The US has become a nation of suburbs. But will it stay that way?

The American dream in Highland, California. Image: Getty.

Since 1970, more Americans have lived in the suburbs than central cities. In 2010, suburbanites outnumbered city and rural dwellers combined for the first time. Americans live in a suburban nation.

Despite several concerted efforts by city governments to lure residents, suburbanisation continues largely unabated. Census figures from earlier this year show that suburbs of warm climate “Sun Belt” cities in the South and West continue to grow, while cities in the cold climate “Snow Belt” of the Midwest and Northeast decline.

Smaller metropolitan areas with fewer than 500,000 people have also grown, related to an improving economy and job creation in smaller urban centers. This ongoing shift towards the suburbs has significant environmental repercussions.

Since cities and suburbs are home for 8 of every 10 Americans, views of the country are often distorted. Most travel occurs within or between cities. Although rural areas have more than three times the miles of roadways as urban areas, more than two-thirds of the 3trn miles that vehicles travel each year in the U.S. are in urban and suburban areas.

Jobs, too, are overwhelmingly centered around cities. Less than 2 per cent of the American labor force is employed in agriculture.

Many of my students are surprised that the land area occupied by cities is only 3 per cent of the nation’s territory. However, they are correct in that cities have an outsized impact on the economy. In 2016, metropolitan areas contributed $16.8trn to the nation’s gross domestic product, more than 90 per cent of the country’s economy.

With this economic activity comes a high use of natural resources and concentrated pollution production. Although density can be more efficient when it comes to energy use, the sheer number of urban dwellers means that cities, despite a small physical footprint, have a big energy and pollution footprint.

Rising suburbanisation undermines some of the energy efficiency gained by high density living in urban cores. Manhattan has lower per capita greenhouse gas emissions than the suburbs of New York, thanks to factors like apartment living, high costs of car ownership and extensive public transit. Of course, not everyone can afford to live in Manhattan even if they want to. Low-density suburbs are an affordable alternative.

Even so, suburban life can look less desirable. As the U.S. population ages, elderly people may end up “stranded in the suburbs,” far from adequate public transit and unable or unwilling to drive. At my urban university, a mixed use retirement facility was sold out before ground was broken. In the U.S., there are more than 100 university-based retirement communities and the number is growing.


The trend toward suburban life could soon come to an end. Millennials – the generation born between 1981 and 1997 – appear to prefer urban life. They are happier in cities, especially large metropolitan areas, than older generations. The millennial population is growing fastest in metro areas in the Sun Belt and western states, and slowest in the Snow Belt. Topping the list of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas for millennials are Colorado Springs, San Antonio, Denver and Orlando.

Will millennials follow older generations to the suburbs as they marry, have children, recover from the shocks of the Great Recession and find affordable housing? The jury is still out.

Whatever happens, it’s unlikely that people will start to move out of cities and suburbs and back into rural areas. Even though increased connectivity and the internet of things will make remote work more possible than before, businesses will continue to concentrate in urban cores, because they profit from being close to one another. (Futurists once thought the telephone would make crowded cities unnecessary.)

I believe that it’s likely the U.S. will remain a nation of suburbs for some time to come. That will pose a continuing environmental challenge. But it will also bring a new set of opportunities for millennials, who are predicted to overtake baby boomers by next year as the largest generation in the country. How will that generation remake the suburbs to suit their needs and desires without exacerbating current environmental challenges? The answer has profound implications for the nature of cities and urban life in the U.S.

The Conversation

Christopher Boone, Dean and Professor of Sustainability, Arizona State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.