Peak Campus and "The End of the Suburbs"

Are the suburbs dying?

September 18, 2013

The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving by Leigh Gallagher

Published in August, 2013

The premise of the The End of the Suburbs, Leigh Gallagher's entertaining and provocative new book, is that the U.S. is on the precipice of one of those large secular shifts that will re-order both our economic and social lives. This change that Gallagher sees coming is a change in the preferences of Americans away from suburban (or exurban) living and toward a preference to live in cities.

There is a fierce debate amongst social scientists, urbanists, planners, and Brooklyn hipsters if the suburbs are really dying.

These debates strike me as similar to those debates about the impending demise of residential education and the wholesale abandonment of campus life.  

It is not uncommon to hear someone at an edtech conference, usually at night and after a few beers, opine that by 2030 half of all colleges will be closed. That the higher ed bubble will burst. That the combination of digital technology and student debt will finally drive a fundamental re-thinking of how people learn, and what higher education really means. That the death of the credit hour and the rise of competency-based learning will eliminate much of the need for all the building and quads and lecture halls.    

That we have reached peak campus.

Gallagher is indeed convincing that we have reached peak suburb.

She goes through the evidence that young adults are marrying later (if at all), delaying childbearing, and if they choose to have kids that they are having less of them.  

People who choose to live alone will probably not choose their housing based on square footage or the quality of the local schools, but rather on the proximity of amenities and the density of other like-minded folks.  

The suburbs will die because gas will become more expensive. (And who wants to own a car when we can grab a zipcar when we need to make that Whole Foods run).  

The suburbs will die because cities are become much more attractive places to live. Safer places with cultural amenities and fast growing employers.   

I recommend that you read Gallagher's terrific book and draw your own conclusions on her conclusions.  

My take is that she is as right about the forces changing suburban / urban settlement patterns as the peak campus folks are right about the forces changing higher ed.  

That change is coming, but that it is easy to substitute one's desire for something different with a clear-eyed analysis of how things really will be.  

If you foresee the end of the suburbs, or the end of the campus, then every piece of data becomes new evidence to bolster your conclusions.

My suspicion is that suburban life and campus life will be more durable than we give both credit.  

That both suburban life and campus life will remain dynamic, even vibrant, for years to come.

That the move to new models of living and learning will get lots of ink, but that there remains compelling reasons for many of us to choose to live outside of the urban core and to send our kids to learn on leafy campuses.

Have we reached peak campus?

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