The Great Inversion, Alan Ehrenhalt’s excellent new book, presents the changes the changes occurring to our cities and suburbs in a highly readable and understandable way. It may be odd to absorb the notion that American cities are becoming more like Europe, but Ehrenhalt makes a convincing argument. The “inversion” is resulting in more people moving to closer-in neighborhoods with re-emerging streetlife, with more poor and immigrant populations settling in suburbs.
It is layered and nuanced to be sure; Ehrenhalt points out straightaway that census numbers alone are “a blunt instrument” for measuring the migration patterns in the United States. The inversion can occur even if the city as a whole is shrinking. He isn’t arguing that cities are expanding and suburbs are contracting, or that everyone wants to live downtown, but rather he’s exploring and illustrating changes along ethnic, racial and class lines occurring in individual city and suburban neighborhoods across the country.
He takes us to suburban and diversifying Gwinnett County outside Atlanta, the gentrifying Sheffield neighborhood in Chicago, the Third Ward in Houston and the urbanizing suburbs of Denver to illustrate the various mechanisms that are changing our cities.
How Americans live may be the biggest driver of the inversion. Households are becoming smaller, with single-person households outstripping families with children. He believes the inversion will be led more by the emerging cohort of young persons creating households (and choosing the city in large numbers) and by immigrants (choosing primarily the suburbs) than by older generations suddenly deciding urban life is for them.
In suburban Denver Ehrenhalt shows us how Stapleton (actually within the Denver city limits), Belmar and CityCenter are evidence of how suburbs want to urbanize. He points out, quite rightly, that suburbs will never truly urbanize without density, and for all the pleasant suburban retrofits we’ve seen, perhaps none are dense enough to support a mix of uses by and for themselves. That said, he (perhaps unjustly) criticizes big box development that leverages CityCenter Englewood and Stapleton, for example, failing to point out that in both cases the big box centers that include the usual suspects (WalMart, etc.) are actually built on blocks that can be redeveloped in the future. Essentially they are placeholders for future urbanity that provided cash for today’s suburban retrofits nearby. Perhaps someday they too will urbanize at sufficient urban densities, although neither I nor I suspect Ehrenhalt are holding our breath.
Ehrenhalt gives us a lot to chew on in The Great Inversion. He is obviously an advocate for good urbanism but doesn’t come across as having an agenda. He frequently cites the merits of the work of Leinberger, Duany, Glaeser, Rybczynski, Florida and Kotkin, but balances it with incisive census analysis and some very insightful firsthand observation. He does an excellent job of explaining how things are in urban and suburban America right now. Perhaps more importantly, he gives us one of the better looks in to the future, citing clear demand for more urbanism or at least “some form of midlevel urban experience” that includes a degree of walkability, transit access and sense of place. Technology has allowed us to be anywhere or nowhere, but Ehrenhalt notes that we are still humans and desire a place to gather together, or in other words, urbanity.
I recommend The Great Inversion to everyone in the real estate development and urban planning and design industry, as well as (perhaps especially) policy-makers. Although complex, it is highly readable and interesting throughout, and is a rare book on urbanism that the general public can also digest without the need to understand our jargon or without having to be completely geeked out by this stuff. Read it now.
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