For three generations, the American Dream was largely defined by continual suburban expansion. The dream was based on exclusivity and “keeping up with the Joneses.” Driving was so essential that all other means of getting around became practically impossible. Privacy was everything.
A new America Dream has emerged in recent years. It is based on social and cultural diversity and the idea of community. This dream is more about great streets than highways. You can drive if you want, but you can also walk, ride a bike, take transit, or join carshare. In this dream, the things you are connected to are more important than who you are separated from.
The old American Dream has not gone away, but it has been eclipsed. Here are 10 reasons why the new dream is here to stay, in a countdown list:
10) Driving has been declining for 10 years. “Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf,” wrote Lewis Mumford in 1961. Driving per person continued to rise steadily for 43 years after that, and then it stopped. Automobile miles per capita have declined every year since 2004. Also, those concrete cloverleafs have become expensive maintenance problems. One could say the national flower has begun to wilt.
9) Millennials want urban place. Today’s young adults – the Millennials — were the first generation to be born and raised mostly in communities where the indoor mall was the main street and the parking lot was the town square. As adults, this generation rejected the isolation and generic character of drive-only suburbs. Millennials aren’t the only people today embracing compact, mixed-use neighborhoods — but a dramatic shift in youth preference points to a long-term trend.
8) Walkable places help you climb the ladder of success. The story of ambitious young people going to the city to make something of their lives appears again and again in our literature, movies, and theater. This story is not just a literary device, according to a 2013 study. Social mobility is higher in compact urban places, Arizona State University researchers found. The more walkable the census block — as measured by Walk Score — the more likely someone from the bottom fifth of income will reach the top fifth in their lives. It is no wonder then that New York City — America’s most walkable city — is a magnet for immigrants and other folks pursuing the American Dream.
7) Productivity and innovation thrive as density rises. Studies in recent years have shown that in compact places with good transit, economic activity rises due to more face-to-face contact with knowledgeable people (link, link).
6) You are more likely to be famous if you are born in an urban place.Tiger moms take note! If you want your children to be successful enough to be profiled in Wikipedia, the odds rise substantially if you raise them in a big city — or small city anchored by a university. The New York Times came to that conclusion in a geographical analysis of Wikipedia biographies. Ironically, for several generations, parents have moved to distant suburbs to give children a better chance of success. Notes the Times, “growing up near ideas is better than growing up near backyards.”
5) You are less likely to die in a pool of blood if you are raised in an urban place. Parents have long moved to quiet suburbs for safety. Some are questioning whether this quest for safety has gone too far. The entire culture of childhood has changed, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. Children no longer have their own places to roam and explore. Moreover, a 2013 University of Pennsylvania/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) study challenges the entire notion that suburbs are safer. The study examines, for the first time comprehensively, all kinds of accidental and violent deaths in America. Contrary to conventional wisdom, urban streets are significantly safer than leafy suburbs and rural areas. While counterintuitive at first glance, the finding is not hard to fathom if you think about it. The number one US cause of death from ages 5 to 34 is automobile crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Deadly automobile crashes are far less likely on lower-speed urban streets.
4) Bicycles: The new status symbol. A generation ago, bicycles were considered to be a child’s toy. Now they are a status symbol for communities. As Jeff Speck writes in Walkable City, “A bold green stripe down the side of a street — or many streets — tells residents and potential residents that a city supports alternative transportation, healthy lifestyles and cycling culture, and that it welcomes the sort of people who get around on bikes. For the most part, those people are the millennials and creatives who will help a city thrive.”
3) McMansions are losing their luster. In the 1990s, a McMansion was the ultimate symbol that the homeowner had “made it.” Inside, the house was luxurious. But the chief selling point was the message it sent from the curb: The owners, and all of their neighbors, have enough money that they can afford to be wasteful on lawn and landscaping, excessive architectural details, pointless variety in rooflines and materials, and general bloat. Today, we have endured a Great Recession and climate change is an ongoing concern. The McMansion’s underlying message of wasteful spending, poor taste, and big carbon footprint projects a less flattering image on homeowners. As Billy Joel once said, “Is that all you get for your money?”
Photo by Lee Sobel
2) Downtown and in-town neighborhoods are home to the “creative class.” Coming up with this term has made the career of author, academic, and researcher Richard Florida. Whether urban or suburban, big city or small, communities want the educated people that provide the economic spark — known as the “creative class.” Seeking the creative class, businesses have begun moving back into town from suburban campuses.
And the number one reason why we have a new American Dream:
Would you rather have this?
Van Buren Street, Phoenix, today. Image courtesy of Duany Plater-Zyberk.
The first image, a commercial strip arterial, has one big advantage: It is legal.
The second image is not technically difficult to achieve. Most zoning codes and the automobile-oriented practices of departments of transportation stand in the way. This new American Dream has the market on its side, but will require coalitions in local communities to muster the political will for reform.
I could come up with 10 or 20 more reasons for the new American Dream. Could you?
Robert Steuteville is executive director and editor of Better! Cities & Towns, dedicated to communications, competence, and coalitions for better cities and towns.