A new book by political historian Michael Barone has reinvigorated the debate over which lifestyle is better: big-city living or suburban bliss? Americans traditionally moved from one city to another simply to find work, but now they are relocating in search of their dreams, Barone says in his book Shaping Our Nation.
Barone’s perspective is one of many in an ongoing conversation about the future of American living. While some defend the merits of suburbia, others like Barone predict that the suburban dream is becoming obsolete because Americans are increasingly choosing urban life.
In addition to reasons like low tax rates and cheap housing, Barone says many Americans are looking for places to live where they’ll find people similar to them. He points out how conservatives increasingly opt for Texas and how, “liberal professionals wouldn't leave [the San Francisco Bay area] for the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex if you tripled their salary.”
While it’s true that more people are increasingly choosing thriving cities and leaving destitute ones like Detroit, it’s also the case that Americans are actually choosing those “nightmare” cities because they seem to be hubs of innovation. “What we are seeing is a network of philanthropic and business leaders coming together to revive that core of the city,” Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institute, told NPR last June. In August, the Los Angeles Times reported companies such as the marketing agency Lowe Campbell Ewald are moving to the city, calling it a “hotbed of creativity, innovation and inspiration.”
Meanwhile, Forbes reported cities like St. Louis, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh are witnessing surges in population as 20-somethings move in for cheap rent and space to pursue artistic and entrepreneurial ambitions.
But creatives can only fuel a struggling city so far. Eventually those cities, many of which have heavy pension debts and non-competitive business climates, will have to reinvent themselves. “Some of the high-tax, high-cost cities can fight back, of course, by lowering taxes and doing more to create a business-friendly environment that lures employers,” writes Rick Newman.
Those decisions matter because Americans have consistently chosen to live in cities rather than the suburbs for more than a decade now. According to Brookings Institute demographics analyst William Frey, U.S. cities’ growth slowed during the recession, but has consistently outpaced that of the suburbs since 2010.
Experts say this could mean a shift in the nation’s center of political and economic power.
“There may continue to be a national power shift that favors the south and the mountain states at the expense of the trendy right and left coasts and unionized cities of the upper Midwest,” explained Newman.
The increased migration back to cities, combined with their increase in political gravitas, means Republicans, who have repeatedly ignored urban hubs, must start taking them more seriously.
“Republicans have largely abandoned the urban playing field, preferring to condemn the cities as cesspools of Democratic corruption, high taxes, and decay,” wrote Aaron M. Renn earlier this year. They also become culturally homogenous as conservatives are excluded from the culture-making process that occurs in cities.
“It’s well past time for Republicans to take cities seriously again,” Renn wrote. “This starts with valuing urban environments, and respecting, or at least taking time to understand, the values of the people who live there.”