Is Tel Aviv the future?

Michael Lewyn's picture

If you run a 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.





Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Tel Aviv


I also read your previous post on density and walkability. I'm curious about families with children and the urban/suburban question. Your walkability discussion points to urban design as a solution to this problem - easy call - maybe something like gird streets though perhaps with a bit of creativity or spontenaity thrown in. Do you think there might be similar solutions to all the factors (price included) contributing to young families with children moving out of urban settings that they would otherwise like to stay in?

Thanks, Paul Deering

Michael Lewyn's picture

no magic bullets

It seems to me that the biggest problem a well-off city (like SF/NY/Tel Aviv) has in attracting families is price. And high price is usually caused by inadequate supply; even though some new housing is built every so often, it isn't enough to satisfy the demand. So make it easier for developers to avoid the NIMBY veto and get stuff built, and prices may stabilize a bit. (But I don't have any special expertise here; I'm just channeling Edward Glaeser's argument in Triumph of the City, which makes sense to me).

Of course, not-so-well-off cities (such as those in the Rust Belt) have a very different set of problems, such as crime, schools, etc. And those are much more difficult nuts to crack.

The Future is Athens

Great exposition, Michael. It resonated with my trajectory as a dweller of cities such as, Athens, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, that I described on this page with “The Importance of Being Urban”. Invariably, as you point out, all my dwelling choices were dictated by the price Vs amenity equation, whether in center-town, run-down housing or suburban, DYI ownership. The “good life” whether urban, suburban or exurban is a commodity just like any other; to have it you must be able to afford it.

As for the future, it may well be Tel-Aviv, shaped by economics or Athens, a City Without Suburbs, as the numbers in my article showed. Most Athenian suburbs evolved to become denser that many (perhaps most) North American city centres. Inevitably, they sprouted local retail and services; mini-city-cores, so to speak. And all of this urbanization (urbanism?) happened by the sheer force of economics and against planning advice that insisted on quality. Did the Athenian future solve the planning problems of congestion, pollution, driving , and affordability? No, but in spite of the negative outcome, it seems to be the likely future of metropolises.
The two Planetizen articles are here: and

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