A map that would reveal what was there before the highway was built

This article discusses a cool tool that removes highways on the map so you can see what else is using that space:

In true public-spirited manner, the map is built from an OpenStreetMap, with tags identifying highways, off-ramps, and exits to make the roads vanish or reappear. However, Sisson didn’t set out on a nihilistic quest to annihilate all highways—he just wanted to look underneath them.

I wish this went one step further: when the highway is removed from the map, could we see what was there before? Urban highways have famously altered numerous neighborhoods – whether the highway that was later replaced by the Big Dig in Boston or the fight between Jane Jacobs and activists in Manhattan and Robert Moses to avoid a new highway or the Dan Ryan in Chicago separating black and white neighborhoods – yet those neighborhoods mostly disappear. The highway seems permanent even though most have only been around for 50-70 years. Of course, it would be really difficult to project what those spaces might look like today if the highway had not been constructed but it would still be nice to be able to peel back the layers. Actually, this wouldn’t be a bad idea for many city locations: what if Google Maps had a timeline component where you could set it to 1950 and see what there then (particularly if images could be incorporated) or even earlier?

Why Americans do or do not move

An article about the most and least mobile cities in the United States includes some discussion of what pushes people to move or to stay put:

“There are two main determining factors whether people move or not,” says Nathalie Williams, a sociology professor from the University of Washington. The good: “The better people feel their lives are going, the less likely they are to move elsewhere.”  The bad: Lousy economies can force people to head for greener pastures.

But of course, economic insecurity can also keep people in the same place.

After the housing bust in 2007, migration slowed down, because uncertainties about the job market had made people nervous about changing jobs and deciding to move on. They were less likely to upgrade to a bigger and nicer home. Plenty even found their homes deep underwater, and were unable to sell.

Now that the recession is over, mobility is finally picking up again, says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire. And jobs lure people, especially younger ones who haven’t put down deep roots, to new centers of employment.

The short explanation is that economic factors are influential. But, there may be three caveats to this: (1) movement can occur because of either a good or bad economy, (2) it may depend on people’s stage of life, and (3) perhaps there is more to this than economics. Regarding the first point, the article juxtaposes Detroit and Honolulu, the two cities that are least mobile. These are two very different places: one is doing well, the other is not. Later, it is noted that several of the most mobile places are college towns with populations that are more transient (this involves students but also others whose jobs in academia and related industries can lead them from college town to college town). Finally, the description of life in Honolulu cites some economic factors (low property taxes) but also includes a unique cultural setting that some enjoy.

In the end, I’m not sure this article does much to help explain why people move. They move less when economic times are good and bad. Certain places are more mobile because of institutions that encourage transience (colleges) while other places have quality of life traits that discourage moving. Does this mean the most mobile places are somewhere in the middle of these rankings? Or, is it all relative to what people in the region have experienced in recent years?

Debating whether Detroit is on an upward trend

There is some disagreement about whether Detroit is on the rebound:

Michigan State political scientist Laura Reese and Wayne State urban affairs expert Gary Sands have written an essay “Detroit’s recovery: The glass is half-full at best,” for Conversation, which was reprinted at CityLab as “Is Detroit Really Making a Comeback?” The article is based on a longer academic treatment of this subject by Reese, Sanders and co-authors, entitled “It’s safe to come, we’ve got lattes,” in the journal Cities.  (This is one of those rare cases where the mass media version of an article is more measured and less snarky than the title of the companion academic piece, but I digress.)

Reese and Sands set about the apparently obligatory task of offering a contrarian view to stories in the popular press suggesting that Detroit has somehow turned the corner on its economic troubles and is starting to come back. We, too, are wary of glib claims that everything is fine in Detroit. It isn’t. The city still bears the deep scars of decades of industrial decline coupled with dramatic failure of urban governance. The nascent rebound is evident only in a few places.

And the opposite position:

It’s going to be a long, hard road ahead for Detroit. And that road will lead to a different and smaller Detroit than existed in, say, the 1950s. That road is made even harder by critics who damn the first few candles for shedding too little light.

While the debate is about Detroit’s fate, it hits on important larger questions: at what point can experts know whether a city is on the decline or on the way up? Who gets to make such pronouncements and with what data? While we are in the moment, when is a trend clearly a trend? Even a consensus of experts may not be good enough; they can all be wrong.

The more complicated answer is that it takes time and lots of data to know for sure what is happening. This is not comforting if things are going bad; there is often a lot of post-hoc analysis of what could have been done in the moment but such moments are difficult to handle. (Think about the public discussions regarding the economic crisis of the late 2000s and what lessons should be drawn from the Great Depression and similar events.) And if the situation has been bad for a long time, people do want to find hope and build on good happenings.

For those of us looking on from a distance, perhaps the best we can do is wait and hope for positive change in Detroit which likely includes both new activities as well as difficult decisions about moving on from past arrangements.

Apartment construction increases in the Chicago suburbs

The construction of apartments in the Chicago suburbs reached some high marks in 2016:

Meanwhile, in the suburbs, more apartments were opened last year than in any time in the past 20 years and demand for those units meant suburban rents grew more than the increases downtown, according to research by Appraisal Research Counselors…

The rents in new or almost-new units in the suburbs increased 6.7 percent in 2016, while they increased just 2.85 percent downtown, according to Appraisal Research. The median rent was just $1.39 per square foot in the suburbs in 2016, while downtown it was $2.89 a square foot for space in a newer building. In other words, for 1,000 square feet a renter would pay on average $1,390 in the suburbs and $2,890 for one of the new downtown apartments. An older but well-kept Class B building downtown would be $2.52 a square foot, or $2,520 for 1,000 square feet…

The strongest occupancy in 2016 was in DuPage County, with 95.7 percent of the apartments full and the median price of a two-bedroom apartment at $1,315. Northwest Cook County was 95.4 percent full with a two-bedroom apartment averaging $1,390. The weakest area was the North Shore at 93.8 percent occupancy and a two-bedroom apartment at $2,446…

“From Schaumburg to Naperville, you are starting to see new construction,” said Stephen Rappin, president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association. It’s a trend that’s occurring nationally after the surge of construction in downtown areas.

This is where the debate between whether cities are growing or suburbs will win the day breaks down. What if the American future is denser suburban development and a shift away from single-family home ownership even as people stay in the suburbs? This would represent a change from “typical” suburban life – single-family home, lawn, lots of private space – while better mimicking some urban conditions such as denser housing, renting, and giving up a home to be near certain amenities.

As this article suggests, it is not surprising that the suburban apartment demand would be high in places with more economic and quality of life opportunities, places like Schaumburg and Naperville that have little greenfield space but where people would still want to live. Just like Chicago where apartment construction has boomed in the Loop but lagged elsewhere, a similar process will likely take place in the suburbs. This may be good for developers since there will be high demand for certain places but isn’t necessarily good for aiding issues of affordable housing.

Can you say you are from a city when you actually live in its suburbs?

The debate continues on whether suburban residents can claim to be from the big city:

Fowler was criticizing Trump for bashing Chicago while failing to reach out to Gov. Bruce Rauner about potential solutions. When he says “I’m from Chicago,” he’s quickly cut off by Caldwell whose “Bruh, you’re from Evanston” comment quickly excited Chicagoans on Twitter…

Perhaps this is even a bigger issue in Chicago where identification with a neighborhood or community area is very common among urban residents.

While suburban residents shouldn’t try to boost their image by claiming to be from the big city when they aren’t, they are in a difficult place when talking to people from outside of the region. When meeting someone, telling them the name of your suburb can often produce blank stares. The Chicago region has hundreds of communities of varying sizes and it is difficult to expect people to know even most of them (even if they are from the region). The big city becomes a kind of shorthand of where you are from. One other option that might work could be to identify a noteworthy or large suburb that others may know – I’ve been surprised how many people register some familiarity when I say I live near Naperville.

Additionally, there are certainly instances when saying you identify with the big city does make sense. Sports teams are the first example that comes to mind. There are very few American major sports franchises that identify with the suburbs. The only two that come to mind are the Long Island Islanders and the New Jersey Devils but they are from the largest region in the country and there are three hockey teams to differentiate. There are certain resources that big cities have that suburbanites could identify with, such as major airports (many people who have spent little time in the Chicago region can hold some kind of conversation about O’Hare Airport) or museums and cultural attractions.

A college degree leads to more geographic mobility

Americans with a college degree are more likely to leave where they grew up and end up in metropolitan regions:

Today, people with a college degree are more likely than they used to be to move to metropolitan regions with good jobs and other people like them, and this means both that those regions do better over time and that the return on that education is even greater. Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30, according to Moretti. Only 27 percent of high school graduates do. As booming cities draw in new college-educated workers, employers seeking these workers follow, and cities continue to gain strength like magnets. This improves the prospects of everyone in the region, including those without college degrees. The working-class strongholds that once prospered without college-educated workers, on the other hand, are doing worse and worse, as computers and robots replace the workers whose jobs haven’t been sent overseas, and, as a result, an oversupply of labor brings down wages for everyone still there.

It’s not just that a college degree leads to higher earnings or more opportunities; it is also that people with college degrees tend to cluster in certain locations. Even in a world where technology could theoretically allow workers to be far away from their workplaces, the clustering in desirable cities of employers, cultural scenes, and places to live with a high quality of life is linked to education levels.

Another side effect of this clustering is that cities tend to have diverse and vibrant economies while smaller communities simply can’t access multiple options. Thus, even if a smaller community has a single thriving industry, this may not work well:

Focusing on one type of industry could be a successful strategy; Warsaw, Indiana, a relatively small town in the northern part of the state, is the orthopedic capital of America, with dozens of orthopedic device companies small and large located there and a bustling economy as a result. Elkhart, Indiana is the epicenter of the recreational vehicle industry, and manufacturers and suppliers are located there, creating good jobs when the economy is doing well. Cities and towns may be able to convince a cluster of a certain type of companies to locate there, and reverse their decline. “Every place has to look at its comparative advantage, and find a niche,” Ross DeVol, the chief research officer at the Milken Institute, told me.

Having lived near Elkhart during the financial crisis, such a strategy can look good in boom times but be disastrous in down times.

Looking toward the future, are there any particular industries or sectors that would be willing to spread out geographically in order to build stronger American communities? This might limit their profits or make it difficult to attract certain employees but could it be worthwhile to invest in smaller communities in the long run (either for the communities or also for a competitive advantage)? Even sectors like health care are finding it difficult to maintain facilities in small towns because of the advantages that consolidation and economies of scale offer.

Are we already to the point where people live in rural areas because (1) they are “stuck” there or (2) because they are already well-off and have the resources or option to live there?

The flow of young adults to cities has slowed, leading to the idea of “peak millennial”

Have we reached “peak millennial” for America’s cities?

Dowell Myers, a professor of demography and urban planning at the University of Southern California, recently published a paper that noted American cities reached “peak millennial” in 2015. Over the next few years, he predicts, the growth in demand for urban living is likely to stall…

The debate is full of contours and caveats, but it really boils down to this: Are large numbers of millennials really so enamored with city living that they will age and raise families inside the urban core, or will many of them, like earlier generations, eventually head to the suburbs in search of bigger homes and better school districts?

Their choices — and it will be at least a few years before a definitive direction is clear — will have an impact on city budgets and gentrification fights. It could change the streetscape itself as businesses shift. It will affect billions of dollars’ worth of new apartments built on the premise that the flood of young people into cities would continue unabated.

It could also have a big impact on the American landscape more generally. For the past half-century, the trend toward suburbanization has continued with no real opposition. Even in the 1990s and 2000s, when urban areas were starting to turn around, subdivisions continued to expand. Have millennials ended that trend?…

Stay tuned. A few quick thoughts:

  1. One underlying issue here is the idea that cities need to keep growing in population in order to be vibrant or relevant. Can all American cities grow at significant rates? Should they?
  2. As noted in this article, the pull of suburbs is still strong. Any reversal from suburbs to cities is likely to happen over decades, not within a short span or a single generation.
  3. If cities are affected by a small generation after millennials as well as a declining rate of millennials staying in cities, who will they try to attract next? The article also notes that immigration levels have stabilized. Will there be a new plan from mayors and other urban leaders to bring in more residents?