The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City
“The author’s presentation mixes personal vignettes, urban statistics, metro stories, discussion of larger forces, specific case studies, and policy commentary. Balanced, nuanced, and objective in its treatment, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City is a profoundly important book that deserves to be read by anyone concerned about the destiny of society and economy.”
Economic systems, social organization, culture, and values determine societal spatial patterns. The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry enabled people to live in fixed places, rather than moving around, as they did in the prior hunter/gatherer economic phase. The emergence of small crafts and specialization led to villages.
The Industrial Revolution, requiring large numbers of workers living proximate to factories, lead to cities. And modern capitalization, enabling mass retailing and the emergence of automobiles, led to suburbs. One interpretation of the appeal of suburbs is a combination of town and country, the proximity to and the experience of—both in one place.
Now, in the information era, people have even more choices about the places in which they live, work, and engage in myriad other place experiences. Some commentators asserted that technology advances would enable people to live far from cities and therefore cities would decline as more people would live in the suburbs and beyond, in rural settings, far away from cities.
Has this prediction of the demise of cities been accurate? No. In fact, the opposite has occurred. This phenomenon, its causes and consequences, is the focus of Alan Ehrenhalt’s engaging The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City.
The title of this book derives from the reversal of the relationship, over the last half century, of the rich living far out and the poor living close to the city center. Now the rich live close in, and the poor live far out.
The author proclaims, “The massive outward migration that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end. And we need to adjust our perceptions of cities, suburbs, and urban mobility as a result.” This inversion is driven by the rich placing greater value on time and community experiences, resources, and connections.*
Among the consequences of this realignment—from dispersed to centralized—are shifting societal spatial patterns reflected in movement from inside to outside: Contrary to popular impression, people in cities generally tend to be outside more while those in suburbs stay in. The story of where people choose to live is truly the story of their choices in how they would access the American dream and pursue the opportunities implicit therein.
These place decisions both respond to and shape trends. Consider how manufacturing employment in Philadelphia has declined from 45% in 1950 to 20% in 1980 to just 4% in 2007. As the structures that formerly housed now obsolete manufacturing are converted to residential uses—for it is far easier and more rewarding to convert dated commercial properties to residential than contemporary commercial uses—“Philadelphia’s downtown . . . is a place where increasing numbers of affluent people want to live.”
In Philadelphia, as in many places, as the middle class replaces manufacturing in cities, schools improve and crime declines.
The author visits, profiles, and evaluates many metros through his “great inversion” lens to chronicle the reclaiming of places from the solitary, isolated use patterns to the design of urban form, to the “all use urbanism” of the great European cities pre-1900. These great “theater for living” places were “a center of activity, much more than of motion, a center of commerce and sociability, of nonstop human drama, of endless surprises and stimulation.”
As evocative and appealing as such storied urban places as Paris, London, and Vienna may be, metros today vary widely in their capacity to accommodate—let alone provide the desired urban experiences for—the legions of new people who flock to cities.
In those great European cities “people were out in the streets . . . because they did not want to be inside.” After street life virtually disappeared in American cities, it is returning, for “People with widely different backgrounds and modes of living come together on the sidewalks of Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and a growing number of other cities in ways that would have been unthinkable in 1980.”
In America in the second half of the 20th century, time that might have been spent in social interchanges or experiencing the sociability and stimulus of urban life was largely devoted to crushingly dispiriting and excruciating long commutes to and from work.
The author concludes that those who live in cities “will be doing so as a matter of choice.” The character and shape of cities will be determined by the crucial “question of whether to save two or three hours commuting back and forth to work each day,” which living in exurbia involves; the alternative is living the urban lifestyle.
The author astutely recognizes that communications technology advances are not just substitutes for social interchanges but crucial supplements to them for: “As anyone who walks down an urban street knows, a significant proportion of the cell phone conversations that take place are simply logistical arrangements, as people seek to reveal to others where they are in space and how soon they can meet one another oat an agreed-upon location.”
Technology enhancing place proximity, rather than dealing it a death blow, as so many misinformed technology proponents predicted, follows from the consideration that “The more that people are enabled by technology to communicate with one another while remaining physically solitary, the more they crave a physical form of social life top balance out all the electronics.”
The narrative of The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City unfolds in a fascinating chronicle that blends urban place history, cultural commentary, sociological analysis, and urban theory.
The author’s presentation mixes personal vignettes, urban statistics, metro stories, discussion of larger forces, specific case studies, and policy commentary. Balanced, nuanced, and objective in its treatment, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City is a profoundly important book that deserves to be read by anyone concerned about the destiny of society and economy.
*Significantly, this profound change exemplifies themes that Jane Jacobs advanced a half century ago. Jacobs was, according to Wikipedia, an American-Canadian writer and activist whose primary interests lay in communities, urban planning, and urban decay, and she wrote the seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, “a powerful critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s.” This book is a reference worth examining.