Re-Urbanizing America

Suburban Sprawl Gives Way to the Not-So-Mean Streets of the Big City

The Great American Dream isn’t dead, but it’s certainly on life support.

Shopping street Barfüßerstrasse of Marburg, Germany.After decades of unprecedented growth, suburbia has been surpassed by the inner city. It is — if you’ll excuse an old saying from my quasi-hippie days — where the action is! And that action is attracting an incredibly broad demographic — everyone from young professionals and singles to baby boomers who don’t want to end up living in God’s waiting room.

We have already seen the beginning of an inner city building boom by retailers who want a piece of the action and are willing to embrace the idea that bigger is not necessarily better or practical. Those who are late to the party or ignore this new urbanization should have no trouble finding new careers in the healthcare or dogwalking industries.

But to understand where we’re going we have to look at where we’ve been.

“White Flight”

Most historians concede that suburban life really took off in the late 1940s and early 1950s with GIs returning after World War II. This was the beginning of the so-called “white flight” to bucolic suburban settings where the kiddies were safe, stay-at-home moms traded recipes and child rearing advice across white picket fences and all was right with the world — far from the mean streets of New York, Chicago, St. Louis and L.A.

Those left behind, however, witnessed urban decay, a descent into the heart of darkness where once-vibrant neighborhoods became ghost towns after dark, street crime proliferated, empty stores were boarded up canvases for graffiti and the scent of dinner from apartment windows was replaced by the stench of urine, garbage and despair.

I didn’t read all this in some urban history book. I lived it in New York throughout the 1970s when muggers could elude police by ducking around piles of uncollected garbage. But the pendulum, I’m happy to say, has swung in the other direction.

In places like New York, Atlanta, L.A. and points in between, we are seeing the reanimation of city life and a retail renaissance that has drawn the attention of everyone from Costco and Home Depot to Walmart and a new generation of small but competitive neighborhood stores.

The New Normal

A temporary phenomenon? I think not. I believe the financial crisis of 2008 was a major turning point — a time when the dream of home ownership became a nightmare of foreclosures or at least unattainable for younger people. If you want to add another label to your already overburdened lexicon, forget about Millennials, Gen X, or Gen Y, What we’re seeing is “Generation Rent.”

This isn’t the end of suburban sprawl. Many people still yearn for the pastoral life and the retail industry is happy to oblige. But remember the old saying that retail follows the rooftops. Increasingly, those rooftops are urban high-rises and the impact on people and business will be tremendous.

But reurbanization, gentrification or whatever you call it has its dark side. It often displaces people who have lived in some neighborhoods for generations. For instance, take the Chinatowns or other ethnic enclaves that have been fixtures in cities like New York, San Francisco and London. Young professionals and Millennials are paying rents that have forced out long time residents. Such is the price of urban renewal or, as the novelist and playwright James Baldwin called it, “Negro removal.”

On another front, legal and illegal immigrant populations — now 40 million strong across the country — are growing rapidly and moving from their traditional central-city locations to the inner suburbs or ”exurbs” in order to find affordable housing. They are creating cities within cities.

Chinese Checkers

Of course, if you want an extreme example of reurbanization gone wild just look at China. For decades, millions of people were practically ordered off the farms and into the cities to bolster the country’s insatiable demand for industrial workers. People happily obliged in order to get lucrative factory jobs that would lift them from abject poverty. Now the government is encouraging people to leave the cities for rural areas to alleviate overcrowding and re-populate the interior. It’s like Chinese checkers but with real Chinese.

Reurbanization is an economic issue here as well. Gas and commutation prices and real estate taxes are so high in some areas that you can literally save thousands of dollars annually by moving to the inner city. Besides people like the “walkability” factor and are tired of the sedentary lifestyle that requires one to own a car or two. .Additionally, the number of married Americans continues to dwindle or people are getting married later and having smaller families.

In fact, due to the above factors and lingering economic uncertainly that some call “the new normal,” the US Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) forecast that by 2025, only 10% of new households will have children. Put another way, only 2.6 million of the 27 million new households to be formed will have children.

Other sources have gone even further, stating that by 2025, families with children will account for only 25% of all US households. Basically, the days of cheap money, cheap mortgages, cheap gas and long-term economic stability are over. As Yale economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller has noted: “the heyday of the exurbs may well be behind us.”

Foundations for Growth

I’m not sure I agree and the reasons may be of interest to retailers formulating expansion plans over the next few years. It’s the far fringe suburbs that are in jeopardy for the reasons previously stated. The exurbs, in my definition are the inner-ring suburbs — places outside of city centers but accessible by public transportation or even bike paths. I believe these areas will be the foundations that support economic growth in cities across America.

Herein lies the conundrum for retailers who have erected those monuments to consumerism called malls and supercenters. They aren’t obsolete. But how many more of these pleasure palaces can you build before reaching the saturation point or the point of no return on investment?

The entire concept of retailing needs a refresh to compete in space-starved urban environments.

Some say retailing is retailing no matter where you are. For years, the mantra was “bigger is better” But urban living means give and take — giving up space and taking less home. Trust me. In New York closet space is scarcer than a parking space.

From the retail perspective, building in a city like New York means dealing with uncompromising union rules, convoluted fire and electrical codes and erratic deliveries. Getting timely deliveries is like planning the Normandy invasion. Only Allied forces never had to deal with parking violations.

Nonetheless, retailers like Target, Walmart, Costco and others have seen the future and are focusing more closely on smaller urban formats.

Urbanization is not a fad or a simple trend. It is an inevitable, unstoppable force. Retail will follow the rooftops in the cities as they have done in the suburbs, creating new jobs and becoming one of the foundations of urban economic growth. This in turn will hopefully contribute to a stronger infrastructure and, in turn, a better quality of life for everyone.

Kind of makes you wonder. America’s Heartland may not be where you think it is.