The American Dream is an awfully broad thing – probably best described by taking phraseology from the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Somehow, during the past 200+ years of American history, that dream got far more specific and universal, meaning home ownership. Not only did that mean home ownership in terms of property ownership, but the various rules and regulations covering zoning, transportation, housing finance, and the like have resulted in a dream framed by a specific kind of home ownership – the detached, single family home, a nice yard and a white picket fence.
It’s worth noting that this specific conception of the American Dream is a relatively recent one, and it’s one that coincides with some specific policies from the Interstate Highway System to VA home loans, as well as some specific historical moments – most notably, the baby boom.
Given the relative turmoil of the past year coming on top of longer trends of reinvestment in American central cities and walkable places, it’s a fitting time to re-think this particular notion of the American Dream. Considering the role that housing finance specifically played in our near economic collapse (and current malaise), the relentless pursuit of home ownership is no longer the ultimate goal.
With that, there are several takes on what the new Dream should be. First, Carol Colletta, CEO of CEOs for Cities:
Signs of the new American good life are everywhere. Young adults, with their pursuit of 24/7 lifestyles, led the way back to the city. By 2000, they were 33 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods close to the center of town. The interest in cycling has exploded, with commensurate responses by municipal governments in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and, just recently, Boston, to make cycling easier and safer. Similarly, the local food movement has gained a foothold with the mainstream, with farmers markets popping up in the most unlikely places. More Americans are choosing dense condo living than ever before. Households without a nuclear family inside are now the majority, just as “non-traditional” students now dominate college enrollment. Suburbs are being remade with the addition of commercial uses and public space to introduce new vitality into these places. Zipcar has made the idea of Americans sharing their assets almost normal.
Perhaps the biggest upset of all is that Americans have reduced their driving for the first time since World War II.
The problem is this: These remain only disconnected signals. To date, Americans are unable to see the new pattern that is developing. There is not yet a compelling narrative about this emerging good life into which Americans can project their own lives—certainly nothing with enough power to counter the stories we tell ourselves about what is “normal.”
Carol wants to try and define a “new normal” for the American dream, one that’s urban, diverse, etc.
Aaron Renn chimes in:
I’m not sure I’d personally say “replacing” the American dream. I’m not anti-suburb. Nor do I think people were conned into moving there. Do I think there are huge subsidies to encourage suburban migration that ought to be cut off? Yes I do and I’ve written about them here. But I have to respect that there are those who have made a fully legitimate choice to live that lifestyle.
But there are plenty of others who made that choice by default, without careful consideration. If given an alternative vision about how they could achieve their personal aspirations in an urban environment, they might be open to being convinced – particularly if there is as much Madison Ave. behind it as there was behind suburbanization for the last 60 years.
Renn concludes by noting this:
Again, I’d say that I don’t personally think we need to have just one definition of the good life. In an every more diverse society, we need ever more diverse ways of living to meet people’s aspirations in life. But right now we’ve only got one version of “normal” and that’s the suburbs. If nothing else, to renew our cities we need to put out a credible alternative vision of “the good life” in an urban context.
I think it’s true – there is no comparable urban version of the old American Dream of a detached suburban house with a driveway and a garage. But part of what makes urban spaces great is that there is no such single definition. Looking at urbanism through the lens of walkability, ‘urban’ can be anything and everything from an old streetcar suburb of primarily detached houses to Midtown Manhattan. Similarly, a more abstract criteria like ownership should not be the primary concern, as the recent policy changes of the Obama administration indicate.
My rhetorical question is this – is it even possible to come up with an urban American Dream? The variations in urbanism are what make it great. It’s important that we hang on to that diversity within our urban areas, while at the same time realizing that multiple different kinds of urbanism fit into a more sustainable world.