Growing up in Media, Leigh Gallagher walked the oak-lined sidewalks of her Bowling Green neighborhood, roller-skated in the streets, and rode her decorated bicycle in the town's annual Fourth of July parade.
Now an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, Gallagher makes frequent visits from Manhattan to her Delaware County hometown, which, with its 1920s restored theater, commuter trolley, and Main Street shops, remains "almost comically idyllic," she said.
But according to the research in Gallagher's new book, The End of the Suburbs, Media has become something of a rarity: a community that still resembles what couples hope for when they move to the suburbs.
Nowadays, suburban neighborhoods are more likely to be dotted with cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs, miles of strip malls and chain restaurants, traffic jams, and a lack of personality that she argues is driving families away.
"Everything in the suburbs went on steroids at some point," Gallagher said in a phone interview this month. "People are trying to recreate that original idea of the suburbs that they knew in their own childhoods, and in the process of looking for that, some are giving up on the idea of the 'burbs entirely."
Gallagher's book, published this month by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Group, uses data and research to argue that after nearly 70 years of middle-class movement toward suburbia, families now favor the convenience of urban life.
In her research, Gallagher found much lacking in suburban life. Many parents, for instance, were sick of spending hours each day in their cars; suburban poverty and crime rates are on the rise; and with more people opting out of marriage and children, there is less of a market for typical large suburban houses with two-car garages.
Despite her book's title, Gallagher does not believe all suburbs are on the way out.
"But the trends taking place right now are unprecedented," she said. "And they are unmistakable as far as the ways people are choosing to live."
Gallagher, a graduate of Strath Haven High School in Wallingford, said Philadelphia represented a microcosm of the urbanization trends and resurgence of cities she sees playing out across the country.
Recent U.S. Census data showed the city's population had grown for the first time in more than 60 years. Much of that growth came from young households moving to town, she said, and the number of people ages 20 to 34 rose 15 percent.
Gallagher's research took her around the country, interviewing developers, teachers, parents, antisprawl activists, and many who expressed disenchantment with suburban life.
Among those she profiled was Philadelphia developer Jason Duckworth, who settled his family in Narberth but who eventually ended up moving to Center City. The decision was based on a sense that his children were growing up in too sheltered a community.
"Some parents are feeling that their children are not exposed enough to aspects of real life out in the suburbs," she said.
The idea for the book began when Gallagher came across data showing that for the first time in decades, the growth of cities was starting to eclipse that of the suburbs.
Further research suggested high gas prices were making long commutes impractical, and that young adults were buying fewer cars in favor of relying on public transportation. And with marriage and birth rates on the downswing, fewer people are buying large houses, a trend that started even before the 2008 housing crisis, Gallagher said.
Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University who has also written on the decline of the suburbs, said Gallagher's book shows how unsustainable suburban life has become.
"Many people are finding that it is not a very happy lifestyle," he said. "I think we've increasingly developed a taste for walkable communities, and the sprawl that's now such a big part of suburban life has created problems with traffic and a constant dependence on cars that really drags down the quality of life."
Good public schools remain an undeniable draw of suburban life. But even they are struggling in many areas. As the school-age population shrinks, suburban district enrollment is dropping, Gallagher said, and those districts' taxes are increasingly dependent on aging residents unwilling to pay more into the system.
Gallagher said she expected arguments from people ready to defend suburban life. Instead, she more often found herself talking with people who seemed apologetic for their decision to live outside cities.
"People love to take pot-shots at the suburbs, but they can be a wonderful place to live if it works," she said. "But they're not working so well anymore. For a lot of people, it's not the solution that it used to be."