This is the longer, unedited version of my column in today’s Wall Street Journal.
Remaking our sprawling suburbs, with their enormous footprints, shoddy construction, hastily put up infrastructure, and dying malls, is shaping up to be the biggest urban revitalization challenge of modern times—far larger in scale, scope and cost than the revitalization of our inner cities.
What a dramatic shift. Just a couple of decades ago, the suburbs were the locus of the American Dream. More than their sprawling, large-lot homes and big wide lawns, their shopping malls, industrial parks, and office campuses accounted for a growing percentage of the nation’s economic output. A good many of them formed into Edge Cities—satellite centers where people could live, work, and shop without ever having to set foot in the center city.
With millions of homes underwater or in foreclosure, our suburbs and exurbs have taken some of the most visible hits from the great recession. In a stunning reversal, big cities like New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle have become talent magnets at the same time, drawing ambitious people, empty-nesters, young-families, and even a growing number of offices back to their downtown cores. As inner city neighborhoods are being gentrified, blight and intransigent poverty are moving out to the suburbs, where one third of the nation’s poor now reside—1.5 million more than in cities, according to a Brookings study. And suburban poverty populations are growing at five times the rate of those in cities.