Leigh Gallagher's key accomplishment
with this book is its cover: a bold, red sign
sticking out from a suburban roadway
announcing "The END of the SUBURBS."
This visual statement should provoke curiosity, but then the
idea that a book could be published that presents
such a provocative
image and then follows up with a solid argument for
why such a symbol is justified is remarkable.
Certainly, it has been 20 years since James Howard Kunstler's
The Geography Of Nowhere,
but the notion that suburbia has a limit
seems to be just now entering mainstream thought from
a writer of Gallagher's pedigree.
While Gallagher marshals a variety of trends,
interviews, and prior literature together to support her thesis, she
stops short of delving beneath the surface of her argument or
questioning the political and economic influences
that built the suburbs
(see Dead End).
Most importantly, these influencers
may very well make sure that suburbia stays dominant
into the future, despite what Gallagher observes in this book.
The main points of Gallagher's thesis are well-supported and expanded
upon throughout the book:
- Demographic change shows slower growth in the suburbs and faster growth
in cities (p. 14) as well as shrinking household size (p. 19).
- Home values in cities weathered the housing bust better than suburban prices (pp. 15-16).
- Building permits have increased in cities and have been reduced in suburbs (p. 16).
- Poverty and crime have grown in some suburbs while being reduced in cities (p. 17).
- Cities are cool again: people seem attracted to cities (p. 18-19) and in particular millennials (those born between 1977 and 1995) seem to prefer cities (p. 19).
- Higher gas prices increase the costs of commuting to remote suburbs (p. 21).
- Lower-density suburban development is inherently cost-prohibitive, particularly as infrastructure ages (p. 22).
"The new homes and communities being planned for the next phase of our development will be better suited to our needs... They will reduce our dependency on the car... be developed around places where people can naturally interact... be located closer to where we work and closer to things we need, which will give us more time ... [and ultimately] more choice, more freedom, and richer lives." (pp. 25-26).
While Gallagher's able defense
of these points makes for a valuable book, she
gets something wrong which really bothered me.
Her breezy dismissal of the growth of
the suburbs as reflecting "a free market... and suburban living is
what many people choose" (p. 196). This notion that the burbs are
a free market choice has been widely discredited
elsewhere--see, just for starters:
How Cities Work,
The Wealth Of Cities,
Simply put, subsidies for automobiles,
cheap gas prices, and low gas taxes,
the manipulation of codes and zoning (see, for
example The High Cost of Free Parking) have made
the so-called "free" market for choice in the suburban
versus urban landscape anything but free.
The idea that suburbs represent a free
market choice is simply not defensible.
More importantly, the political influencers
and organizations that set up these subsidies
are still in place. Gallagher doesn't examine these groups and forces,
and her dismissal of the emergence of suburbia as "free market" gives only
an incorrect surface impression of the story.
(Gallagher also got the definition of peak
oil wrong on page 23, and this is
not some trivial mistake.
There are grave implications for oil production and costs
in the future, as oil is literally the fuel of the suburbs.
Even though the concept of "peak oil" as a valid observation
is under severe attack now--it is under attack by the
same sorts of people who denied a that housing bubble existed
Gallagher's main strength is bringing together
a survey of literature (actually, many key books she cites are listed
along with their authors
in the review quotes on the back cover and first inside pages of her book)
and concepts to show there is change happening now which is not theoretical, but actual and observed, and that the unwinding of these changes will be complex.