|The Great Inversion, illustrated. Source: miamism.com|
A couple years ago, I thought American metro area demographic trends over the last 5-10 years pointed to what I called the Great Congealing, whereupon differences — economic, social, cultural — between city and suburb were melting away. Today, I’m leaning much more to what is called the Great Inversion — growing numbers of wealthy and highly educated white residents relocating in cities coupled with growing numbers of minorities moving to suburbs, led by African-Americans.
This was first brought to my attention by Alan Ehrenhalt, currently a senior contributing editor for Governing Magazine. In 2012 he published The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. Amazon has a wonderful synopsis of his thesis:
In The Great Inversion, Alan Ehrenhalt, one of our leading urbanologists, reveals how the roles of America’s cities and suburbs are changing places—young adults and affluent retirees moving in, while immigrants and the less affluent are moving out—and addresses the implications of these shifts for the future of our society.
Ehrenhalt shows us how the commercial canyons of lower Manhattan are becoming residential neighborhoods, and how mass transit has revitalized inner-city communities in Chicago and Brooklyn. He explains why car-dominated cities like Phoenix and Charlotte have sought to build twenty-first-century downtowns from scratch, while sprawling postwar suburbs are seeking to attract young people with their own form of urbanized experience.
Consider me a convert.
I first noted signs of this almost two years ago by looking at some American Community Survey data on, of all places, Detroit, my hometown, but then I saw growing evidence of the same trend in many other cities. With the release of the 2014 ACS data by the Census Bureau last September, others saw the same trend, and I commented on it too. In fact, my dataset of the twenty largest metro areas in the nation showed that in 12, whites were increasing their numbers in cities and declining in the suburbs. Similarly, in 19 metros black suburban population grew, while declining in cities.
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In general, the changes taking place in cities that tend to dominate urbanism debates — gentrification, a post-industrial economy, rising housing costs, low and middle income resident displacement — have been explained in terms that miss the broader demographic shift that might really govern who we live. To the extent that anyone does think about this, it’s related in completely positive terms – cities are finally getting the attention and investment they’ve been lacking for generations; suburbs are finally gaining the diversity that makes them more complete as communities. But both points assume that the inversion is complete, when it is far from that.
Ehrenhalt takes great pains to note that in mature nations like the U.S., the transformation is not one that is a complete overhaul of metropolitan areas. It is gradual, incremental, and long term. The slow process leaves plenty of room for argument between ardent urbanists and suburban supporters, who can each find data points to advance their view. Much like past and current debates about climate change, we won’t all agree that it’s real until it’s actually here. But it is coming.
We’re presumably 20 years into the Great Inversion in many cities, and its impacts are becoming evident.
For cities, the Great Inversion could bring the resources and amenities they’ve lacked for decades. Home prices and rents will accelerate relative to suburban areas. Professional, creative and tech jobs will concentrate in cities. Investment in infrastructure, particularly in transit, will increase. Political leadership will change to represent its newest residents. We’ve seen evidence of this in cities nationwide already. Increased demand for housing is raising prices from Washington, DC to San Francisco, and calls to relax or reform zoning to allow for more housing units in cities are growing.
Within suburban areas, home prices and rents may stagnate or decline relative to cities. Lower paying manufacturing and service jobs will concentrate in suburbs, replacing the jobs relocating to cities. The pie for infrastructure funding directed at suburbs will grow smaller, leading to political squabbles and further infrastructure deterioration. Lastly, confrontations could emerge, and intensify, between longtime residents and newcomers. In suburbs with residents that have options, as newcomers move in many will elect to move into cities or further out to the suburban periphery. In other suburbs, however, many residents will elect to dig in and seek to protect their financial and social investment, in spite of calls for changes from new residents. The seeds of conflict will be sown.
In other words, if the Great Inversion continues, cities may increasingly be known for being diverse, inclusive and affluent. Suburbs may increasingly be known for being segregated, isolated, and eventually poorer. None of this is especially prescient; it’s an extrapolation of current trends.
There are, of course, many caveats to this. Not all cities will undergo such a transition, or all parts of it. Not all suburbs will, either. Nationwide, there are metro areas with core cities that are largely suburban in character, and while some will escape the trend, others that do exhibit its traits will be seen only for their decline and not for anything else. There are also metro areas that have urban characteristics that extend far beyond the core city borders, and suburban areas there could mimic the rebound taking place in cities.
The next five years are critical. If data between now and 2020 continues to support the notion of the Great Inversion, the impacts will deepen. At that point we’ll need to determine whether new policy ideas are necessary to extend the trend, or reverse it.