By John Rapley
It was not that long ago that politicians and urban planners, faced with the slums and 'Satanic mills' of crowded industrial cities, dreamed of rural idylls. The siren call of rural innocence has lured many an urban intellectual across the centuries.
In the twentieth century, this romanticism found expression in the garden-city movement and the growth of suburbs, which exploded after World War II. At that time, the spread of automobiles made it possible for people to live further from their workplaces, since they could commute with relative ease and freedom.
Once people left the cities, the demand for services in the inner city dropped. Stores shut down as large retailers built malls, shopping centres and box stores on cheap land outside the city, equipping their complexes with vast parking lots for driving customers. So as the suburbs boomed, the inner cities decayed, giving those with the means to do so a further incentive to move to the 'burbs.
However, if the 20th century was the epoch of the suburb, the 21st century is witnessing the emergence of a new type of city. With oil prices having apparently reached a permanently high plateau, the cost of commuting is no longer an incidental matter. Besides, as cities grow and suburbs sprawl endlessly, the time spent in traffic has in many cities reached a point of diminishing returns: people who once moved to the suburbs for bigger homes and gardens no longer have the time to enjoy them.
More recently, the uneven effects of the Great Recession are producing what appears to be a major demographic shift. As governments marshal their now-scarce resources to protect established constituencies - pensioners, public-sector workers, privileged economic interests - young people have been forced to bear a disproportionate share of the austerity burden. Those who haven't moved in with their parents have been inclined to move in with one another, flat-sharing in the inner city, where they can get easily to work.
This trend is particularly noticeable in Europe. The European Automobile Manufacturers' Association recently reported that car sales across the continent dropped to a record low this year. But while car sales are looking more robust in North America, young people are showing less inclination to buy vehicles. As a result, the auto industry is starting to worry openly that the great age of the automobile, at least in its heartland, has run its course.
Of course, there's a lot to be said for such an eventuality. In addition to the environmental benefits of reduced carbon emissions, people who use public transit or live near their workplaces tend to walk more, which has obvious health benefits. And as more people opt to live closer in to their urban workplaces, services are returning to city cores.
Not that this adjustment is always even. The redevelopment of inner cities to accommodate young professionals often displaces those residents too poor to have left in the earlier migration to the suburbs — and too poor to resist gentrification now.
On the other hand, the resultant rise in population density may well produce economic benefits - in particular, higher productivity. As more people, from more diverse backgrounds, live near one another and hang out in the same cafés and restaurants, more ideas are exchanged and generated. Much has been written of the way Silicon Valley rose as a direct result of the accidental confluence of research institutions with young dreamers in a concentrated area.
There may be useful insights in this for Jamaica, a land which still fetishises the car as a symbol of autonomy. All you have to do when you fly into Kingston and look out the window is compare the city's squatness to the tall skylines of more densely developed urban centres to realise there is a high cost in efficiency and productivity to having a yard for every home. That may have been the dream of another age, but it is becoming a costly one today.
John Rapley, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, is currently on a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Canada. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org