Families bike together in Portland, by Steven Vance via Flicker
According to the 2011 census estimates, for the first since 1920—nearly a century—cities are growing more than suburbs. A recent study shows 77% of millennials want to live in the urban core. 28 year-old Denver resident, Jaclyn King said, “I will never live in the suburbs… I just like being connected to everything down here—concerts, work, restaurants, all of it. This is where everything's at.” Boomers are empty nesting and want lifestyles to go with it. The economy is reinforcing these decisions with the overhang of private debt, affordable units to rent, public transportation, and with jobs clustered around cities.
A hundred years ago, cities were considered unclean, crowded, and unsafe. The first wave of suburbanites, professionals and upper-middle class families, sought respite from the teaming cities. Now suburbs are surpassing cities in the number of low-income inhabitants.
Businesses and metropolitan governments are responding by investing in multifamily developments and features of walkable urbanism—“pedestrian walkways... bicycle lanes[,] and a variety of sidewalk cafes and restaurants.” With less people driving and more people sharing the costs of infrastructure, urban growth is also more sustainable and efficient.
Still, a century of suburban-oriented policy has placed large obstacles in front of cities. Better schools, subsidies, investment mechanisms, and tax breaks provide deep structural reasons for continued suburban development. Housing starts are still a fundamental indicator of U.S. economic health.
It’s time for a rethink and for a broader restructuring. The financial crisis of 2008—triggered by an oversupply of housing—demonstrated the limits of suburban-oriented development. The costs are mounting with lower-quality homes, high energy consumption, social segregation, degraded infrastructure, and poor health.
With the built environment worth $70 trillion or thirty-five percent of the U.S. economy, if we fix it, we will have put in the foundational building blocks to get the economy back on track, out of the recession, and aligned with consumer demand for the next fifty years.
The demand is already there, but reorienting the built environment toward walkable urbanism means changing federal, state, and local policies. Led by large cities in regional corridors, the broad outlines for smart growth in the United States can be spurred on by blueprints for infrastructure and targets for reduced vehicle miles and energy transmission. Transportation legislation needs to shift provisions and funding for highways to rail, bus, air, inland water, bicycle, and pedestrian transportation. Housing finance needs to be scaled back for investments in the suburbs and financial institutions need to build funding conduits to the cities.
Abroad, a restored built environment in the U.S. economy would lead to changing relationships and greater influence for the U.S. A recent UNICEF report stated, “Already, half of all people live in urban areas. By mid-century, over two thirds of the global population will call these places home.”
Emerging powers like India and China and their neighbors will look for strategic relationships with countries that lead in developing sustainable built environments. In the mid-20th century, the U.S. leveraged its industrial might to act as the “arsenal of democracy” to states fighting against the Axis powers, and to bolster Western Europe against the Soviet Union. As the source of sustainable growth, the U.S. can strengthen its position vis-a-vis the global challenges driving the decisions of major world actors in the decades ahead.