Replacing the American Dream

Posted by Carol Coletta



During a decade when Americans returned to cities for the first time in 50 years, it surprises me that "urban" can still be a code word for all things negative.

Attach the word "urban" to almost any ill, and what is bad becomes worse. Urban poverty is worse than poverty. Urban crime is worse than crime. It must follow that urban neighborhoods are worse than just neighborhoods, right?

Wrong. In fact, really wrong. But you would hardly know it unless you looked closely at reality.

When GM depicted a new vision of the good life for Americans at the 1939 World's Fair, it looked like a dream come true. Vivid pictures romanced a new highway system through rural farmland into the heart of a well-ordered city, where every family would live in a single-family home in a single-use neighborhood filled with families from a single income bracket. Such promised order, combined with the freedom of a car in every garage, offered previously unimagined possibilities.

And it worked. General Motor's compelling vision for car-oriented suburbs spawned a new American ideal. A lot of people shared that dream. And that dream has shaped our lives today. We have freeways connecting every major city in America, and most families have not just one car but a car for every adult in the household.

We also have gridlock traffic. And pollution. And an addiction to foreign oil.

Our health is in danger from sitting too much and moving too little. Many mortgages are underwater. And we've undermined the natural advantages of cities for innovation, opportunity and efficiency by spreading too few people over too much land.

It is increasingly clear that the old American dream is shattered, and we need a new dream to replace it, one better suited for today's realities. We need a new definition of the good life.

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."

Even though the signs may be all around them that something new and important is underway, they haven't put the pieces together.

That's why CEOs for Cities-a national network of urban leaders from the civic, business, academic and philanthropic sectors, of which I am the president and CEO-is launching a new movement we call Velocity in mid-September.  Its purpose is to create an energizing agenda for next generation cities and nurture the initiatives needed to advance that vision-and to pull it all together in a way that defines a new aspirational lifestyle for Americans, one that eventually becomes the "new normal."

We'll be discussing more about the development of this new American dream in a multi-part series here at GOOD. In the meantime, if you see experiments in your world that you believe tell us something about the new American dream, share them here.

Carol Coletta is the President and CEO of CEOs for Cities, and the host of the nationally-syndicated public radio show, Smart City.