together.   We’re not there yet, but I can see Jane Jacobs vision of a city that constantly reinvents itself coming to life here.

I recommend The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher to Trentonians hoping to get an easy to read overview of our city’s possible future ($14 from Nook).

For me the other refreshing story here was who recommended the book to me.  I’ve read quite a few books on cities and have publicly bemoaned the fact that Trenton’s politicians appear to be under educated on the latest thinking.  However, in this case mayoral candidate Jim Golden recommend The End of the Suburbs and I jumped at the chance to read what was driving his thinking.

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One Response to ““The End of the Suburbs””

  • SFB:

    The thesis behind ‘The End of the Suburbs’ is fundamentally right (even if the book has an over-the-top title). People do want to live in walkable, amenity-rich environments. Long-term, this is excellent news for Trenton. New Brunswick is seeing a wave of reinvestment and reinvigoration through capturing the value of its walkable and transit-accessible downtown. Trenton could do the same, so why doesn’t it? Crime, corruption, and schools that are perceived as failing. But none of these things need be barriers to reinvestment.

    Not long ago, Washington DC was crippled by gang violence, lack of ratables (exacerbated by a large non-profit presence, aka the Federal Government), failing schools and white flight (or more correctly ‘flight-by-pretty-much-everybody-who-could-rub-two-dollar-bills-together’). The Mayor was also on crack (Marion Barry). But DC turned it around and attracted tens of thousands of new, tax-paying residents, fostered re-investment in neighborhoods, created great public spaces and started improving its schools. It has gone from being ‘The Murder Capital’ to one of the most attractive cities to live in in the country. This was made possible by a deliberate strategy of taking advantage of new urbanism, involving multiple partners (see for example http://www.brookings.edu/es/urban/gwrp/events/20030417_revitalizingdc.pdf). OK, ever-increasing Federal spending played a part too, but Trenton also sees plenty of tax dollars spin through without ever capturing much benefit from them.

    An urbanist plan could work in Trenton too, but it is not without challenges. Changing demographics and reinvestment inevitably brings out identity-based politics and accusations of favoritism. Another set of wingnuts will complain about ‘Agenda 21′. But Trenton should get the show on the road. The city has a great downtown and rail connections that could be attractive if they could just get a few things right.

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