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Popular culture never tires of skewering what it likes to portray as the bland conformity of suburbia. In Malvina Reynolds' refrain — resurrected as the theme song for the TV comedy-drama "Weeds" — there are no homes in suburbia; there are only "little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes all the same."

The people who live in suburbia don't pay much attention. Who cares what a bunch of snotty, self-appointed critics think? Suburbanites could be happy in the knowledge that generations of people chose the conveniences of living in the suburbs over the cramped confines of big-city life.

Now comes evidence, however, that a new generation of Americans may be turning away from suburbia, opting instead for a lifestyle that promotes social contact and reduces the time spent trapped in an automobile. For an example, we need look no further than the rush of young techies (and tech companies) to San Francisco.

In 2010, for the first time in decades, the nation's largest cities grew faster than their suburbs.

This watershed moment prompted Fortune magazine last week to publish an excerpt from a new book — "The End of the Suburbs" by Leigh Gallagher. The magazine's introduction explains: "The near-universal yearning for a spacious house in the suburbs — a central element of the America dream — is receding."

The magazine blames "the growing distaste for long commutes and sprawling development ... and a litany of other shifts, including surprising reversals in suburban and urban housing, poverty and crime."

Meanwhile, the Economist magazine reported last week that the poverty rate in American suburbs grew more than twice as fast as the poverty rate in the cities over the past decade.

And the New York Times reported on research showing the promise of upward mobility is more available to young people who grow up in old-style cities than to young people who grow up in cities defined by their post-war sprawl.

None of this should be surprising. In recent years, we've come to understand that what we called the American dream — a piece of land, a large house, the freedom to use your car for everything — came with its own set of problems.

Beginning in the 1990s, Sonoma County communities came to recognize that the rapid growth that occurred between 1950 and 1990 wasn't sustainable.

Subdivisions without end devoured farmland and open space. In one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, no one wanted to imagine every flat place and a few more hilltops blanketed with housing tracts.

Sprawl development also proved expensive. Building and maintaining transportation systems and other services for all those subdivisions cost more than people were willing to pay. Traffic congestion and long commutes caused air pollution, and social and political isolation.

In a country in which obesity is epidemic, sprawl was even bad for our health. People in cities walk more, sit on their butts less.

And while subdivision development began with the promise of more affordable housing, the demand for larger and larger houses would lead to more expensive houses, denying the promise of home ownership to millions.

Sonoma County responded with voter-mandated urban boundaries and land-use restrictions in rural areas that combined to put the brakes on new rounds of subdivisions and strip malls.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

At the same time, local officials began talking about the importance of revitalizing existing neighborhoods with mixed-use developments that featured pedestrian-, transit- and bike-friendly designs. (Sometimes they did more talking than doing, but that's another story.)

Windsor created a downtown where none existed before. Petaluma embraced theater and river district developments. Sebastopol created a town square. Santa Rosa focused on mixed-use developments in Old Railroad Square and elsewhere.

The suburbs are not going away, of course. Tens of millions of people are living happily every after in subdivisions built after World War II. (I live in a house built in 1948 in one of Santa Rosa's earliest post-war tracts — and I love my neighborhood.)

But the world is changing. Again. Once upon a time, unprecedented prosperity and unbridled optimism persuaded Americans that everyone deserved their own piece of land, a large house and isolation from other kinds of development.

Now we know that what began as a fine democratic notion bumped headlong into economic and social realities we didn't anticipate. Sprawl was expensive, and it didn't account for people who wanted to visit a coffeehouse or buy a loaf of bread without getting in their cars.

In Sonoma County, communities will be obliged to manage competing needs. Regions designed in service to the automobile won't be easily transformed into neighborhoods that bring people together. How do we support the people who still want (or need) to travel by car, while also finding ways to promote pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhoods?

Progress will require innovation, patience and an occasional compromise. Along the way, local governments and lenders will need to catch up to a changing marketplace.

All over America, cities are finding ways to reboot. It can happen here with the right kind of leadership.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>