Cities are not the future

One of the big trends of the last 10 years was the rise of cities — knowledge workers especially relocated to urban centers, and the sharing of ideas that came from that made cities much richer than they were before. It’s become conventional wisdom that the future contains more of the same. However, I’ve started to think this trend may have run it’s course, and may even be reversing.

Cities are not sustainable

With the rise of cities came huge issues related to skyrocketing rent and gentrification. I won’t repeat the discussion here since it’s been made elsewhere countless times. What’s changed is it seems to me now that the political issue of getting homeowners to agree to more housing seems basically intractable.

The advantages of cities are not that great

It’s true that knowledge workers need to live near each other to collaborate and work together. But do they need to be in the same neighborhood, or the same metro area? If we put a limit on commutes at 40 mins per day, that still means people who work directly with each other can live up to 20 miles away from each other.

The other purported advantages of cities are cultural. Cool people, like artists and bands, live in cities, which makes it fun for young people to live there. However, given how high rents have become, this is no longer true. Where I live, in London, the creative people have moved to towns like Brighton and Manchester (or even Berlin), and in San Francisco, the creative people live in dangerous warehouses in Oakland.

The other advantages of living in a city are social, such as nightclubs or restaurants. However, as time-poor young professionals choose Tinder, nightclubs are closing. And internet food delivery services & Amazon are making nice food available over a larger radius. The same applies to niche retail — most of the time, you can buy what you want online.

The disadvantages of cities are great

The biggest disadvantage of cities over suburbs is living space. Nobody can argue having roommates way into your late 20s is the optimal arrangement. High rents make it a necessity to have a high paying job, rather than a choice, and make landlord disputes more onerous. These things probably affect quality of life much more than cupcake stores.

Another disadvantage is poor neighborhoods in cities are worse than the equivalent in the suburbs. As well as being more at risk of gentrification, it also seems like a more depressing environment to live in. I say this because on my commute in east London, I pass this neighborhood that’s full of ugly brutalist tower block apartments and has a lot of low-level crime. The quality of life seems quite a bit worse than a suburban experience would be at the same cost.

When the creative people move out of a city due to high rents, all that is left are aging landowners, overstretched professionals, and urban slums. It’s no longer a pleasant place to live. Suburbs look a lot better than cities, and given the powerful psychological effect of nature, it’s worth taking that seriously.

You can get the important things about a city within a suburb

Many California suburbs already build specific “downtown” environments as a designated space for shops, restaurants, etc. There’s no reason why these should be sterile strip malls — downtown Oakland and Berkeley are interesting, vibrant places that follow a suburban development model. The entire city of Los Angeles is one big suburb, and plenty of weird stuff happens there.

I suspect the complaint people will have is that without cities there is no “serendipity”. I don’t think this is true. People run into each other by accident in LA all the time. You can definitely have serendipity within your own neighborhood & within the public spaces that you do frequent, though perhaps less in the suburban mega-region.

Another complaint about suburbs is a lack of “public space”. This is true — but I think a bigger issue is that in cities too much of your space is public. You have to share your home, your office building, your restaurant. Every daily decision requires compromise with hundreds of strangers. You might complain that a lack of public space makes fashion irrelevant — but again, the example of Los Angeles shows this is not true.

The cost of transportation is falling

The good news is that is becoming ever easier to live in a suburb whilst still enjoying most of the advantages of city life. Transport, thanks to services like Uber and soon autonomous cars, is getting cheaper and faster, which means metro areas can get much bigger than they are now. Co-workers might be able to live 100 miles away from each other without it being inconvenient.

The vast improvements in logistics in the last few years mean you don’t need to live in an urban center for 24/7 convenience. The environmental impact of suburbs may soon not be as worrisome as it used to be, thanks to the rise of electric cars.

I, for one, have had it with living in the city. Sure, it was fun to live above a gay bar for a while, but all the chaos and constant interaction with other people stresses me out, and maybe this makes me a square but — I’m ready for that manicured lawn.

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