The Decline Of Suburbia

February 16th, 2009 at 10:28 pm | 5 Comments |

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In 1925, remedy sociologist Ernest Burgess developed a simple model to explain the relationship between social class and residential location. He envisioned an archetypal city where zones of different classes stretched out from a central business district in concentric rings, look like the ripples that form when water meets a puddle. Based on his observations in Chicago, there Burgess postulated that urban areas are organized in a way that sees working classes huddled around the central core, and that the distance one lived from the core was an indication of their social class.

The ubiquitous rise of suburbia in post-WWII America did nothing to hinder this model’s validity as a basic theoretical construct of economic geography. However, as a result of the ongoing financial crisis, things are changing. Renowned geographer and urban studies theorist Richard Florida, best known for his theories on the role of the ‘creative class’, wrote an article in March’s issue of The Atlantic arguing that the cities which will weather the current recession best will be those that feature “dense ecosystems” of well-educated professionals. He cites New York and Los Angeles as examples, asserting that densely-packed creative workers will produce increased knowledge spillovers, leading in turn to accelerating rates of ‘urban metabolism’.

Florida opines that one of the implications of this pattern of recovery will be the end of the suburban epoch as we know it. In an era where economies will be driven by innovation and dynamism set in dense urban areas, a “different geography is required”. Richard Florida isn’t alone – Alan Ehrenhalt of The New Republic foresaw the “demographic inversion of the American city” in an article last year, driven by the deindustrialization and declining crime rates of some inner-cities. The solution, Florida argues, will be to incentivize an era of renting and locational flexibility. This is because homes root owners in areas of economic decline – how can one move to a new city if they can’t profitably sell their home?

Republicans should be troubled if these prophecies and prescriptions come to pass. After all, some of the most reliably consistent mechanisms drawing individuals to conservatism are the modes of consumption inherent in suburban living. It has long been thought that those who agree with lower taxes do so because of the burden of mortgage payments, and that those who shun spending programs like public transit are inclined in this manner because they own cars. An intense brouhaha erupted last week when Republicans accused the White House of politicizing the census, fearing that, with the push of a few buttons and a corrupt formula, the Democrats could make suburban voters disappear. But what if suburbia as we know it vanished on its own?

If the aforementioned patterns begin to emerge more commonly, the traditional Reagan model of inciting “suburban revolt” may no longer be relevant. Taxes will continue to be a burden on the middle class, but a middle class that more directly benefits from urban public spending may be increasingly willing to shoulder the load. People will continue to purchase houses, but perhaps in lower numbers. Voters are drawn to policy stances when they are relevant to problems experienced in their own lives, and Republicans will need to adjust their policies so that they speak to an increasingly urban audience. To do this, conservatives will need to consider how government can be effectively used to encourage competition and efficiency in the problems most relevant to the burgeoning urban middle-class: issues like health care, education and social security.

If the residential lifestyle which once prompted voters to become conservative begins to fade, then Republicans have much to fear. The right may have taken for granted that “the facts of life are conservative” without much regard for what to do if the facts of life change. It is Chicago where Ehrenhalt sees the reality of demographic inversion as most apparent. It somehow seems fitting that the city where Burgess first constructed his model is the place where the continued relevance of his model is questioned. If Republicans don’t read the signs and recognize the coming demographic and geographical shifts, the party will quickly be going the way of the Burgess concentric ring model.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • coleman

    Florida crunches the data and finds…himself. He’s a rock star academic who has lived in Washington D.C., Boston, and Toronto. His argument about the engine driving urban growth being the “creative class” is sexy and provocative, but…who wants to sit in Starbucks listening to ad folks talk about YouTube videos?
    Conservatives should focus on the working class, not the creative class.

  • BarbD

    Interesting that this column would appear on the same day as David Brooks’ editorial about the latest Pew Research study about where Americans would like to live and the kind of lifestyle they seek. Perhaps you’re overly concerned about this?

    Link to column:

  • Rhampton

    The decline of U.S. factories and the rise of computer based businesses are shifting a growing number of workers into more and more creative positions (for example, writing computer code). That’s one of the important trends the GOP is missing, and why the ground is moving under their feet.

  • nealjking

    It’s interesting that this article seems to have the motivation that the GOP must reposition itself in order to hold its constituency to conservative values. What about the odd notion that a political party should actually try to be useful to its constituency, not just to use them as a staircase to power?

  • gerrysh

    Yeah, right. Los Angeles is doing soooooooo well right now. Another expert can’t determine that water is wet.