Reasons for replacing “Freeways Without Future”

A new report from the Congress of New Urbanism titled “Freeways Without Futures” looks at the ten urban highways and interchanges that need to go. Why might cities pursue these projects? Here are some common themes in such plans:

1. Reconnect neighborhoods and communities that highways split. When constructed, highways with their width and imposing traffic split social collectives. Or, highways can impede development by providing a barrier. Removing the highway allows for more pedestrian traffic as well as more meaningful connection between residents and businesses on both sides of the highway. New development can span the former highway or help bridge the divide.

2. Create more green space. Highways are the result of auto-oriented urbanism that trampled over and through communities. Removing the highways allows for more parks and trees, among other natural features. Plus, it reduces noise and emissions from the highway (though these might be simply moved to another kind of thoroughfare).

3. Remove eyesores. Highways can create visual blight on the urban landscape. Highways block sight lines and present an imposing concrete structure. Without their presence, particularly elevated highways, people are free to see more of the city.

4. Removing the highway could be part of a larger project of reducing dependence on cars and vehicles and a shift toward mass transit and pedestrians. Removing the above-ground highway is one step but that same highway could simply be routed elsewhere or underground without affecting transportation choices.

Cities and societies always at risk of declining?

I feel that I regularly run into these narratives: cities are in decline and American society is in decline. After seeing a recent example of the cities-will-fall-apart argument, I thought it could be worthwhile to briefly think about where these narratives come from and what they are trying to do.

In terms of cities, Americans on the whole have an anti-urban bias. Data suggests Americans would prefer to live in small towns and even President Obama (resident of numerous big cities) noted the importance of small-town values for the development of the United States. Stephen Conn details anti-urban bias in the twentieth century when the United States experienced a significant population shift to the suburbs, locations where many Americans claim they can find their best life. Population loss is a public rebuke to an entire community. The decline of Detroit is held up as a tragedy and/or lesson.

Added to this is a political edge: cities are seen as strongholds for Democrats while Republicans rule in more rural areas and are against cities. Conservatives link Democratic leadership in these cities to all sorts of problems. Some conservatives see liberal plots to urbanize Americans against their will. Declining cities would then weaken one political party and their values.

In terms of societies, I have heard arguments from evangelical religious groups that society is declining, falling into a moral abyss, and headed toward ruin. Some of this is linked to particular theological views: some Christians believe the decline of society at large will hasten the end times. Others make these claims in order to try to spur believers into action and engagement with society. Still others might argue this is a reason for retreat from society in order to conserve or protect particular religious traditions.

This is also a common tactic of groups looking to address social problems: without tackling this important issue, society is in trouble in the long-term. Additionally, such arguments can also be part of political debates. Which party is in charge when these decline starts or accelerates? Which events are interpreted as harbingers of the end? Who exactly is trying to ruin the American experiment or distort American values? Is every presidential election the potential end for the other half of Americans because yet again it is the most important election we have ever seen?The possibilities are endless.

All of this apocalyptic thinking could have some serious consequences. Do such regular narratives discourage or encourage participation and trust in communities and institutions? Do they lead to long-term optimism or pessimism about individual lives and communities? Does it all distract from good news also taking place as well as small steps that could be taken toward positive change or community building?

It is true that cities and societies can decline and have indeed done so in the past. Just because a particular city or community or country is doing well now does not mean that this is guaranteed for the future. I read a thought-provoking book on this a few years ago from a scholar who studied numerous societies that had collapsed and concluded they reached a level of complexity where an issue in the system meant that all of the social machinery could come crashing down. But, predicting decline as it is happening might be difficult just as predicting trends is difficult.

Decline may happenbut with all the competing claims of decline of this or that (plus differing views on the same phenomena) makes it very difficult to know what to do with any of the claims.

 

Slight drop in millennial population in American big cities

The population of big cities may depend on millennials: will they flock to urban locations or leave for the suburbs? New data suggests slightly more of them are headed out of cities:

Cities with more than a half million people collectively lost almost 27,000 residents age 25 to 39 in 2018, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the figures. It was the fourth consecutive year that big cities saw this population of young adults shrink. New York, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Washington and Portland, Ore., were among those that lost large numbers of residents in this age group…

The 2018 drop was driven by a fall in the number of urban residents between 35 and 39 years old. While the number of adults younger than that rose in big cities, those gains have tapered off in recent years.

Separate Census figures show the majority of people in these age groups who leave cities move to nearby suburbs or the suburbs of other metro areas.

City officials say that high housing costs and poor schools are main reasons that people are leaving. Although millennials—the cohort born between 1981 and 1996—are marrying and having children at lower rates than previous generations, those who do are following in their footsteps and often settling down in suburbs.

MillennialsCities2019Data

An interesting update: millennials as a whole are leaving cities but younger millennials are still going to cities while the oldest ones are leaving. Does this mean that the argument that young urbanites will still leave for the suburbs when they form families and have kids?

Maybe, maybe not. It would be helpful to know more:

1. How does the older millennial move out of cities compare to previous generations? Are they leaving cities at similar rates or not?

2. Is there significant variation (a) within cities over 500,000 people and (b) within smaller big cities (of which there are many)? The first point could get at some patterns related to housing prices. The second could get at a broader picture of urban patterns by not focusing just on the largest cities.

3. The true numbers to know (which are unknowable right now): what will the numbers be in the future? The chart above suggests some shifts even in the last decade. Which pattern will win out over time (or will the numbers be relatively flat, which they are for a number of the years discussed above)?

Adaptations in nature to urban life

More research shows animals can and do adapt to urban environments:

Whitehead’s work on killifish is one of the signature triumphs of urban evolution, an emergent discipline devoted to figuring out why certain animals, plants, and microbes survive or even flourish no matter how much we transform their habitats. Humans rarely give much thought to the creatures that flit or crawl or skitter about our apartment blocks and strip malls, in part because we tend to dismiss them as either ordinary or less than fully wild. But we should instead marvel at how these organisms have managed to keep pace with our relentless drive to build and cluster in cities. Rather than wilt away as Homo sapiens have spread forth bearing concrete, bitumen, and steel, a select number of species have developed elegant adaptations to cope with the peculiarities of urban life: more rigid cellular membranes that may ward off heat, digestive systems that can absorb sugary garbage, altered limbs and torsos that enhance agility atop asphalt or in runoff-fattened streams.

Whitehead and his colleagues, many of whom are at the dawn of their careers, are now beginning to pinpoint the subtle genetic changes that underlie these novel traits. Their sleuthing promises to solve a conundrum that has vexed biologists for 160 years, and in the process reveal how we might be able to manipulate evolution to make the world’s cities—projected to be home to two-thirds of humanity by 2050—resilient enough to endure the catastrophes that are coming their way…

Like so many of their scientific peers, urban evolution researchers are grappling with the question of how their work can help us make this new environmental reality a bit less grim. On the surface, at least, their inquiries can seem largely aimed at addressing theoretical matters—notably the issue of whether the evolution of complex organisms is a replicable phenomenon, like any ordinary chemical reaction. Cities provide an accidental global network of ad hoc laboratories to test this question: Office towers the world over are fabricated from the same glass panels and steel beams, night skies are illuminated by the same artificial lights, auditory landscapes thrum with the noise of the same cars, food waste comes from the same KFCs and Subways.

This urban sameness is allowing researchers to determine whether isolated populations of the same species develop similar adaptations when placed in parallel environments. “What cities offer us is this amazingly large-scale, worldwide experiment in evolution, where you’ve got thousands of life-forms that are experiencing the same factors,” says Marc Johnson, who heads an evolutionary ecology lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Perhaps sociologist Robert Park was more correct than he knew by suggesting the city was a laboratory. Furthermore, Park and other sociologists like Herbert Spencer borrowed concepts from biology and applied them to social processes and communities.

This research could also help address two other issues (in addition to climate change as discussed in the article):

  1. What really is “nature” in cities? Adding parks and trees is not really grappling with what nature is nor with how cities and their residents see nature around them. And what is the ideal end goal of people-nature interaction in big cities?
  2. Urbanization is not just about harm to the environment but it is also about long-term changes. Humans have been interacting with and affecting nature for a long time but the specific process of urbanization in roughly the last 150 years has been different.

Declining populations in the New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago regions

The biggest metropolitan areas in the United States are losing residents:

Source: William H. Frey

And what is behind this?

Each of these Chicago phenomena—declining immigration, revitalized downtowns coinciding with a middle-class exodus, and the specific decline of the black population—has spread from the heartland to America’s largest coastal metros…

First, immigration to both New York and Los Angeles has declined by 30 percent in the last five years. This could be for a variety of reasons, including the fear, and reality, of more restrictive immigration policies; richer and safer home countries; and a less affordable housing stock in these metros.

Second, higher-income residents bidding up the price of housing in both cities has accelerated the middle-class exodus. Earlier this decade, Los Angeles was the fastest growing county in all of southern California. But in 2018, it was the only major county in the region to shrink, even as its median home price set a new record. As more middle-class families leave the Los Angeles area for cheaper markets in the West and Southwest—their preferred destinations: Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Dallas—California’s population growth has slowed to its lowest rate in state history. This might have something to do with the recent tax law, which, in capping the state and local deductions, effectively raised the cost of living in these places for the upper-middle class. (The next few years will tell us more about whether high earners are fleeing high-tax metros for the South, as well.)

Third, the black population of both New York and Los Angeles peaked in the early 2000s and has since been in steady, and perhaps accelerating, decline. The political implications of the first Great Migration were immense, as blacks moving into northern cities forged an alliance with urban liberals and pushed the Democratic Party to prioritize civil rights in the middle of the 20th century. The political implications of the Reverse Great Migration could be equally ground-shaking, if blacks moving south redraw the political map for the second time in 100 years. The slow decline of America’s largest metros may also mark the beginning of a new political movement in the suburbs of the South and Southwest.

When it was just Chicago losing residents, it was easier to write it off as inevitable Rust Belt decline combined with particular issues that have dogged the city and region for decades. But, if New York and Los Angeles are also losing people, then this becomes more interesting as even the glitzy coastal cities are losing people to other parts of the United States and there are fewer new residents via immigration.

Is there evidence then that cities are losing steam compared to suburban areas? Not necessarily; Sun Belt cities are growing in population. At the same time the three biggest cities draw outsized attention in the United States (consider the relative anonymity of Houston which is approaching Chicago for third in population). Americans generally do not like what declining populations connote and particularly not in their largest locales.

Ultimately, the actual population figures which could fluctuate slightly from year to year might matter less than the perception that the biggest cities are floundering. Would they then put into place big plans to try to attract residents? Would second tier cities step up their efforts to toot their own (growing) horns?

Final note: Chicago’s long-standing quest to put itself in the same company as New York City might be looking up if both cities are losing residents.

America’s “cities have effectively traded away their children, swapping capital for kids”

Derek Thompson discusses the decrease in children in large American cities:

Cities have effectively traded away their children, swapping capital for kids. College graduates descend into cities, inhale fast-casual meals, emit the fumes of overwork, get washed, and bounce to smaller cities or the suburbs by the time their kids are old enough to spell. It’s a coast-to-coast trend: In Washington, D.C., the overall population has grown more than 20 percent this century, but the number of children under the age of 18 has declined. Meanwhile, San Francisco has the lowest share of children of any of the largest 100 cities in the U.S…

But the economic consequences of the childless city go deeper. For example, the high cost of urban living may be discouraging some couples from having as many children as they’d prefer. That would mean American cities aren’t just expelling school-age children; they’re actively discouraging them from being born in the first place. In 2018, the U.S. fertility rate fell to its all-time low. Without sustained immigration, the U.S. could shrink for the first time since World World I. Underpopulation would be a profound economic problem—it’s associated with less dynamism and less productivity—and a fiscal catastrophe. The erosion of the working population would threaten one great reward of liberal societies, which is a tax-funded welfare and eldercare state to protect individuals from illness, age, and bad luck…

Finally, childless cities exacerbate the rural-urban conundrum that has come to define American politics. With its rich blue cities and red rural plains, the U.S. has an economy biased toward high-density areas but an electoral system biased toward low-density areas. The discrepancy has the trappings of a constitutional crisis.  The richest cities have become magnets for redundant masses of young rich liberals, making them electorally impotent. Hillary Clinton won Brooklyn by 461,000 votes, about seven times the margin by which she lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin combined. Meanwhile, rural voters draw indignant power from their perceived economic weakness. Trump won with majority support in areas that produce just one-third of GDP by showering hate and vitriol on cities that attract immigration and capital…

For those young and middle-aged Americans who are having sex and having children, the smaller cities and suburbs might simply be a better place to live—and not just for the obvious reason that they’re more cost-friendly for the non-rich. Perhaps parents are clustering in suburbs today for the same reason that companies cluster in rich cities: Doing so is more efficient. Suburbs have more “schools, parks, stroller-friendly areas, restaurants with high chairs, babysitters, [and] large parking spaces for SUV’s,” wrote Conor Sen, an investor and columnist for Bloomberg. It’s akin to a division of labor: America’s rich cities specialize in the young, rich, and childless; America’s suburbs specialize in parents. The childless city may be inescapable.

The book and film Children of Men suggested people in the near future would not have children for some uncontrollable reason but perhaps cities will have fewer children by the collective individual and social choices of urban dwellers.

This also has implications for the American Dream which has tended to suggest parents will work hard and pass along benefits to future generations. Not having as many direct beneficiaries of actions could alter how people think about the future: it is one thing to project changes for a community (“this is good for Chicago’s future, whoever happens to live here”) versus thinking about more direct benefits which could also help a community (“my children will be better off – and they can continue to live in Chicago and benefit others”).

Final thought: this is a rare time when someone could claim the suburbs are “more efficient” for raising children. On one hand, I see the point: the suburban infrastructure has been built around children for decades. On the other hand, this idea of “efficiency” is an odd one as children can also be raised in cities and what Americans value for children and families is often closely tied to perceptions of cities and suburbs.

Consequences of suburbs growing, back to city movement declining

Willing Frey at The Brookings Institution sums up recent trends in growth rates among cities and suburbs:

As we approach the end of the 2010s, the biggest cities in the United States are experiencing slower growth or population losses, according to new census estimates. The combination of city growth declines and higher suburban growth suggests that the “back to the city” trend seen at the beginning of the decade has reversed.

These trends are consistent with previous census releases for counties and metropolitan areas that point to a greater dispersion of the U.S. population as the economy and housing market pick back up, perhaps propelled by young adult millennials who may be finally departing dense urban cores as they make a delayed entrance into marriage and the housing market…

Primary cities vs. suburbs growth rates

In both regions, city growth exceeded suburban growth in the early years of this decade, where Sun Belt growth in both cities and suburbs exceeded Snow Belt growth. As the decade wore on, city growth declined in both mega-regions while suburban growth remained higher. This is evident when looking at the individual metro areas in each region (download Table C). In 2011-2012, city growth exceeded suburb growth in 19 of the 34 Sun Belt metros, and in eight of the 19 Snow Belt metros. However, in 2017-18 the city growth advantage appeared in just nine Sun Belt metros and two Snow Belt metros. Among these 11 areas that still registered city growth advantages are: Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Denver, and Boston.

It is helpful to see the longer trends in the data, particularly when lots of media outlets want to jump on one-year estimates (such as Chicago’s recent population loss).

While it is helpful to compare cities and suburbs (and these changes do matter for a lot of reasons, including perceptions), I wonder how much this covers up larger changes across metropolitan regions or feeds narratives that cities and suburbs are locked in mortal competition. All of the above data could be true while Sun Belt regions continue to grow at a strong rates. Regions could think about policies as a whole that would enhance conditions for many more people than just those in cities or suburbs.

Finally, I’ve written before about how it would likely take decades to unseat the primacy of suburban life in the United States. Was the back to city movement or great inversion just a blip on the radar screen? Or, will it cycle back at closer and closer frequencies? The global economic system may have something to do with this – what happens with the next major downturn? – yet overcoming decades of expressed preference for suburbs will not be easy.