The suburban transformation that began in 1946, as GIs returned home, took almost half a century to complete, as first people, then retail, then jobs moved out of cities and into new subdivisions, malls, and office parks. As families decamped for the suburbs, they left behind out-of-fashion real estate, a poorer residential base, and rising crime. Once-thriving central-city retail districts were killed off by the combination of regional suburban malls and the 1960s riots. By the end of the 1970s, people seeking safety and good schools generally had little alternative but to move to the suburbs. In 1981, Escape From New York, starring Kurt Russell, depicted a near future in which Manhattan had been abandoned, fenced off, and turned into an unsupervised penitentiary.
Cities, of course, have made a long climb back since then. Just nine years after Russell escaped from the wreck of New York, Seinfeld—followed by Friends, then Sex and the City—began advertising the city’s renewed urban allure to Gen-Xers and Millennials. Many Americans, meanwhile, became disillusioned with the sprawl and stupor that sometimes characterize suburban life. These days, when Hollywood wants to portray soullessness, despair, or moral decay, it often looks to the suburbs—as The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives attest—for inspiration.
In the past decade, as cities have gentrified, the suburbs have continued to grow at a breakneck pace. Atlanta’s sprawl has extended nearly to Chattanooga; Fort Worth and Dallas have merged; and Los Angeles has swung a leg over the 10,000-foot San Gabriel Mountains into the Mojave Desert. Some experts expect conventional suburbs to continue to sprawl ever outward. Yet today, American metropolitan residential patterns and cultural preferences are mirror opposites of those in the 1940s. Most Americans now live in single-family suburban houses that are segregated from work, shopping, and entertainment; but it is urban life, almost exclusively, that is culturally associated with excitement, freedom, and diverse daily life. And as in the 1940s, the real-estate market has begun to react.
Pent-up demand for urban living is evident in housing prices. Twenty years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today, it carries an enormous price premium. Per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more than traditional suburban space in areas as diverse as New York City; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.
It’s crucial to note that these premiums have arisen not only in central cities, but also in suburban towns that have walkable urban centers offering a mix of residential and commercial development. For instance, luxury single-family homes in suburban Westchester County, just north of New York City, sell for $375 a square foot. A luxury condo in downtown White Plains, the county’s biggest suburban city, can cost you $750 a square foot. This same pattern can be seen in the suburbs of Detroit, or outside Seattle. People are being drawn to the convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods across the country—even when those neighborhoods are small.
Builders and developers tend to notice big price imbalances, and they are working to accommodate demand for urban living. New lofts and condo complexes have popped up all over many big cities. Suburban towns built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, featuring downtown street grids at their core, have seen a good deal of “in-filling” in recent years as well, with new condos and town houses, and renovated small-lot homes just outside their downtowns. And while urban construction may slow for a time because of the present housing bust, it will surely continue. Sprawling, large-lot suburbs become less attractive as they become more densely built, but urban areas—especially those well served by public transit—become more appealing as they are filled in and built up. Crowded sidewalks tend to be safe and lively, and bigger crowds can support more shops, restaurants, art galleries.