Monday, July 28, 2008

The appeal of downtown

The latest New Republic repeats an idea I first saw in the Atlantic Monthly in March:  the cool people are moving out of the suburbs and back to downtown.  TNR thinks a lot more of us will try to emulate the example of Vancouver, B.C:

20 percent of its residents live within a couple of square miles of each other in the city's center. Downtown Vancouver is a forest of slender, green, condo skyscrapers, many of them with three-story townhouse units forming a kind of podium at the base. Each morning, there are nearly as many people commuting out of the center to jobs in the suburbs as there are commuting in. Two public elementary schools have opened in downtown Vancouver in the past few years. A large proportion of the city's 600,000 residents, especially those with money, want to live downtown.

The Atlantic article is better overall because it suggests broad long-term demographic trends, and not simply the arrival of $5 gas.  One quote:

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

If you think about it from the perspective of hip, single people, urban life is hands-down more interesting.  No amount of hi-tech gizmos (telepresence, wall-size HD TVs, etc.) will ever replace the appeal of being able to directly interact with lots of fun neighbors.  That's true for families too: as long as we can get a little peace and quiet when we need it, it will always be nice to have the kids walk to activities and meet their friends. I can go from my house on Mercer Island to downtown Seattle in under 15 minutes, but it's still no substitute for being able to walk outside to a coffee shop, order fancy food delivered from downtown restaurants, or quickly access the other great resources (libraries, museums) of a big city.

That said, I have a hard time imagining how people will give up the extra elbow room we get in the suburbs.  It's nice to have a garden, a lawn, a big garage--all the reasons people move away from downtown as soon as they can afford it. 

You know what I predict?  As people get wealthier, they'll try to have the best of both worlds:  own/rent a place downtown for when you feel like being urban, and settle back in the suburbs (or further) as your home base the rest of the time.  In 2030 everyone will be far, far richer than today, and we'll just do it all.

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