If you run a google.com search for "The Death of Suburbia" you will find about 24,000 ‘hits.' Some of the gloating over suburbia's alleged demise is based on the facts that (some) suburbs have been hit hard by the current economic downturn, and that (some) city neighborhoods have become more expensive per square foot than than suburbs. (1) But suburbia as a whole continues to gain population.
How do we reconcile these realities? My visit to Tel Aviv last December gave me a hint. Tel Aviv's population nosedived in the third quarter of the 20th century (from 386,000 in the 1961 to 317,000 in 1988)(2) and then rebounded to over 400,000 in the past two decades.(3) But when I went to a small party in Tel Aviv, I learned that many of my fellow guests (mostly thirty- and forty-something singles and couples) were living in outlying suburbs because they were priced out of Tel Aviv – an experience similar to my own in New York (insofar as I was priced out of Manhattan and chose Queens instead).
Over the past couple of decades, some American regions have become like Tel Aviv- places where urban life is more common, but less affordable, than it once was. In the 1970s, city life was often something that well-off people fled from in disgust; today, city life is often a luxury good – something that many well-off people choose, and many slightly less well-off people wish they could afford. Instead of being the thrift store of American metropolitan areas, the most urban parts of (some) cities have become the Neiman-Marcus of America.
Does this mean suburbia is "dead"? Of course not- any more than thrift stores (or dollar stores or Wal-Mart) are dead. Just as more people shop at Wal-Mart than at Neiman Marcus, more people live and shop in suburbs than in cities.
But it does mean that policymakers are faced with a different set of challenges than in, say, 1980. Twenty or thirty years ago, one could more plausibly argue that it was a given that most Americans preferred suburbs to cities, and public debate was about whether to accommodate this alleged preference or to change it.
Today, it seems clear (at least to me) that there is not enough of urban life to go around- that is to say, that more people want it than can afford it. So perhaps the debate should be over how to create more of it, either by allowing more development in cities or by allowing some suburbs to mimic the more desirable aspects of urban life.