Since 2006, exurbs and outer-ring suburbs have been losing residents as families move into large cities in greater and greater numbers. This is first time in decades that many suburban counties have seen a loss in population, reports Urbanland. Part of this has been the housing crisis. Exurbs dotted with subprime developments have been hemorrhaging residents for years, but this won’t go on forever. A greater problem, says John K. McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute, comes as boomers retire. Baby boomers created the strongest demand for housing in American history, but their offspring are not likely to do the same. Generation X is far too small to make a similar impact, and Millennials (the echo boom) so far don’t seem all that interested in homeownership, or suburban living. This means that, even if the housing market gets going again, there’s no chance for demand to reach pre-recession levels.
The larger issue is that suburbanization as a social and cultural process is designed for a bygone era. The postwar years were a deeply unequal period of American history, and suburbanization reflected that, especially in terms of race. Redlining—segregating neighborhoods based on race—was federal policy through most of the postwar boom, and segregation remains a serious problem in many areas. But the 1950s and 1960s was also a time when the environmental impact of development was not really a consideration. With more and more people and local governments interested in transit, cycling, and walkability, car-dependent suburbs seem increasingly out of place.
But what’s really interesting about this trend is that it’s not the result of any actual federal policy. Since the end of World War II, federal dollars planned, created, and maintained suburbia, through public highways, home mortgage insurance, tax deductions for homeowners, and other incentives. As John D. Fairfield points out in 2010’s fascinating The Public and Its Possibilities, in the years following World War II, federal money made suburban homeownership actually cheaper than renting in large cities—at least for the white middle class.