Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The American Dream Isn’t Static

Early in the history of this blog, I wrote a post about the American Dream and how it might be evolving to include urbanism. 

Following up on the more scholarly efforts of others, I suggested that urbanism might be an element of the 21st century American Dream for many.  Reading my words almost 18 months later, I think my key paragraph was:

“I’m unsure that the universal American Dream of the next generation which will be an urban life, but neither were small farms or suburbia the universal American Dream of past generations.  However, I believe fervently that an urban life will be the American Dream for some.  I also believe that those who find fulfillment in an urban life will bring particular creative value to our communities.”

The theme of the changing American Dream continues to recur in discussions of urbanism.  First, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. opened an exhibit on the history of house and home in the U.S., with thoughts that urban homes might soon have a role in the American Dream.  Emily Badger of Atlantic Cities offered an overview of the exhibit.

Next, GenConnect produced a video of Peter Calthorpe, well-known urban planner, talking about the changing American Dream.  Calthorpe specifically notes the policy changes made by Portland, Oregon twenty years ago and the positive results that have resulted from redirection toward urbanism.

Adding to this trend, some are pointing to “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving” as the most influential urbanist book of 2013.  Author Leigh Gallagher postulates that there is a fundamental change underway in the American style of living, with folks increasingly relocating to walkable urban settings.

Gallagher didn’t set out to write a book about the end of the suburbs.  Instead, her goal was to write about changes occurring in the U.S. as a result of the Great Recession.  But she soon found that the key change underway was a move toward cities.  Furthermore, although many have suggested that the urban trend is a temporary result of the recession and will disappear as the economy improves, Gallagher came to believe that the relocation is more fundamental and was underway before the economic hard times.

In her introduction, she cites facts that show how suburbia is dwindling and reasons why that may be so.  She notes the flawed suburban model, the dwindling oil supply, the environmental concerns around fossil fuels, and the love of many Millennials for urban settings.

Furthermore, she identifies the financial sustainability issues around suburbia, writing at length about StrongTowns’ Charles Marohn.

I’ll return to the “The End of the Suburbs” at another time for a more comprehensive review.  Today, my only intention is to identify Gallagher as the latest in a line of observers who have spied the American Dream deserting the suburbs for the urban core.  And to be cheered by that trend.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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