Business, Economics and Jobs

Would-be suburbanites moving to or staying put in cities

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Suburban Levittown, Pa., is widely viewed as the first suburb. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For more than 50 years, Americans were drawn to the suburbs, with their sylvan promises of easy living.

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Owning your own home with a car (or two!) in the driveway and piece of lawn was seen as central to the American dream. But the latest census numbers show a reverse migration — from suburbs back into the cities.

The data showed a faster growth rate in the cities than in the suburbs for the first time in 90 years.

City real estate is now more valuable, and there are even big box retailers setting up shop in downtowns.

"I think owning a home is still something people want to do and it's certainly a noble thing, but where people want those homes to be and the type of homes they want to live in and who is going to live in those homes is all in the middle of this transformational shift," said Leigh Gallagher, author of "The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving".

The suburbs originally sprouted to accommodate soldiers returning from World War II wanting nothing but a good place to settle down and raise a family — preferably with some land and privacy. Soldiers initially found a housing shortage, something hard to imagine now, when they first returned, but homebuilders quickly caught up with "cookie cutter" homes and communities.

The sprawl of the suburbs extended farther away from the cities, eventually too far for many people, including those spending more to commute to work than paying for their house.

Now things are changing.

As the cost of living in cities continues to rise, poor people are being pushed out into the suburbs.

"Really the 2000s was a striking decade for the magnitude of growth we saw in poverty, not just overall but particularly in the suburbs," said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. "Between 2000 and 2011, the poor population living in suburbs of our major metropolitan areas grew by 64 percent, that was more than twice the rate of growth in large cities in those regions."

T here are now more poor people living in suburbs than in cities for the first time, often making it difficult for them to access the resources in cities availablefor pulling themselves out of poverty.

But before you write off the neighborhood of center-hall colonials, the notion of the "death" of the suburbs has its skeptics.

"Every decade we sort of get this talk about how we have this movement away from the suburbs and then I just don't see it in the data," said Sam Staley, the managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University. "It's really not that fundamentally different from what I think we've been seeing, I think we are seeing that people want more varied products that they can choose from."

Suburbs are also suffering an identity crisis, as their demographics shift away from families to aging couples and people living by themselves.

"The birth rate is going down in our country, the sort of traditional family unit is becoming a shrinking part of the household makeup in our country and that's reflecting itself in a number of ways," Gallagher said.

Gallagher said she expects suburbs to make difficult changes, but not disappear. 

"I do think the future is optimistic and a lot of suburbs are reinventing themselves," she said.