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Originally published Sunday, August 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

I'm going up the city, baby, don't you wanna go

City or suburb? For decades that's been the choice for most Americans. Suburbs have been the hands-down winners — by the millions...

City or suburb? For decades that's been the choice for most Americans. Suburbs have been the hands-down winners — by the millions, we've rushed to the urban edge.

But could we be on the cusp of a historic "back to the city" shift? The case is building.

Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing magazine, says we're in the midst of a "demographic inversion." Check such cities as Atlanta and Washington, he suggests — they're beginning to resemble historic Vienna or Paris, the centuries-old pattern in which the people of means chose to live near the vital city centers, while the poor were left to live in the less-expensive outskirts.

Atlanta, for example, is seeing so many better-off whites move in that its decades-old status as a predominantly black and low-income city may soon be reversed. Conversely, suburban Clayton and DeKalb counties are already registering black majorities while simultaneously serving as immigrant gateways.

A parallel switch has been under way in Washington, D.C., for several years as young professionals have poured into neighborhoods such as the 14th and U Street corridors that were an epicenter of the 1968 riots. Chicago has registered sensational gains in downtown living. The same phenomenon is being registered continentwide — strong on the West Coast, even cropping up in such Sun Belt cities as Charlotte and Houston.

Why this shift, now? Industries, with their smokestacks, noise and pollutants, have largely disappeared from city centers. Random urban street violence, the scourge of urban life in the 1970s and 1980s, has subsided dramatically.

And, writes Ehrenhalt in a recent New Republic article, today's youth, bored by the cul-de-sac world they grew up in, are the cutting edge of the new population move: "It is striking how pervasive the pro-city sensibility is within this generation, particularly among its elite."

The cities' revival is even broader — not just young singles and married couples but "mingles" (unmarried and gay couples) and "jingles" (ex-suburban empty-nesters), notes William Hudnut, former Indianapolis mayor and Urban Land Institute senior fellow.

There's a big cautionary note here — we're not about to witness abandonment of the suburbs, or rapid movement back to all our city cores. "But we are living," Ehrenhalt notes, "at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the 20th century is coming to an end."

So what are the affluent and their middle-class friends seeking? "Walkable urbanism" — places with convenient mixes of shops, apartments and brownstones, parks and entertainment. That's the formula Brookings Institution fellow Christopher Leinberger spells out in his recent book, "The Option of Urbanism."

Such spots, Leinberger notes, don't need to be downtown — in many areas, they're the classy, rising suburban town centers, often served by regional rail transit.

What makes these shifts special, notes Ehrenhalt, is their signal that "an America that seemed destined for ever-increasing individualization and sprawl is experimenting with new versions of community and sociability."

All this was occurring, Leinberger notes, before the recent surge of gasoline prices to the $4-a-gallon range. It will gain momentum as the number of new childless households expands rapidly. A generation ago, 50 percent of U.S. households had children at home, but more than 80 percent of the coming years' households will likely be singles and childless couples. That means less move-out to suburbs to avoid problematic inner-city schools.

For the first time in our lifetimes, Leinberger argues, advocates of urbanism "have the wind to our back."

But don't expect all the new population density to crop up in traditional cities and suburban towns, argues Robert Lang of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute. With Census figures suggesting the U.S. population will reach 400 million in 2039 — several years earlier than previously forecast — Lang foresees a major share of new residential and town growth occurring "atop" closer-in post-World War II tract-style suburbs.

The concept is an intriguing one. Many malls with their acres of parking will be remade into mixed-use and multifamily housing. People may still drive to work but will (like our grandparents) drive less frequently — taking an evening stroll from home to shops or a bar or coffee shop, for example. Telecommuting will increase. Lang's term is "micro-walkability. He sees "islands of urbanity — and sociability — in seas of suburbia."

In fact, Lang says, such "archipelagoes of walkable space" are already cropping up in such archetypical post-World War II suburban counties as Fairfax (Virginia), Orange (California) and Johnson (Kansas).

A decade ago, population increase would have impelled many people to forsake these counties for still farther-out locations. But no more, Lang predicts — the closer-in counties, he contends, will keep on filling up as our "almost decadent use of space, resource consumptive, damaging the planet, starts to decline."

Call it "return to the city" (or "old suburb") or whatever you like, it sounds like sensationally good news.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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