Great Inversion – But Not Monolithic Inversion

Alan Ehrenhalt’s latest book, “The Great Inversion,” is valuable reading for nearly anyone in my professional practices: In particular, private and public organizations involved in redevelopment and city building.

The author’s premise argues that the comparative value of proximity to core cities – their economic and cultural assets, diverse building stock, and ease of transit access – is rising. As that shift in value unfolds, says Ehrenhalt, many U.S. metro areas will invert, assuming a pattern where core city neighborhoods typically are among the most desired, while suburban areas offer values accessible to more residents.

Ehrenhalt writes a compelling narrative, observing dynamics that can be observed in cities across the country. In interviews he’s described the shift as “an entire metropolitan area rearranging itself…a true inversion of demographic groups.” Still, at times the premise does not allow full exploration of variation within regions. He stresses the importance of transit in reshaping regions, for example, but does not organize his argument to reflect how effective transit service can itself reshape the city/suburb relationship. If in one area of a metro, transit can move people from city to suburb (and vice versa) more effectively than in other areas, how might they invert differently? Job growth on a transit corridor, for example, may affect residents living elsewhere along that corridor, more than it does other residents living nearer by, even if it’s occurring within the same municipal boundary.

That caveat aside, it’s clear that fiscal scarcity, changing pricing caused by climate change (essentially unaddressed to date), shrinking households and shifting cultural attitudes about cities are converging powerfully to reshape metro areas, and increasingly channel investment toward the center. For public agencies and firms involved in redevelopment, such as Donjek clients, this return to a pattern based on proximity will produce a whole universe of new opportunities.

The news narrative around these issues is usually simplified in an unhelpful way (see this critique of coverage of recent demographic data released for the Minneapolis Saint Paul region), presenting these trends as “core cities up, suburbs down.” None of the ingredients here are so simple: The physical geography and amenities of regions, job location criteria, and the politics that shape transportation investments are just a few examples. Instead, shifts like the Great Inversion will create opportunities and troubles which are different than the recent past, but very familiar in history. Creativity is required for good redevelopment, now more so with these dramatic demographic shifts underway.