Economic Development

Cities of the Future May Soon Look Like Those of the Past

Urbanist Alan Ehrenhalt explains how America’s cities are changing, why and what this means for urban life in the future.
by | April 2012

In the midst of the 1980s, at a time when poverty, violence and abandonment had settled over most of the big cities in America, the great urban historian Donald Olsen made an intriguing prediction. “If we are to achieve an urban renaissance,” Olsen wrote, “it is the 19th-century city that will be reborn.”

It was a cryptic comment, and Olsen is no longer around to be asked precisely what he meant, but he was not the only urbanist of taste and judgment who voiced similar sentiments. Jean-Christophe Bailly, the French architect and critic, looked at cities all across North America around the same time and declared that “the 19th century invented modernity, and it must now be reinvented to make up for the damage done by the systematic negligence of 20th-century urban planners.”

Today, more than a quarter century later, at least a part of this vision seems to be coming true.

It would be absurd to make the claim that the great European cities of the late 19th century will reappear in this country in anything like their original form. No American city will create a Ringstrasse like the one that circled central Vienna. None could reproduce the city of London even if it wanted to. And it’s impossible to imagine a central planner with the powers of Baron Haussmann in Paris (or even Robert Moses in New York) emerging anywhere today.

But it would also be a mistake to deny the relevance of these older cities to the evolving urban experience, or not to notice that Donald Olsen, hyperbole notwithstanding, was onto something.

American cities all but lost their street life in the last decades of the 20th century; anybody walking around downtown Philadelphia, Boston or Chicago after 5 in the afternoon found the sidewalks deserted and dangerous. Today, in various forms, street life is returning. One can walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Walnut Street in Philadelphia long after dark and find them throbbing with activity.

Much of this activity, as in the Paris or Vienna of another time, is clustered around entertainment. In the 21st century, this is less likely to mean performances at an immense concert hall, although a few cities have built them, and more likely to mean plays at storefront black box theaters and live music coming out of the bars that line the street. Most of all, however, street life in the emerging city means restaurant life. Walk along Tryon Street in downtown Charlotte, N.C., that highly untraditional American city, and you will see diners at sidewalk tables on every block. There is little retail shopping in downtown Charlotte, but there are restaurants almost everywhere.

And there are cafés. One can make fun of the ubiquitous presence and the uniformity of Starbucks, but the fact remains that just 20 years ago, the idea of coffeehouses in urban centers seemed a quaint vision of the vanished past. Now one can walk into a Starbucks in the center of any large American city at 10 in the morning or 8 in the evening and find clusters of coffee drinkers deep in conversation, many of them lingering as much to talk as to consume. It is not going too far to say that Starbucks resurrected the coffeehouse experience in present-day America: Small independent cafés have returned to the street along with it. We have not recreated the Ringstrasse café, where raconteurs held forth for hours at a time -- but we have taken a step in that direction.

We have also taken a step toward the urban diversity and tolerance that prevailed in European cities a hundred years ago. People with widely different backgrounds and modes of living come together on the sidewalks of Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and a growing number of other cities in ways that would have been unthinkable in 1980. American cities are also returning to diversity of use. The idea of zoning for segregation of uses is slowly dying in America. Virtually every city planning official is now looking for ways to promote mixed-use zoning, perhaps not the chaotic jumble of much of 19th-century Paris, but a mixture of uses nevertheless.

At the level of the metropolitan region, modern American urban patterns are coming to resemble older ones in a more dramatic fashion. For most of Western history, affluent people lived in the center of metropolitan areas. The latter half of the 20th century was defined by fast-growing suburbs and shrinking inner cities, where wealth moved to the periphery and poverty was concentrated close to the core. The 21st-century city will be defined by the opposite -- affluent inner neighborhoods, striving and sometimes struggling farther-out neighborhoods. In short, American cities are undergoing a full-fledged demographic inversion. Midtown Atlanta, for example, is filling up with upper-middle-class professionals, both black and white, while exurban counties that were all but homogeneous white bastions of cul-de-sacs and shopping malls as recently as 20 years ago now have become magnets for immigration. Similar events are taking place in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Look closely at the changes under way in or near the center of these cities and the 19th-century flavor of 21st-century urban America becomes clear.

Sheffield is a quiet neighborhood three miles north of downtown Chicago. It is six thirty in the morning, and I’m sitting by the window at a bagel and coffeehouse just off the corner of Sheffield and Armitage, across the street from the Armitage elevated train station. Every few minutes a Brown Line train rumbles by directly overhead, its noise so consistent and regular that it feels like an icon of neighborhood life, not an annoyance of any sort.

Armitage Avenue is no Parisian boulevard; there are no boulevards in Sheffield, only business streets and residential streets. But the buildings are about the same age as those in central Paris. Nearly all of them were built between 1880 and 1910. The Argo Tea Café on the other side of the street reveals the date 1885 in large letters on the second story wall.

A parade of early risers marches down the street in front of me: joggers, men in suits on their way to the train, art students from nearby DePaul University carrying their supplies to the studio. It is the sort of diversity Jane Jacobs saw in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, a diversity of occupations, ages and daily schedules. There are people on their way to 9-to-5 jobs, others returning from night shifts, young singles who jog this route every morning, older people who cover the same route at a slower pace. The one thing you won’t notice about Sheffield through the windows of the Chicago Bagel Authority may be the most important thing about the place. It is rich. Actually, very rich.

In 1970, Sheffield was poor, unstable, gang-ridden and dangerous to roam around in. But by the time the 2000 Census was taken in Tract 711, where comparatively modest old houses still fill the residential blocks north of Armitage, the median household income was $93,279. The median home value was $675,532. When mid-decade projections were released in 2007 by Esri, an independent demographic research company, the median household income was up to $133,535, and the median home price had surpassed $1 million. Gentrification is not a word that accurately describes Sheffield. It is a neighborhood of stable and substantial affluence where scarcely any of the people we normally consider gentrifiers can afford to live.

It is easier to demonstrate that Sheffield is rich than to explain why. “At first glance,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2006, “it’s hard to see why some of Chicago’s most wealthy people have chosen this formerly nondescript area as their new enclave. It doesn’t have a lake view. It isn’t even that close to the lake.” And the land is flat as a pancake.

In fact, Lake Michigan is a little more than a mile from the center of Sheffield, and one can walk there in half an hour at a leisurely pace. But few of the residents do that very often. There are other factors that clearly have something to do with what has happened -- the 14-minute train ride to downtown, the presence of DePaul University, the tree-lined streets and pleasingly eclectic stock of houses -- but none of these quite suffice as explanations. It is more instructive simply to say that Sheffield’s current prosperity reflects a realignment of urban life.

This is a controversial subject. Free market purists argue that once the economic downturn ends, Americans will resume their 20th-century thrust outward and seek ever newer greenfield homes on plots of land further and further from the city, transporting themselves back and forth on longer and longer commutes by means of the automobile.

They have some statistics to back them up. One study in 2009 reported that only a small portion of Generation Y (or the Millennials, born roughly between 1980 and 1995) expressed a preference for urban living over a suburban mode of life. But there are equally compelling results on the other side. A competing study by the consulting firm RCLCO in 2008 revealed an almost precisely opposite result: 77 percent of Generation Y wanted to live some variant of the urban life. “Generation Y’s attitudes toward homeownership have been changed by the housing crisis and the recession,” the Urban Land Institute found in commenting on the RCLCO study. “The number of people trapped by underwater homes that cannot be sold and the millions of foreclosures are tempering their interest in buying their own homes and they will be renters by necessity rather than by choice for years ahead.” In many cases, if not most, that means urban rather than suburban rental.

Between 1990 and 2007, central cities increased their share of housing permits within their metropolitan areas by more than double, the Urban Land Institute found. This continued after the housing recession caused the number of permits to plummet in the outer suburbs. What is more, statistics show, housing in cities and inner suburbs held their value during the recession far better than their exurban counterparts.

Where does the Millennial generation want to live? In many ways, this is the question that will determine the face of metropolitan America in the next 20 years. This seems to me a case in which common sense wins a battle of dueling statistics. Most of the major demographic trends going on right now work in favor of an urban preference, at least among a significant cohort of the emerging adult population -- smaller households, later marriages, decisions not to marry at all, decisions not to have children, the emergence of a huge and active baby boom population in its 60s and 70s -- point to some form of re-emergence of urban choice.

But suppose one grants many of the predictions made by those who attempt to debunk any significant back-to-the-city movement among the Millennial generation. The generation is simply so large -- by one measure, 60 million to 70 million people -- that even a respectable minority of this cohort seeking an urban life is bound to change American metropolitan areas dramatically.

In a poll cited by The New York Times in 2009, 45 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 said they would like to live in New York City someday if they could. This is an absurdly large number of people -- well more than 20 million, in fact. It’s a safe assumption that, other than the ones who already live in New York, not too many of them will ever get there. So the poll does not offer much insight into the future demographics of the nation’s largest city. But it says a great deal about the values, tastes and wishes of an enormous cohort of American young people.

There is a thirst for urban life among Millennials. It shows up in polls, in anecdotal conversation, in blogs and other casual writing. It is not based primarily on watching television shows such as Friends or Seinfeld, though those should not be discounted. It is based on an inchoate feeling that the cul-de-sac suburbia in which millions of them grew up is a cul-de-sac in more ways than one: It cuts off not only streets, but also diversity and the casual outdoor life crucial to meaningful human sociability.

Once again, it is necessary to say that outer suburbs are not going to empty out in the coming generation. They remain home to millions of current residents with families who like the space, are concerned about safety and want to stay put; newcomers to this country who are determined to avoid the crowding they encountered in other parts of the world; and poorer people who simply are able to find acceptable housing on the periphery that is not available in the center.

The inhabitants of the center cities of the 21st century will be largely those with money -- those who have the greatest choice about where to live. Those who inhabit the periphery will be for the most part those for whom prices in the center are prohibitive. As the Urban Land Institute concludes, “Once the economy recovers and household formation resumes, the demand for urban housing will greatly outstrip the supply.”

For students of cities and community, perhaps the final intriguing question is what will happen to the structure of urban life in general. Will the enhanced street vitality and personal contact that is already occurring in many of America’s largest cities bring about a return to the casual social cohesiveness that Jane Jacobs praised in 1961 in The Death and Life of Great American Cities? Or will the immense changes in human technological communication diminish the ultimate importance of the street life that seems to be a magnet for so many youthful newcomers in the first place?

When Jacobs wrote her book, there were really only two methods of real-time personal communication. One was the telephone. The other was face-to-face human interaction. The world of communication that the microchip has wrought is so fast and so current as to make detailed explanation unnecessary. The person we run into on the street possibly several times a day -- the contact that Jacobs prized -- has been compromised by iPads, cellphones, email, social media and other tools Jacobs could not imagine in her wildest dreams. To put the question simply, will technology be a substitute for the regular social contact of Jacobs’ day, or will it provide a crucial supplement? As anyone who walks down an urban street knows, a significant proportion of the cellphone conversations that take place are simply logistical arrangements, as people seek to reveal to others where they are in space and how soon they can meet each other at an agreed-upon location. Social media are, among other things, ways for large numbers of people to settle on mutual congregating spaces instantly. The more that people are enabled by technology to communicate with one another while remaining physically solitary, the more they crave a physical form of social life to balance out all the electronics. They are settling in cities -- those that have a choice -- to experience the things that citizens of Paris and Vienna experienced a century ago: round-the-clock street life, café sociability, casual acquaintances they meet on the sidewalk every day, local merchants who recognize them. This is the direction we are heading in, even if we do not get there for a while.

The 23-year-old student glued to a laptop computer in a corner café in a Chicago neighborhood like Sheffield should not be seen as too different from the Viennese reading his newspaper in a café on Vienna’s Ringstrasse in 1910. He remains a social animal. He merely expresses the balance between his sociability and his individuality in a different, 21st-century way.

Alan Ehrenhalt was the editor of Governing for 21 years and is author of The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City (Alfred A. Knopf), from which this article was adapted. The book is available April 24.


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