November 5, 2013 at 5:45 am CST

“When you talk to people who grew up in the 70s or earlier, they have a different expression on their face when you ask them about growing up in the suburbs because they enjoyed it. That joy is gone now from a lot of communities. I really saw that in my research.” That was author Leigh Gallagher’s closing comment to me, but I think it sets up our conversation nicely. The book, The End of the Suburbs , from the journalist and Fortune editor paints an interesting look at the changing housing preferences we’re seeing throughout the U.S.

Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.

Livability: Is it really the end of the suburbs?

Gallagher: It’s the end of suburbs as we know them. This is a subject that deserves people’s attention. I do think that we see the end of a certain way of life that has come to define this country and the way in people in this country live.

Livability: What in particular is ending and what’s driving that?

Gallagher: The place in our culture of the conventional cul-du-sac subdivision development is going to recede. I think other things that will fill in are variations that offer more community and more of the old-fashioned blueprint that people are looking for. More urban burbs are going to replace a lot of the remote super-sized burbs. That’s a big shift that will happen over time, but it’s a shift that is going to give more people more options.

Why? The price of energy is a huge factor that is going to cause more people to live in places that are more convenient for them financially. Demographic shifts are really rewriting the playbook in terms of what the average household looks like and is going to look like going forward. And changing preferences among the Millennials. I don’t believe that every single one of them wants to live in a high-rise in Manhattan, but I do believe that they don’t want the drivable suburbs that they grew up in. They want to be closer to the action.

Livability: But typically we aren’t a very mobile society. We tend to stay pretty close to the community where we grew up.

Gallagher: Human nature doesn’t change. We don’t go from being a totally suburban country to a totally urban one. I think a lot of this will be minor shifts that will have a major impact. If you look at what Toll Brothers is doing right now, what it calls suburban move-up houses – big luxury suburbs used to be 70 to 80 percent of what the company builds and sells. Now it’s around 50 percent, and the rest is being made up by other things. I think that’s what we’ll see replicated. Those other things could be condo buildings in suburbs of downtowns, it could be urban buildings, it could be walkable townhouse development – it could be lots of different versions of that.

I think the housing industry nailed a formula that was really easy to replicate, and then the finance industry learned how to finance that. It all became this well-oiled machine. When you grow, you just do what you know how to do really well. It’s time to learn how to do something different.

Livability: But people still have to buy it. The market has a lot to say about what gets built.

Gallagher: Homebuilders and developers don’t do anything if they don’t think there’s a market for it. They don’t do anything because it’s better for us, or our commutes are too long, or there’s some environmental mission behind it. They only have their bottom line in mind. That’s why I think it’s so interesting that so many builders are starting to do more urban development in the suburbs.

Livability: Many small towns are compact and walkable already. Does that give them a head start?

Gallagher: A lot of this comes down to age and vintage of when a community was built. It’s about the places with the older bones, and those places are showing a greater level of demand already.

Livability: Many planning trends are predicated on figuring out what we did wrong before and trying to fix it. Looking forward, what do you think we’re getting wrong today?

Gallagher: We’re really good at over-correcting, so maybe we’ll build too much of that. Maybe some of these are built too far in the middle of suburbia and don’t fully solve the problem.  We’ll surely make mistakes because that’s what you do when you do something different.

Livability: Millennials are starting to have kids and will eventually need to send them to school. Will that drive them to the suburbs?

Gallagher:   Schools are a billion-dollar question, and that has traditionally been why anyone has moved to the suburbs to begin with: For the schools and for the space. I think urban schools are getting better. You’re seeing that in places like Philadelphia and Boston. The suburbs in general demographically have a lot fewer children in them. Schools are going to start feeling that pain, and a lot of them already are – in the communities where there are fewer children and young families and a disproportionate amount of older people. Those people pay taxes, and the tax priorities are going to shift. They’re going to want to keep their home values up, and everyone likes a good school because of that, but it’s no longer going to be the dominant decision for a lot of home buyers.

It’s easy for me, I don’t have kids, to say everybody should live in cities. But that’s not really what I’m saying. I’m just saying that we jumped the shark and we live way too far away from each other, and people want more options.

This was originally posted on, home of the Top 100 Best Places to Live rankings. Copyright Journal Communications Inc. Reprinted with permission.