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.

Bringing the cool parts of suburban life to urban settings

Can the suburban life be imported to residential units in the heart of the biggest American cities?

Your own slice of suburbia within city limits is a concept that developers and retailers across the country have been pitching a lot recently, subtly or not. The pendulum swings of socio-economic and demographic changes over the past two decades in some thriving cities are partly behind this shift…

The dividing line between urban and suburban limits has always been a little murky in most cities, many of which have their own vast stretches of single-family homes with attached garages. But the general idea was that the suburbs offered comfort and personal space, private backyards and a bedroom for each kid. City living was more exciting and offered culture and a more diverse mix of everything, but required some sacrifice. Apartments were smaller, parking a headache and a backyard unimaginable…

One of the Dahlia’s biggest selling points? It has its own parking garage. “You can pull in with your S.U.V., unload and take your things in a private manner,” said Shlomi Reuveni, the president of the company that is handling sales for the building. “That’s very appealing.” And very suburban.

In some high-end buildings, architects are giving apartments the feel of single-family homes by replicating the layouts of suburban houses. At the Quay Tower, which overlooks Brooklyn Bridge Park, there are just five condos on each floor, two of which have private elevator access. Inside, the larger units have something you see a lot of on HGTV suburban house renovation shows: large mudrooms off the back door with locker-like cubbies and sturdy ceramic-tile floors.

As the article goes on to note, more suburban features like mall food courts and white people are headed to cities.

On one head, the melding of lifestyles is not too surprising. In the suburbs, a “surban” lifestyle helps developers and residents differentiate their product and life from the typical suburban lifestyle. Both producers and consumers can seek out new niches.

On the other hand, that the suburban lifestyle may be a selling point is kind of funny because of all the flak the suburban life takes. I thought the suburbs were about exclusion, homogeneity, wastefulness, and individualism? It is not just that some of these features of suburban life have urban analogues. After all, they are both situated within American culture. The idea that certain suburban features, such as garages or mudrooms, will be replicated in cities flies against the claims about tacky suburban life. Suburban consumer goods and lifestyle markers are now cool?

When growing rural communities are reclassified as urban communities

James Fallows points to a Washington Post piece that discusses the reclassification issue facing numerous rural communities:

 

A few years after every census, counties like Bracken are reclassified, and rural or “nonmetropolitan” America shrinks and metropolitan America grows. At least on paper. The character of a place doesn’t necessarily change the moment a city crosses the 50,000-resident mark…

The sprawling, diverse segment of the United States that has changed from rural to urban since 1950 is the fastest-growing segment of the country. Culturally, newly urban areas often have more in common with persistently rural places than with the biggest cities. Most notably, in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have won only the counties defined as urban when the metropolitan classification began in 1950, while Donald Trump would have won every group of counties added to metropolitan after the initial round….

About 6 in 10 U.S. adults who consider themselves “rural” live in an area classified as metropolitan by standards similar to those used above, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017. And 3 in 4 of the adults who say they live in a “small town”? They’re also in a metro area…

If rural Americans complain of being left behind, it might be because they literally are. In government statistics, and in popular conception, rural is defined as what’s left after you have staked out all the cities and their satellites.

This is a measurement issue. What exactly counts as an urban, suburban, or rural area? This is a question I frequently field from students but it is more complicated than it looks.

My short answer: everything in between larger central cities and rural areas is a suburb.

My longer answer: metropolitan regions (encompassing the suburban areas around central cities) are drawn with county boundaries, not municipal boundaries. This means an entire county might be part of a metropolitan region but significant portions of the county are still rural.

My longer longer answer: the official boundaries do not truly capture a suburban way of life. This could be mimicked in numerous urban neighborhoods that contain single-family homes, yards, and families as well as more rural communities.

All of this may help explain why Americans tend to say they like or live in small towns even when these communities are not, by certain measures, not small towns.

The last quoted paragraph above is also intriguing: is rural truly whatever is leftover outside of metropolitan areas? At the start of the twentieth century, the vast majority of Americans lived outside cities and suburbs. As urban and suburban populations swelled, so did their geographic area. It is hard not to think that we still have not quite caught up with these major changes in spaces and communities a little over one hundred years later.

Can American residents and leaders be convinced population stagnation or loss is not that bad?

Chicago continues to lose residents and Houston is coming up fast. A sociologist is cited as saying the population decrease is not that bad:

Christine Percheski, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, cautioned that while it is significant to note that Chicago is losing people, “this does not necessarily reflect the health or the functioning of the city.”

An array of complicated factors are at play in population numbers, including changes to mortality, fertility and immigration rates, she noted.

I believe Percheski is right: the relatively small population loss in Chicago plus the city’s ability to avoid the larger population losses experienced by many Rust Belt cities means this is not a huge deal. Of course, getting passed by Houston in population will matter (though Toronto passing Chicago barely registered).

But, will residents and leaders ever be convinced that a lack of growth is not bad? Because growth is good and this argument is rarely challenged, population stagnation or loss set off an alarm bell. Why exactly this is the case is a bit harder to articulate but it likely involves a loss of status and a suggestion that the city has limited momentum heading into the future.

At this point, the United States does not have good models of cities and communities that have stalled out in population or even declined that are widely regarded as successful places. Chicago could be one of these models and perhaps it could work because it is so big and so storied. On the other hand, if Chicago has small population loss for decades, this adds up and will require Chicago leaders to work harder and harder to convince residents and businesses that the long-term story is not bad.

Rahm Emanuel on what divides people and how art can bring people together

Toward the end of an interview about the arts during his tenure as Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel briefly discussed factors that divide people and bring them together:

I think Lori and Amy know that the arts are the soul of a great city. Martin Luther King used to say the most segregated day in America is Sunday. The arts can make the other six days more integrated. Technology is balkanizing and dis-aggregating people. Only a government working with artists can create equity across shared experience.

According to this short quote, two factors work against community:

  1. Religion. Watch MLK make his 1960 statement about the most segregated hour in Christian America. So if religion in the US has tended to divide people by race (see Divided By Faith) and Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America, Emanuel may have a point about this in Chicago.
  2. Technology. Emanuel could join a chorus of pundits and scholars who argue technology has detrimental effects on community life.

On the other hand, Emanuel cites two forces that encourage community:

  1. Art/the arts.
  2. Government helping to facilitate the work of artists.

There is little doubt that major cities in recent decades have used the arts and cultural experiences alongside public art to try to drive growth. Whether this truly enhances community in the long run, particularly when other forces at work – with Emanuel’s reference to equity, I can’t help but think of uneven development and capital investment in cities like Chicago – work against community, remains to be seen. In other words, can shared experiences overcome persistent social inequalities?

Some evidence whites are moving into black urban neighborhoods

In the United States, whites do not typically move into black neighborhoods but there is some evidence this may be changing:

In America, racial diversity has much more often come to white neighborhoods. Between 1980 and 2000, more than 98 percent of census tracts that grew more diverse did so in that way, as Hispanic, Asian-American and African-American families settled in neighborhoods that were once predominantly white.

But since 2000, according to an analysis of demographic and housing data, the arrival of white residents is now changing nonwhite communities in cities of all sizes, affecting about one in six predominantly African-American census tracts. The pattern, though still modest in scope, is playing out with remarkable consistency across the country — in ways that jolt the mortgage market, the architecture, the value of land itself.

In city after city, a map of racial change shows predominantly minority neighborhoods near downtown growing whiter, while suburban neighborhoods that were once largely white are experiencing an increased share of black, Hispanic and Asian-American residents…

At the start of the 21st century, these neighborhoods were relatively poor, and 80 percent of them were majority African-American. But as revived downtowns attract wealthier residents closer to the center city, recent white home buyers are arriving in these neighborhoods with incomes that are on average twice as high as that of their existing neighbors, and two-thirds higher than existing homeowners. And they are getting a majority of the mortgages.

The examples provided are intriguing to consider but the summary data is hard to come by in this article. A few thoughts:

  1. How many whites are actually moving into what are black neighborhoods? Are these significant shifts or relatively few new residents?
  2. The suggestion is that many census tracts are affected – “about one in six predominantly African-American census tracts.” If the amount of change is not much, this may not mean a whole lot. For both #1 and #2, the article said the changes are “still modest in scope.”
  3. Do the affected census tracts have relatively low densities or populations that have decreased over the years? In other words, are these areas with depressed land values or are they wealthier minority neighborhoods whites are entering? If it is the first, could this be a side effect of the inflated housing values in many metropolitan areas?
  4. The focus of this article is also on mortgages and gentrification: the arriving white residents are more likely to receive loans and they have higher incomes. This hints at longer-standing issues facing minority or poor communities that historically have had less access to credit. Additionally, change is not just about race and ethnicity; social class and access to capital matters as well.

There is a lot to consider here and to follow up on with more data, analysis, and interpretation.