Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City

On my Facebook comment thread about the new rent vs buy equation, folks mentioned The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City as a good book about the new urbanism and the desire of young white people to live in cities. The Sunnyvale Library had it available for a Kindle checkout, so I got instant gratification.

The book's thesis is that wealthy, affluent white people are going to move into the big cities, while poor black people, Hispanics, and Asians are going to be stuck out in the suburbs. In one section of the book, he claims that Chicago in the 2020s is going to much more like Paris than it would be like Chicago in the 1970s. Hence, the term "Great Inversion".

The crux of the argument lies amongst several factors:
  1. Suburbs are designed for cars and do not have a bustling enough street life.
  2. The children who grew up in the suburbs and cul de sacs have all grown up and moved to big cities in order to go to school, and now would rather stay in the big cities.
  3. People are getting married later, and having children later.
  4. Only 25% of households by 2030 will even have children, which is way down from previous decades.
The net result is a ton of single people who would find city living attractive, despite the relatively high crime (which is declining, but nowhere near as safe as major European or Asian cities) , expensive property prices, and noise. Pollution near cities has become a thing of the past due to the loss of America actually manufacturing anything.

The book then visits several cities or cities in the making, and we a grand tour of Wall Street's recent change into a residential neighborhood, Houston's increasing density, Phoenix's repeated failures to get a genuine downtown area, despite wishing fervently for one, and Denver's experiments with urban areas. Nowhere is the Bay Area explored, which I found disappointing since the gentrification in San Francisco is currently a hot button issue here, and I'd love to find out what Ehrenhalt thinks would happen there.

One thing in  common, however, is that none of the suburban "in-fill" attempts to create a city-like area out of a suburban area have worked, or achieved what's considered a traditional cityscape with residential, retail, and offices all intermingled with mixed use and high pedestrian traffic being the norm. This is not surprising: the car is all important in the suburbs, and it would take a brave developer to risk alienating Americans' love affair with the car.

Undermining Ehrenhalt's predictions are the polls that he quotes. For instance, early in the book he says as much as 41% of young people want to live in a city, but they still expect full use of a car. Fundamentally, cities like San Francisco have such poor public transportation systems that you'd still need a car to go anywhere interesting. Either that, or you'll need to have an employer sponsored bus. This says to me that American cities just aren't there yet, and getting there would take enormous political will that I just don't see happening in the near future.

Ehrenhalt acknowledges that significance of public transit and transportation in all the success stories. Chicago in particular had several neighborhoods exploded in popularity mostly because of the presence of good transit.

What about schools? Urban city schools have particularly poor reputations in California. Ehrenhalt takes a 2 prong approach to this. First, he claims that city dwellers mostly aren't the type to have children anyway. Secondly, he suggests that schools becoming good are the last step in the inversion process. In other words, the demographics of wealthy, white people gentrifying the inner city will drive school scores up as the last step of the process. I'm particularly skeptical of the latter argument, since my experience with wealthy white people in San Francisco is that they just send their kids to private school. Heck, even in Palo Alto where the public schools have a great reputation, wealthy white people seem to do that anyway.

Ultimately though, Ehrenhalt's biggest weakness is that he's extrapolating the recent past into the future. It's quite conceivable, for instance, that the introduction of the self-driving car and electronically controlled traffic could essentially turn public streets and highways into the ultimate public transit system. If those become mainstream, it could very well be that suburbs once again become desirable, since you now have easy access to all the amenities of a city, while still having a bigger home with access to open spaces for kids to play with, or for cycling, hiking, etc.

In any case, Ehrenhalt's right, then the anti-gentrification San Francisco activists definitely have a lot to be worried about. As for myself, I look forward to the day when it would be possible to ride a bike in San Francisco and park a bike outside a restaurant for a meal (or watch a movie or play) without it getting stolen. Without that condition, city life has no appeal whatsoever to me, and American cities are nowhere close to that.

The book comes recommended as interesting reading that's thought provoking. For me, the biggest weakness is that it gets very dreary after a while if you're not a city lover --- after a while, all the big cities just blur together. And seriously, I still have a hard time wondering how anybody can like Paris. It's a boring city that no longer has very good food, and has lousy cycling (though the motorists aren't nearly as hostile as those in San Francisco).
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