international analysis and commentary

A new urban landscape in the US


These days, even the casual visitor to Washington, D.C. won’t fail to notice the nearly 2,000 oversized red bicycles and their sleek docking stations, of the Capital Bikeshare program – the country’s largest until New York recently launched its own program. This is a relatively new addition to the city’s wide-ranging public transportation network, which includes an ever-expanding subway system, buses, taxis as well as their hipper, on-demand, Uber-like incarnations. In a recent study by a financial services website – which combined census data like the percentage of people who commute to work using public transit and the average commute time by car with economic figures like gas prices – Washington came in third among the best cities in America to live car-free, behind New York and San Francisco and ahead of Chicago, which coincidentally is also in the process of launching its own bike-share program.

Today Washington’s cityscape is also dotted with cranes of all sizes as shiny new constructions pop up everywhere, bringing downtown real estate prices to the roof and dramatically changing the face of neighborhoods that, until only a few years ago, were plagued by poverty and violence.    

Improved transportation and new, attractive real estate are but two components of a larger trend taking place in metropolitan areas across America and which scholars of urban studies now refer to as “the great inversion”.

“We have had a strong anti-urban bias throughout our history, a suspicion of cities,” says David Plane, Professor at the School of Geography and Development of the University of Arizona, “but now Americans are discovering the joy of urban living for the first time.”

Plane is the co-author, along with a team of experts from within the US Census Bureau, of a September 2012 report that analyzed recent patterns of population changes across the country on the basis of the 2010 and 2000 censuses. They found that, in those ten years, the US’ largest metro areas experienced huge growth at the core, defined as an area within two miles of city hall. Chicago outdid everyone else, gaining more than 48,000 downtown residents in a decade, a 36% increase. New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington also grew significantly at the center.

In fact, in 2010 the District of Columbia, home to Washington and a strange hybrid between a city and a state, posted its first population increase in almost half a century.

At the same time, miles driven by Americans are steadily decreasing, particularly among the young. According to a May 2013 report by U.S. PIRG, an advocacy organization, “people aged 16 to 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than they did in 2001 – a greater decline in driving than any other age group.” Also, according to a different 2011 study by Michael Sivak, Professor at the Transportation Research Institute of the University of Michigan, “fewer persons younger than age 45 had driver’s licenses in 2008 than in 1983.” Rising gas prices and the recession are partially to blame for this development. But they don’t explain it in full.

Reversing a trend that started after the end of World War II, when middle-class Americans got in their cars and ran away from the industrial inner cities to find refuge behind white-picket fences in the suburbs, newer generations are now flocking back downtown in search of something new and different from what they experienced growing up. Experts say there are multiple reasons behind this phenomenon. Among them: traffic has only grown more congested over the last decades, making the commute from the suburbs into offices downtown more time-consuming and less appealing. The increase in the number of single households and, in general, of smaller families has lessened the need for big, spacious homes. And more frequent international travels by American tourists have exposed them to life in the great cities of Europe.

Add to the mix better public transportation and the availability of housing and what began as a trickle of pioneers twenty years ago, mostly bohemian youth and gays, has now turned into a small flood, which comprises young professionals, young middle-class families and even empty nesters from the baby boom generation.

It is precisely because this phenomenon is so widespread – both geographically since it is happening at once all over the country, and demographically since it involves many different actors – that Alan Ehrenhalt, one of America’s leading urbanists, prefers not to use the hyper-inflated term “gentrification”. In his 2012 book The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, he writes: “Gentrification refers to the changes that happen in an individual neighborhood, usually the replacement of poorer minority residents by more affluent white ones. Demographic inversion is something much broader. It is the rearrangement of living patterns across an entire metropolitan area, all taking place at roughly the same time.”

The fact that this inversion is happening in all corners of America is now undisputed. People’s longing for an urban vibe is so strong that suburbs from Colorado to Virginia are rearranging themselves – adding sidewalks and sidewalk cafes, human-scale shopping streets and light rail services – to provide their residents with a more city-like atmosphere.

What remains to be seen is what will happen going forward to all these people who have moved downtown in the recent past. Will they remain in place as they grow older and their children grow up, fixing up more and more decaying inner city neighborhoods, or will they, like many generations before them, feel the pull of the suburb at some point?

“Historically, one of the reasons that suburbs were attractive to people starting families was because of they way our school system is set up,” says Professor Plane referring to how American schools are locally financed and managed. For a long time this meant good suburban schools and bad inner city ones. “But there is now a revolution going on as wealthier and better educated people move to the city and refuse to put up with sub-quality schools; this is removing one of the biggest obstacles to people wanting to stay.”

The other unanswered question has to do with how the cities’ older, lower-income, minority residents and the newer, more affluent ones will manage to deal with each other. For the time being, the sudden inflow of people and money is causing a spike in real estate prices and, generally, in the cost of living in once affordable downtown neighborhoods. As a result, while new hip condos, cafes and boutiques transform inner cities across America, many long-time residents are pushed out. Some of them are simply priced out of ever-increasing rents. Others no longer recognize their communities as they once where and prefer to sell their properties to the highest bidder and move to cheaper areas further out from downtown,

In the end, only time will tell what the long-term consequences of this great inversion will be. But one thing is certain, a major shift has taken place in the psyche of generation X and millennial Americans. In the words of Alan Ehrenhalt, “Increasingly over the past decade […] people with the resources to live wherever they wished began choosing to live near the urban center – just as Viennese, Parisians, and Londoners at the turn of the previous century elected to do.”