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The Paleo Cities of Tomorrow

Ten years removed from the Great Recession, America is gaining perspective on its impacts. Nowhere is this truer than within the urban planning profession, where we’re getting a reality check about our 2008 rhetoric which predicted the birth of a new era that would leave the suburbs behind.

A wake-up call that America could no longer sustain its sprawling suburban growth of the late 20th century, many in the planning field predicted that the global economic plunge would be a tipping point in American development. What would follow, they suggested, would be a radical shift in the way Americans lived – out of the suburbs, and back into cities. The great challenge of the future, it was suggested, would be what to do about vacant and decaying suburbs once they had been abandoned.

While the decade after the Great Recession did see positive reinvestment in the heart of most large American downtowns, it wasn’t at the suburbs’ expense. Amid the birth of countless new technologies and trends that have dominated headlines – when the recession hit the iPhone and Twitter had barely been born, and innovations such as Uber, Alexa, Prime, and Hyperloop weren’t even on the radar – the predicted suburban-to-urban reset never made it off the back pages.

Ten years later, new data suggest the 2008 hypothesis is all but dead. As the growth of the largest cities slows, the most powerful breeding ground for future development is still at lower densities outside city cores, areas which continue to grow and evolve.

If the resiliency of the suburbs is surprising, it probably shouldn’t be. Despite media fascination with big cities, a large body of recent data suggests continued suburban growth is something we should have expected. Rather than a trend, it suggests, suburbia may be an inevitability – a coping mechanism for social stability whose roots lie deep in our DNA as humans. In fact, we might even be biologically programmed to live in them. In turn, it suggests, we’re destined to keep planning them, no matter how much we work to will ourselves out of them.

The evidence that the future is still fundamentally suburban is overwhelming. New data suggests transit ridership languishes below 5% nationwide, jobs continue to predominate outside city cores, people overwhelmingly yearn for privacy and single-family homes, and the demand for urban living, while still larger than the supply of places that offer it, remains comparatively small. More often, such preferences are for urban qualities like walkability in environments that are still overwhelmingly suburban, rather than for a return to the city. Where the most successful urban reinvestment has happened, it has often been heavily subsidized, as in the much-needed rejuvenation of Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, or it has been driven by a homogenous contingent of wealthy young people, such as in Brooklyn and Portland. By and large, it has sidestepped the most challenging urban neighborhoods that need the greatest help. Even millennials, the group whose preferences have most driven urban reinvestment, are growing up, indicating in increasing numbers that while they still crave walkability, they now yearn to own their own homes, a reality hindered in downtown environments by the interrelated constraints of density, congestion, slow transportation, and unaffordability.

A 2016 study in the British Journal of Psychology highlighted perhaps the most fundamental driver of these trends: that no matter how much we invest in density many people simply can’t warm up to it. While fostering “livability” is an oft-highlighted argument on behalf of density, the study reinforces an often-ignored trend observed consistently for decades: as population density gets higher, happiness decreases across nearly all age brackets.

The relationship between density and misery should anecdotally make sense to anyone who’s rushed to cram on a big city subway at rush hour. What’s less obvious is the deeper reason for this relationship. According to the study, thousands of years of evolution as a species oriented for the savannah has left humans fundamentally unprepared and physical unfit for anything resembling the densities of our present-day urban environments. Instead, its authors argue, we are biologically programmed to feel most comfortable at extremely low densities – about 23 people per square mile – and that we’re far more comfortable with small bands of close friends – maximum 150 people – than in settings where we must continually interact with random strangers.

Theirs is a finding closely mirroring the logic behind the recent natural craze called the Paleo diet, a fad that contends we’d all be healthier if we consumed diets more closely reflecting the food we evolved eating. While many have questioned this approach regarding the diet, in the case of where we live and with whom we interact it is perhaps more strongly convincing: why force ourselves to live in close, cramped quarters with one another if we’re not actually programmed to function that way? Unlike the diet, “paleo” cities might be what we’ve been willing ourselves toward all along.

Economics offers a compelling counterargument that the cost of such misery is well worth it. The mountain of reasons we’ve moved closer together over the last few centuries is hard to refute. Dense clustering in cities offer tremendous advantages to humans, easily facilitating the division of labor, the rapid exchange of goods, access to larger markets and a greater diversity of products and services, all core tenets of an economic system that has a remarkable track record of improving the standard of human living across the globe. To put it another way, the evidence suggests a delicate trade-off: cities are making us miserable, but they’re also the key to our well-being.

Acknowledging this uneasy tension is a pivotal first step in city-making that planners often miss: importantly, it helps explain the unstoppable momentum for paradigms that seek both to preserve urban economies while also facilitating low physical densities. While this middle ground can be achieved in many ways, its most obvious and prevalent manifestation in our world today is the ever-resilient engine of suburban development, which has augmented once-compact urban economies into large and often sprawling urban regions. Within these megalopoli, the suburbs are a way of offering people an escape from life in the city without actually leaving it – in the form of a personally-owned slice of nature mimicking the countryside. While they may look different today, they serve our souls much in the way Ebeneezer Howard envisioned when he first wrote about the suburban idea in his book, “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”, published in 1902, before the automobile took hold.

The booming emergence of technology and virtual communities has made this middle ground increasingly more feasible by facilitating interaction and exchange virtually, on a custom schedule, with whomever you want, without interfering with the biological urge to exist independently. By this rubric, suburbia and technology might be considered the saviors of our modern world.

The Journal’s research highlighted one other interesting finding that seems initially unrelated to the relationship between density and happiness. Smart people, they found, are happier with fewer friends, a reality seemingly at odds with clinically observed explosions in depression and loneliness in recent years. In the modern city, this is an important finding. Planning today increasingly positions cities around two themes: encouraging interaction and leveraging the power of technology. The aggressive introduction of advertising and distractions rooted in technological advancement – billboards, TVs, phones, email, and the like – may be over-saturating our senses in already overloaded cities to an untenable degree, exacerbating our disorientation with the modern city, even as it more rapidly than ever is making our lives easier, and, perhaps more importantly, more unrelentingly connects us with our peers.

Now more than ever, city life is designed around the promotion of shopping and interacting quickly with other people, whether in person or virtually, sapping our time with vapid interactions at the expense of more intellectually satisfying pursuits, a frustration that impacts smart people the most. While the expansive mental horsepower in smart people may make them less intimidated by complex technologies, the turbo gear that technology adds to the interactive nature of a knowledge economy has also made technology itself a frustrating extension of our disorientation with cities. All of us – and perhaps smart people the most – need a respite and an escape, with time to breathe and mull on meaningful things. The lush tranquility of well-designed suburban environments may persevere as the last great escape within urban regions for these activities, while in more rural places outside of them where such time is already abundant technology may emerge as the stand-in for economic and social connectivity. How to alternatively offer these respites within the intensity of city cores is a question planners have yet to adequately answer.

In the meantime, proceeding to build the paleo cities of tomorrow requires several reality checks: we need to find ways to achieve the economic output of cities within urban forms more conducive to human happiness and access to nature. Density may be a necessary enduring outcome for cities, but it should not be a driver or a goal in itself. We should focus on small networks of community, rather than only designing to instigate large, burdensome interactions between clusters of strangers. We should design cities less around shopping and schmoozing with other people, and more around meaningful interactions that can spur innovation and knowledge. And we need to provide more opportunities for people to unplug and to focus on solitary pursuits when they want to: these changes would be welcome respites.

Introducing diet crazes to city design may be radical. Hopefully, they can inspire us to be more creative with our cities and to create places where people can be more at ease, better in touch with our evolutionary selves – even while we innovate.

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