Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review: The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher

In The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher makes the argument that the suburban mode of development reached its peak in the 1990s and 2000s and we it has begun its decline as the monolithic form of the built environment. As Gallagher makes clear in her conclusion, the suburbs aren't really over. With millions of homes built in the suburban style and millions of Americans still enamoured with the vision of a big house on a piece of land it will likely always remain. However, the author argues, alternative modes of living are becoming more dominant and reflect a sea change. 

Many of the economic and social factors that created the suburbs are in decline or in reverse. It's probably fair to say that we are in the third (maybe fourth?) generation  of the suburbs. The logic that created the first few versions of the suburbs have broken down. The initial suburbs were directly alongside the central city. The inner ring of suburbs that developed next were often serviced with public transit and were dense and walkable. However for the second, third, and fourth generation of suburbs prospective homebuyers were driven further into former agricultural areas along freeways. It seems though that the suburban experiment in the 1990s began to reach a point of diminishing returns. Commutes got longer and longer and prices kept climbing. Gallagher writes that many point to the mortgage crisis and high gas prices for killing suburbs, but the truth is that urban property values began to climb again (after decades of decline) in the 1980s.

The cars that promised liberty were transforming into prisons as millions of North Americans trapped themselves for hours a day grinding their ways between work and home. The demographic explosion that justified the suburbs, the Baby Boom, is much diminished. Birth rates have cratered. There is far less need for properties for kids to play in with many bedrooms when fewer people are coupling and having children.

The End of the Suburbs reads like a very long article as it is written in an accessible, casual way, which makes sense given that the author is a journalist. The author conducts interviews that demonstrate many of the failings of suburban life, and contrasts them with people proposing, building or living alternatives. A number of big developers appear in the book, which gives a clear example of how the market is transforming on the demand and supply sides.

There is a slim undercurrent in the book that suggests what is emerging is suburban-like cities and city-like suburbs. I had similar thinking looking at some of the 'new hip' neighbourhoods of Toronto, like Liberty Village. All the chains and wealth of the suburbs have been poured into condominiums and boutiques offering faux-authentic brick even though it's the same chain from the strip mall in the 'burbs.

I think Gallagher does a convincing job laying out the case that the unending sprawl is going to slow down, if not come to an end. But, what will take its place isn't the past but some hybrid of urban and suburban living. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in the future of the suburbs and the housing market. It is entirely accessible to a lay audience but sophisticated enough for people well versed in the subject.


Jared Milne said...

Devil's Advocate on suburbia here:

I've always resented the undercurrent of disdain I've seen for the suburbs in a lot of media, disparaging it as bland, conformist, boring, oppressive, hypocritical, etc., as compared to the supposedly more energetic, vibrant and good downtown cities, especially the trend related to "smart growth" and the attendant implication that other types of growth aren't smart.

The thing is, there are some people like me who find the suburbs peaceful and relaxing. Sitting in my backyard reading some books with no one else around is a wonderful way to unwind, and I have always found the trees, flowers and other elements that people put in as part of decorating their lawns to be very beautiful in their own right. I know some people say there's nothing to do in the suburbs, but I can just as easily give myself things to do.

Similarly, what some people would find trendy, hip and exciting about downtown neighbourhoods I would find more noisy and suffocating. Those nightclubs, cultural festivals and other things don't necessarily appeal to me that much.

I am not disparaging the value of downtown communities, or the appeal of people who enjoy living in such surroundings. If it makes them happy, so much the better-it's just that I, and many other people, feel the same way about their suburban neighbourhoods. They, and the people living in them, are no more uniform than anybody who lives downtown.

SJL said...

Thanks for your feedback Jared. I would be extremely curious what you would make of this book if you read it. The author grew up in Suburbia and appreciates the appeal. Her concluding chapter ties the ideas of suburbia with current trends well.

I myself grew up in and currently live in a suburb. I think one of the issues is the diminishing returns and structural problems with low-density sprawl. Alternatives to sprawl aren't just high rises in the inner city, look at old medium and small cities. I think it is about a built environment more consistent with its population.