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The Great Inversion

Which city is this?:

“Like most cities, X once had an extensive streetcar system, but as in most of them, this was essentially destroyed after World War II. From the 1950s to the 1980s, as X was ringing the entire metropolitan area with freeways, public transport was limited to an inadequate and generally unreliable bus network.”

Well it is Auckland almost exactly [although we're still building the freeways] but the quote is about Houston, Texas. Yes the big oil capital of America, one of the those southwest ‘air-con and auto’ sprawl cities and is just one example of how similar forces shape very different and distant places in similar ways through time.

There was, of course, a demographic shift that accompanied this big transport technology change [as both cause and effect] the famous ‘flight to the suburbs’. And what is especially interesting about the book that this quote is from is that it clearly lays out how the 21st century has witnessed the reversal of that post-war phenomenon across the entire range of cities in US. Instead of the significant aspirational movement heading out to the edges we are seeing what the author, Alan Ehrenhalt, is calling The Great Inversion; a return to the centre.

The Great Inversion

The Great Inversion

His thesis is best summed here:

Just a couple of decades ago, we took it for granted that inner cities were the preserve of immigrants and the poor, and that suburbs were the chosen destination of those who could afford them. Today, a demographic inversion is taking place: Central cities increasingly are where the affluent want to live, while suburbs are becoming home to poorer people and those who come to America from other parts of the world. Highly educated members of the emerging millennial generation are showing a decided preference for urban life and are being joined in many places by a new class of affluent retirees.

Ehrenhalt is a very careful student of place, this is not a work of speculation but of fine grained analysis and observation. He is also no old city urban snob, he does start his list of case studies in Chicago and New York but the bulk of the book is spent looking at the changes going on in places that are hardly on anyones list of urban successes; Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Cleveland, even ex-urban Atlanta. And in fact while some attention goes to the surprising case of Manhattan’s Wall St district being invaded by baby strollers [something even Jane Jacobs dismissed as impossible] the examples in Chicago and NY are both suburban.

His description of the changes in property value and demographics in Sheffield an inner suburb of Chicago pretty much describes similar changes we can see in say Grey Lynn in Auckland. The upgrade of ‘workingmen’s cottages’ to highly sought after homes by exactly the same cohort of affluent younger singles, couples, and, increasingly families, displacing poorer students and working class families. There are even all the same issues; complaints around gentrification, building heritage, fear of higher density. It is striking just how similar these movements and issues are.

Of course Sheffield’s change grew around the L stations that Chicago didn’t abandon and that are now being invested in and attracting increased ridership. Like the other NY example the very grim Brooklyn suburb of Bushwick, a post industrial wasteland of poverty, dependency, and drug crime on the ‘wrong’ side of that borough, ie unlike fashionable Williamsburg it is facing away from Manhattan. But it is on the subway and therefore directly linked to the centre:

“The train is the entire reason this is happening,” says loft entrepreneur Kevin Lindamood, echoing the flat pronouncement of real estate agent Ted McLauhglin that “these days, convenience trumps aestetics.”

He is very clear about the role of Transit and driving amenity in demographic movements and opportunity but this isn’t a transport book, interestingly, his main conclusion is that it is really all about choice. Enough people just want to have more intense urban living, working, and playing opportunities, not everyone, but there is plenty of suburbia and exurbia for those who don’t :

“I would go so far as to say that choice is what urbanism of the next generation is all about.”

Or this quote from Architecture professor Tom Diehl about the changes in Houston, in particular the tentative and fiercely contested new Light Rail investment:

‘The people who want to live close in are finally getting something now. The people who want to live on the freeway already have what they want.”

And he is very clear that he is not seeing an abandonment of suburbia, that demographic inversion is not the same as mass migration. But that, interestingly, a sizeable proportion of both the kids of the suburban era and their now downsizing parents are shifting in. The suburbs they are leaving are often being occupied by new immigrants and by the less affluent families who used to occupy the rundown inner suburbs.

For someone who grew up in a totally monocultural and suburban Howick and first came [escaped] to Ponsonby when it was a multicultural and undervalued inner suburb, the relevance of this book to Auckland is more than obvious; it’s biographical [my parents, ahead of their time, downsized to an inner city apartment too]. Perversely Howick is now multicultural and Ponsonby more monocultural than it has been since the Edwardian era. And Ehrenhalt has described how: immigration in Auckland largely [but not only] has a suburban locus and many ex-suburbanites have upscaled inwardly.

Exactly what we can see in Auckland: A big enough proportion of the Millenial cohort and their baby boomer empty-nester parents leaving the outer ‘burbs for the inner ones to drive up prices there. And new New Zealanders filling in the old boom-burbs of the previous era along with displaced working class populations from older Victorian and Edwardian inner Auckland. Having until recently not been a city of apartments Auckland is getting those again too.

Because of the way he has structured the book around very close analysis of parts of very different US cities it is a really good way to understand how vitally important the specifics of physical geography, climate, historic patterns, previous infrastructure investments, local institutions, local leadership, and employment changes are to the forms of each city. Yes he shows a very clear collective theme, a zeitgeist, that is undeniably occurring, but how it plays out, and what should or could be done in each city is strikingly different. This, in many ways, makes it a very powerful tool for local understanding wherever you are.

My favourite observation in the book is one that I’ve expressed here before. We are heading back to the future: Even sprawl cities and smaller suburban centres are aspiring to a condition closer to the city streets of the early 20th and 19th Centuries than the totally auto-dependent ones of more recent times. But of course with contemporary technology. Ehrenhalt quotes the urban historian David Olsen who perceptively wrote in 1986:

“If we are to achieve an urban renaissance, it is the nineteenth century city that will be reborn.”

Not of course the crushing social inequality nor environmental carelessness of that age but a return to urban vitality; the city as “centre of commerce and sociability, of nonstop human drama,of endless surprise and stimulation. One might call it, as many did at the time, a theatre of living”. Ehrenhalt also makes the point that those old city streets were way beyond “mixed use” in the modern sense: “This was essentially “all use” urbanism.”

This is, after all, how progress works, change is never linear; all those predictions from the 50s of flying cars and jet packs really express the obsessions of their age, not only a dated technophilia [nuclear everything] but also a horror of social intensity that many now crave. Really it is those still fantasising about driverless pods that are the old fashioned ones. The future ain’t what it used to be.

There’s a brief interview here that expands a little on his themes, including a polite reposte to Joel Kotkin’s standard inability to imagine change. But most of all I strongly recommend anyone interested in what the future holds for cities everywhere should read this book. Especially in Auckland because it is happening here and although like all change there will be some good things that are lost, it describes a mostly exciting and optimistic future for this increasingly urban century.

12 comments to The Great Inversion

  • Kent Lundberg

    Sounds like a great book. I find it fascinating that so many cities are experiencing the same phenomena.

    • Especially when you consider that cities like Houston in the SW of the Us are moving in that direction. Certain people (who shall remain nameless but you all know who I mean) have tried to convince us that cities like Houston have no interest in PT and show it as an example of “smart sprawl”, an oxymoron if ever I heard one. This shows that even those cities are recognising that motorways arent the best fit for everyone and that people need choice.

      Houston’s light rail looks great and I cant wait to see our light rail coming up Quay Street and then a pedestrianised Queen Street. All we need now is some 21st politicians in Wellington to get it done!

  • Rob

    Hmm Wellington itself is still waiting for those politicians and light rail.

  • “it is the nineteenth century city that will be reborn.”

    So- interesting architecture again then? :-)

  • Bryce P

    Thanks for listing this and the other books you guys have mentioned over the years. I have just finished reading ‘Walkable City How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time’ by Jeff Speck (Kindle version). Amazing read and very insightful as to how we need to change or improve our building of cities for the future. Maybe the mod’s could make a list of must read’s for us mere mortals who missed uni?

    • We are kind of doing that. Another book review coming up tomorrow.

    • Speck is great too…. Very hands on and practical.

      • Warren S

        I have just finished reading ‘ The Great Inversion ‘ but the best of all is Jeff Speck’s ‘Walkable City’. I love his laid back wisdom and his style.
        One comment: Some where in the book Speck says a big no no is putting a metro station on the wrong side of a car park so that passengers have walk through the car park to get to the station…………………….and where is the Manukau spur station placed – on the other side of a car park – it should run through the car park and finish right where the old Manukau City offices are! Unbelievably bad planning.

  • Kevyn

    Even Detroit has plans for light rail, to connect the Downtown and New Centre CBDs. Since the city’s university and historic housing districts are all located along the route it seems to be a perfect example of what the book is arguing.

    By the way, if you need a mental challenge over the holidays try comparing the government’s christchurch plan with downtown Detroit. If you can find more than half a dozen diffrences (other than street names) you’ll be doing pretty good.

  • Mr Plod

    To save me the search time can someone please post up a link to a ‘Christchurch Plan’ that shows what you’re saying. thanks

  • Luke C

    Any issue for baby boomers at the moment is they may want to downsize, often to deleverage as much as anything. However they want to stay in the same suburb to keep their social networks, local patterns and shopping. However due to the lack of hosting variety they are unable to find a smaller house in the same area. Hopefully the Unitary Plan could help fix that with a range of smaller houses popping up around the place.

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