Suburbs fall short of American dream

Their allure is fading quickly, according to one author. People are moving to denser communities to avoid long commutes and to have more interactions with neighbors.

By Julie K Balise Aug 6, 2013 7:59AM

The suburbs aren't dead yet, but their allure is fading quickly, according to Leigh Gallagher, the author of "The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving."

Gallagher, who is also an assistant managing editor of Fortune magazine, spoke with CNBC about why the suburban American dream isn't working.


"A lot of people our age or older have a tremendous amount of nostalgia for the suburbs," she says. "Going outside, playing until 6 o'clock when it was time for dinner, having tons of kids around -- that is sort of no more."

Gallagher says people are moving to denser communities to create happier and more satisfying lives. She sees this as a positive trend. The shift is happening for a range of reasons, she says, from health to frustration with long, expensive commutes. Some people aren't finding the suburbs fulfilling.


Large spaces between homes can make it hard to meet and mingle with neighbors. This contradicts the perception of the suburbs, where neighborly interactions are considered the norm.


Gallagher met one woman who was leaving her 6,000-square-foot house outside of Chicago for a community where the homes are right next to each other.


The woman told Gallagher about how she spoke with a community resident in her kitchen.


"She said, 'It's been 10 years in my community with a big house, in 10 years, I've never stood in anybody else's kitchen,'" Gallagher recounts.


Some communities that don't have a downtown are finding their own ways to bring people together.


Suburban housing developments in Phoenix, Ariz. (© Radius Images/Getty Images)Gallagher came across a town in New Jersey whose residents were worried about trick-or-treating on Halloween. The houses were too far apart, the kids would get exhausted, and they wouldn't get enough candy. They chose to change things.


"So all the parents drove to the K-8 school, parked their cars in tailgate formation, and the kids would trick-or-treat from car to car," she said. "They liked it. It worked for them.


"But that just shows you they're having to re-create this kind of faux community."


Gallagher noted that family sizes are also shrinking. This is having a "dramatic impact" on the taxpayer base in the suburbs, she says. She describes the suburb outside of Philadelphia where her father grew up. There were 41 kids on his block.


"There are now fewer than 15 children on that very same block," she says. "That's happening all over the place. The taxpayer base in the suburbs is going to change."


That taxpayer base increasingly comprises senior citizens and baby boomers, Gallagher said. Their priorities are different from those of young families, who may be more interested in school programs than bold, readable road signs.


Changes underway already are now accelerating.


"It's really in the middle of this incredible transformation," Gallagher says.


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Aug 6, 2013 11:18AM
You can have the city and suburb life.........I prefer a house in the middle of 150 acres surrounded by trees. 
Aug 6, 2013 10:20AM
"The houses were too far apart, the kids would get exhausted, and they wouldn't get enough candy." LMAO. The reason these people aren't meeting their neighbors is because their kids are sitting on the couch playing video games. They need to go play in the neighborhood. We've met our neighbors because their kids met our kids riding around the block.
Aug 6, 2013 11:58AM
The distance from house to house isn't the problem. It's the pull up, click the garage door open, drive in, and close the door until morning while you sit in front of the big screen TV.

Open the door and sit outside. You'll meet the neighbors. You may not like them, but you'll meet them.
Aug 6, 2013 3:33PM
What's really ruined is the idea that we all pay for homes we can afford. I'm tired of seeing more and more Section 8 Housing near my neighborhood - which at one time, was the lowest crime rate in my city and surrounded by beautiful trees with quiet and working neighbors. Now, it's the single mother with three kids who sits home all day on the porch and wonders where I go for nine hours day (uh, it's called a JOB) and why I have no kids (uh, CAN'T AFFORD THEM)  and why I have to actually pay more than $165 a month for my pile of bricks (uh, it's called a MORTGAGE.)

Aug 6, 2013 12:49PM
I grew up in a row home and now live in a single home. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but I would never go back to a row home (townhouse) again. The people have changed and living in a denser community is not going to change that fact.

The U.S.A. That Was

There was a time that people helped people because it was the right thing to do. There was a time when people saw a need and worked in the community to provide for the need. There was a time when family helped family and generations lived together to help provide for each other. There was a time when if a person had a problem they solved it themselves or asked for help from family and friends. There was a time when people had respect for each other. There was a time when religion was an important part of our lives. There was a time when it was okay to believe in God and let everyone know it. There was a time when religious organizations were free to help those in need and provide services to all without interference. There was a time when neighbor helped neighbor and knew each other’s names. There was a time when black and white people came together in their communities for the good of all. There was a time when black and white children played and sang together.


Now people help people just for there own self-esteem and public image. Now when people see a need they wait for someone else to fix it or run to the government. Now we regard family as a burden and would consider living together a hardship, so we run to the government. Now if we have a problem we run to government and expect them so make it all better. Now it’s everyone for themselves and everything you do is wrong and the government can do it better. Now religion is something to be hidden, only whispered about and we run to the government to protect us from another’s beliefs. Now if a religious organization tries to help they have to give up their own customs and identity so no one they are helping gets offended, and the people run to the government to complain if they see a symbol. Now we try to be as far away from our neighbor as possible, and we don’t even know our neighbors name as we expect them to give up there rights and we run to the government to force our neighbor to do what we want so we are not offended. Now blacks and whites do not trust each other and the government does nothing but make exceptions and excuses, and points out all our differences instead of our common rights.

Aug 6, 2013 3:26PM
I'd rather live in a house in the burbs then in an apartment where you smell everyone's cooking and other smells in the hallway on every floor.
Aug 6, 2013 12:07PM
Sounds a typical left wing article trying to sell people on moving back to a rat-infested, crime-ridden, excessovcely taxed, unsavory person populated city like Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia.  Single home living is the fabric of America.  leave the cities to the Obamacare welfare folk.
Aug 6, 2013 3:29PM
This is a ridiculous article.  Older suburbs have fewer kids because the families in those communities have aged.  Cost of living for established suburbs is so high that very few young families can afford to own let alone rent.  So the aging population is not indicative of suburb living.  Also the influx of multi-family housing to maximize space and land value, the fact that technology has reduced the amount of face-to-face social interaction, and security concerns for toddlers and preteens (kidnappings, vandalism, and injury) have all contributed to a less social suburb.

Aug 6, 2013 1:42PM

The philosophy of whether to live far from neighbors or close to them should be an individual's choice.  As long as a relatively free market (that's people like you and me) is allowed to provide choices, different people can pursue their respective visions of happiness.  Everybody shouldn't live in the city.  Everybody shouldn't live in suburbs, either.


The fact that many comments so far are about romanticizing one's chosen place of residence shows that there are still plenty of Americans who would prefer not to look at the way Middle Class America is being eroded.  More and more Americans are now "former professionals" for whom the luxury of a suburban home on a large lot is a broken dream.  Some former homeowners are forced to consider ghetto-quality apartments in overcrowded areas, dirty streets, run by managers who don't fix broken things.  In the Los Angeles, CA area, it costs $900/month to share an apartment in an upscale neighborhood.  For $600/month, you share a bedroom in the upscale apartment.  Life is no longer about buying new furniture, but getting rid of furniture you've accumulated for decades.


If you still have a nice house, hug it like a teddy bear! 

Aug 6, 2013 10:06AM
I can understand these feelings. I was a big city kid but have lived in the suburbs of Northern Virginia for the last 18 years. People in the majority are not friendly at all. They barely raise their heads to say hello. I still would not go back to the big city. It's just too expensive. 
Aug 6, 2013 5:07PM

Personally, I think it's worth a 45 minute commute to have plenty of space between you and your neighbors. 


I don't need to hear the people next door fighting and making love on the other side of the wall.

Aug 6, 2013 2:44PM
The largest and fastest growing community in our area is the mobile/camper trailer parks. We seem to be reverting back to a nomadic type society were people and families are chasing the last of the available jobs.  
Aug 6, 2013 1:29PM
LIES...the trash is sprading out to the burbs making them mini versions of the inner city trachcans. The other reason is the middle class has been neutered and can no longer afford to live there and thus are moving back to the cheaper trashcans known as major cities.
Aug 6, 2013 3:14PM
I would love to live in a city environment, but the problem is you practically have to be wealthy to live in a safe area.

Heck, even the suburbs are becoming crime ridden though.
Aug 6, 2013 1:36PM
The NWO has a hidden agenda to move people back into the city and conveniently call it with the many disguised meanings of community reinvestment programs. The goal is to get you in a Soviet style condo, apartment or small house where you will have to pay higher taxes, be conditioned to government assistance i.e. food, fuel, healthcare, schools, jobs all provided by the State or an entity of. You will be better controlled and kept on a tighter leash with rules and regulations. Society will forget how to farm, tend to the land, be self-sufficient and be totally incapable of being able to live, interact or survive outdoors in the country. Stanley Kurtz wrote an interesting book called "Spreading the wealth: How Obama is robbing the suburbs to pay for cities." It's worth reading. I have started to research this topic thoroughly. Then there is the UN Agenda 21 which focuses on urban relocation to big cities. I don't like what I see with these common threads.
Aug 6, 2013 8:45PM
I think the rise of technology has people sitting in the house more than they did 20 years ago. The is less interaction with neighbors. I went to my old neighborhood and I didn't see any kids outside playing.
Aug 6, 2013 10:40AM
The cost of commuting is going way up with high gas prices.  And people don't want to spend double-digit hours every week commuting. 

IMO, more and more, we'll see more defined and separate living spaces.  The vast majority of people will either live in the city or they will live in the country on acres of land - there won't be nearly as many "in-betweener suburb dwellers".  Those who live and work in the city will stay in the city.  Those who live in the country will either work nearby or from their home, and will rarely visit the city.
Aug 6, 2013 10:18AM
The cost of keeping up the infrastructure in the suburbs is going to get too expensive also. It makes me wonder if the McMansions will get turned into condos.
Aug 7, 2013 12:16PM
This author must be under 30. You could not PAY me any amount of money to live in any crowded, smelly, congested. polluted city - ever. I do not want neighbors two feet away from me. I could give a rat's about constant social interaction. I like to socialize and then, everyone goes home. the city has zero to offer other than sports teams. Anything in the city can be found in the suburbs in a far less crowded and totally more enjoyable atmosphere.
Aug 7, 2013 1:57PM
It all comes down to one's personal expectations of life.  I expect to walk outside my house and see the space station passing overhead at night, not drowned out by fluorescent light.  I expect to hear birds in the morning singing and not mass transit and emergency vehicle sirens constantly in the background.  I expect to smell honeysuckle from my patio and not the urine of drunks in the street.  Again, your life, your choice... 
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