The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Big Theory and the Great Congealing

Rockville Town Square in Rockville, MD, a suburb of Washington, DC.  Source:

I’ve been working on a new theory lately that attempts to anticipate what the next development era will look like.  I’ve started to test out a hypothesis and it might make some sense.

Readers here might be aware that I classified American urban development history into three broad eras: the Early Era (1795-1860); the Industrial Era (1870-1935); and the Auto Era (1945-2010).  The eras are distinct in their development patterns, and are separated by periods of serious economic/political/social change.  Within each development era I classified four development periods, which roughly correspond to generational differences and preferences, but still follow the same overall pattern of the prevailing era.  The development eras start after the American Revolutionary War and the instability that followed, prior to the establishment of the U.S. Constitution.  The other separation periods are the Civil War and the Great Depression/World War II.

You’ll notice that I had the most recent era, the Auto Era, end in 2010.  That’s because, after the 2008 housing crisis, I think we’ve now entered into a state of flux.  The drivers of the previous era — single family homeownership supported by federal, state and local subsidies and incentives, abundant land, cheap fuel, and an expansive and expensive highway network — are no longer working in concert to put people into housing.

Something new is emerging.  I don’t think it will be fully evident and recognized by most until 2020 or later, when the political apparatus will be put in place to support it.  But there are signs of it now.  I believe we’re entering the Congealing Era.

We’re seeing evidence that what we consider essential considerations for housing is changing more than at any time in the last 70 years.  Leigh Gallagher’s book The End of the Suburbs notes that the American Dream is changing.  Family households with young children are on the decline, and single-person households are rising.  We’re looking to leave our cars and explore other ways to get to where we work and play.  And the Millennial generation, the highly-educated twenty-somethings who are the next big movers into the housing market, bears little of the anti-city bias of the Boomer and Xer generations, and show a greater willingness to move into cities.

So why the Congealing Era?  Because I see us entering an era where distinctions between city and suburb will disappear.  Suburbs will begin to look like cities physically, while cities will begin to look like suburbs demographically.  Suburbs that stand to benefit in the upcoming era will be ones that urbanize, and attract a group that effectively repudiates the lifestyle of previous generations.  That will mean the development of town centers, multifamily and rental housing, and a more diverse menu of amenities.  Changes within cities will continue to proceed as they have, perhaps with less rapidity if suburbs are urbanizing as well.  I believe this will be driven by access and connectivity factors, like access to transit and highways that can deliver residents to job centers.  In many metros, like Chicago, where there are relatively large socioeconomic differences between city and suburb, congealing will have the appearance of suburban decline and city growth; the truth is, both will be on a path of convergence.  If my Big Theory of Development has any truth to it at all, this will rule American development for the bulk of the twenty-first century.

So here’s my experiment.  Below is a map of the seven-county northeastern Illinois area around Chicago.  The map shows municipal boundaries, Chicago community areas (neighborhood-level areas in the city), all heavy rail public transit lines (CTA and Metra), and interstate highways.  I wanted to show municipalities that have, either within their boundaries or adjacent to them, one of four characteristics:

  • Places with rail and interstate access;
  • Places with rail access only;
  • Places with interstate access only; and
  • Places with neither rail or interstate access.
My hypothesis is that a new hierarchy is forming that blows away city/suburb distinctions over the long term.  If access and connectivity are becoming the key drivers for future development, places that have multiple modes available to them will be the winners and those without will be the losers.  Further, if the move away from auto use endures, places that have transit access will benefit more than those with highway access.  These could be the markers for communities in the Congealing Era.  
Here’s my crude, rude map showing how this might play out in the Chicago area (if any readers with GIS skills are willing to take this on, please e-mail me, and click to make big):

Here, green areas are those with rail and interstate access.  Darker yellow areas are those with rail access only.  Lighter yellow areas are those with interstate access only, and those areas left blank have neither.  The dotted line represents roughly contiguous areas with rail and/or interstate access.  I see them as the beneficiaries of this trend.  Those on the outside of the dotted line may be faced with challenges in the new environment.

A few observations:

  • As expected, all of the city of Chicago is rail or highway accessible, with a few small exceptions.
  • North, northwest and western parts of the Chicago area are FAR more connected than the southwest and southern portions.  I’m guessing there are historical reasons for the disparities.
  • Many of the light yellow suburban areas are the post-’70s suburbs we generally associate with sprawl.
There are many more conclusions that can be drawn from this, but I’ll explore them later.  In the meantime, 

6 Responses to “The Big Theory and the Great Congealing”

  1. Kenny

    It's nice to keep 65 year blocks for each of the periods, but it definitely seems like a lot of the trends that will shape the Great Congealing began in the 2000's or even the 1990's. Car use seems to have peaked around 2005, and highway construction peaked even earlier, in the mid-90's. The modern streetcar and light rail era began around then also (and maybe even a little back into the '80s). I think many of the modern trends in mixed-use buildings may have started then too.But I suppose it's true that none of these things have seemed to reach a sort of critical mass until the past few years, especially with the financial crisis causing the single-family home construction industry to crash. And it's probably true that much of the post-war auto-oriented development era was really already beginning in the '30s and '20s, though it didn't take over until after WWII. So maybe this break at 2010 (or 2008 or 2007 or 2005, if you want to use some aspect of the crisis as the turning point) is reasonable enough.


  2. Pete Saunders

    Kenny, thanks for the comment. I recognize there's more overlap between eras and periods than I show. you're clearly right that trends pointing toward congealing were evident going back as much as 20 years ago. But I'd view this theory as a continuum of cycles rather than definitive beginning and end points. One could say, for example, that the post-WWII Levittown-type suburb had its origins in the Garden City movement that Ebenezer Howard put out 40 years earlier. There were homes and communities that were built along those lines prior to the post-WWII era, but they did not dominate the development landscape until much later. Same with current congealing trends. Suburban poverty has been rising faster than city poverty for more than a decade. Revitalization/gentrification in cities has been accelerating too. But the dominant pattern of development up to the housing crisis was still conventional suburbia, and we've been in a state of flux since because that model isn't working anymore.


  3. Jaja

    Does the map highlight neighborhoods/suburbs that have an interstate/rail line running specifically through them, or neighborhoods/suburbs that are within a certain distance? More of the Southwest Side is covered than I thought would be.


  4. Pete Saunders

    Jaja, since this is a handmade map there may be some errors. I fully admit to that. I'd love to do this in GIS so I can be precise. But the intention was to include nabes/burbs that have rail lines and highways running through them or forming a part of a boundary, irrespective of whether the nabe/burb has a stop or exit. There may be some errors on the Southwest Side, but I remember while doing this that the CTA's Orange Line and Metra's Heritage Corridor and Southwest Line appear to give the area more transit access than it really has. The Heritage Corridor operates only three inbound and outbound trains per day, but otherwise cuts through a large area that has no other transit options. The Southwest Line has only six inbound and outbound trains daily. Service is very limited on either line, and it's fair to say most communities along them are hardly dependent on them.. This is definitely a case of where the perception is more accurate than the reality.


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