Walkable + suburban = desirable “surban” places

Homebuyers may still desire to live in the suburbs but they now may want a different kind of suburbia: a walkable, denser, vibrant place.

No longer are McMansions, white picket fences and sprawling square footage topping suburban buyers’ most-wanted list. Instead, proximity to a suburb’s downtown and easy access to restaurants, schools and parks are priorities. For many, walkable suburbs reign supreme…

The shift toward more walkable suburbs started over the past two decades, thanks to planning efforts concentrated on creating mini-downtowns to revive traditional suburban centers, said Kheir Al-Kodmany, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs…

A 2017 study by the National Association of Realtors found that walkers span the generations. Sixty-two percent of millennials and 55 percent of those born before 1944 prefer walkable communities and brief commutes, even if it means living in an apartment or town home. And 53 percent of Americans would give up a home with a large yard in exchange for a home with a smaller yard that’s within walking distance of the community’s amenities, according to the study. That figure is up from 48 percent in 2015…

A 2016 study from realty site Redfin seems to support Dunne’s point. The study took into account more than 1 million home sales between January 2014 and April 2016 and found that homes with higher walk scores tend to have higher sales prices than comparable homes in less walkable areas. One walk score point can increase a home’s price by an average of $3,250. In Chicago, the study found an increase of one walk score point can bump a home’s price by $2,437.

I intentionally cited the broader data from the article (and not just the anecdotes from buyers, realtors, and local suburbs) because there should be an open question involved with this article: do we have a certified trend toward more walkable suburbs? Do we have clear population data showing people moving to walkable suburbs rather than other places? For a variety of reasons, including enhancing local tax bases and environmental concerns, this has indeed been an emphasis in a number of suburbs across the United States in recent decades. But, I would also guess that it is primarily in suburbs that have more traditional downtowns and mass transit options. In the Chicago region, this means the “surban” experience is easier to create in communities founded before World War II and along the major passenger railroad lines.

This possible shift also does not fit easily into the common narrative that suburbs and cities are locked in mortal combat and there are clear winners and losers. What if in the long term Americans want some of both city and suburban life: a little less density, a single-family home with a yard, a smaller town or city where they feel they can influence local government or organizations if need be, and also walkable and not just a bedroom suburb? Arguably, this tension has been behind the American suburbs for over a century: Americans want a mix of urban and country life. A denser suburbia may just be the newest manifestation of this ongoing balance.

Does it matter if Roseanne is set in a real place?

After thinking about whether Roseanne is set in Elgin, Illinois and the inconsistencies of the show’s location, I arrived at a broader question: does a fictional television show really need a location? And a second question follows: does it serve the writers or the viewers better to have a clear location?

To answer the first question, I think the answer is no. As noted in the earlier posts, much of the action in television dramas and sitcoms takes place among a limited number of characters in a limited number of locations. In some shows, the characters hardly ever leave their residence or work. In other shows, character are out and about more but they are often in generic locations that may signal something about a particular city – skyscrapers! lots of traffic! – but do not necessarily depend on a particular location. Think Friends: they are clearly in New York City yet the unique daily life of the city rarely is part of the plot (perhaps outside of the ongoing question of how people with those kinds of jobs can afford apartments like that). Could the show easily be set in Seattle or London or Houston without substantially altering the key relationships between characters and the narrative arcs? Many shows just need enough information to slot into a typical narrative that fits a location: the big city story, the suburban life, small town doings, etc.

To the second question, I think both the writers and viewers could be served well with some idea of where the show is taking place even as this geographic identity may mean little for the show. Our everyday lives are highly impacted by the spaces in which we operate, even if critics would argue suburbanization has rendered all the American suburbs the same or globalization has homogenized experiences within and across cultures. It might be hard to truly invest in a story or narrative arc if it literally could take place anywhere. Having a recognizable place or name at least gives people something to work with in their imaginations, even if the shows do not fully explore their geographic context. The small nods to geography can also serve to help differentiate shows from each other: the New York version is slightly different compared to the Los Angeles or the Chicago version. (Again, we usually do not get a broad palette of American locations but rather easily identifiable locations.) If anything, the restricted number of possible locations helps studios who can make backlots look like many places. (And you can see this on studio tours: we took a tour a few years ago of Warner Bros. where the set for Gilmore Girls, small town Connecticut, Desperate Housewives, suburban everywhere, and the big city were all a short distance from each other. And once you have viewed these sets up close, you see them all over in commercials, shows, and films.)

Coming back to Roseanne: I do not think it really matters that it is modeled on Elgin, Illinois or uses an exterior shot of a home from Evansville, Indiana. It could easily be set outside of Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo, and dozens of other locations where working-class Americans live. Having a rough approximation of a location outside of Chicago may have helped writers and viewers place the show but it is not terribly consequential for the themes of the show or the characters.

 

The geographic inconsistencies of Roseanne and the placelessness of TV shows

Roseanne may be based on Elgin, Illinois but the show draws on various locations in Illinois and Indiana:

“Roseanne” is filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles, but is set in the fictional Illinois town of Lanford. Where in Illinois is Lanford supposed to be? Some conflicting clues about the town’s location are sprinkled throughout the series, which originally aired from 1988-97.

Consider Season 1, Episode 20. Amid fierce winds, Dan Conner turns on the radio for the weather report: “As of 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, a tornado watch is in effect for Fulton County.” Darlene Conner bursts into the room: “Hey, that’s us!” In real life, Fulton County is west of Peoria.

Now Season 8, Episode 7. While in the car with her sister, Roseanne Conner suggests going to “that big outlet mall up in Elgin.” Jackie Harris sniffs, “Elgin? That’s an hour away.”

A representative for the ABC network, which aired “Roseanne” in the ’90s and will air the new season starting March 27, said Elgin is used as the reference for Lanford, both geographically and demographically…

The exterior of the Conner home is also not an authentic representation of Illinois. The series features shots of a house in Evansville, Ind., about 325 miles away from Elgin.

Geographic inconsistencies are not unknown in Hollywood. Television shows use various devices – verbal suggestions, establishing shots and some exterior images, fandom for local sports teams, architecture, attempts at accents or local eccentricities – to suggest a location but rarely pinpoint a real life location or community. What we see is more of a pastiche of a location. Most of the action takes place inside in interior settings or generic outdoor settings that could be anywhere. The shows want to both hint at a particular place and be generic enough to appeal to a broad audience. Roseanne may claim to be about Elgin, Illinois but it has to roughly match hundreds of working-class locations (or match perceptions of working-class places) across the United States.

More broadly, this suggests television shows may be more or less explicitly attached to particular cities and locations (crime shows often are) and yet they often exist in a placeless world much of the time. If anything, the biggest cities in the United States – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – are the most depicted on television while other cities or smaller communities are anonymized. But, even these big cities are not really the focus of the action; the characters swoop in and around recognizable locations while certain parts of cities or everyday urban life never are on the screen. This is depicted effectively on The Simpsons where the location of Springfield is not clear, the city itself and its surrounding area can change according to the whims of the writers, and the action ranges from the mundane to the absurd.

Five variables to determine “The Best Cities for Living the American Dream”

SmartAsset released their 2018 rankings for “The Best Cities for Living the American Dream.” Here are the top cities and the factors they used to develop the rankings:

Best Cities for Living the American Dream

Diversity score. To create this statistic, we looked at the population percentage of different racial and ethnic groups in each city. A lower number represents more diversity. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.

Economic mobility. This metric looks at generational change in economic position for families. A higher number shows greater mobility. Data comes from The Equality of Opportunity Project.

Homeownership rate. This is the percent of households who own their home. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.

Home value. This is the median home value in every city. For this study, a lower home value is considered better as we use it as a measure of affordability. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 1-year American Community Survey.

Unemployment rate. This is the unemployment rate by county. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for January 2018.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. The five measures seem to make sense. You could quibble with different aspects, such as measuring the unemployment rate at the county level rather than the city or metropolitan region.
  2. What would make sense to add to this list of five measures? There is no measure of educational achievement on this list and it might be interesting to consider the foreign-born population in each place (particularly since the foreign-born population is at a high in American history). Do lower taxes matter?
  3. The list is skewed away from two areas: (a) the East and West coasts and (b) the biggest American cities. I would imagine the coastal cities have difficulty with home values. However, it is less obvious to me why the biggest cities, particularly those in the South and Midwest, do not make the top of these rankings.
  4. How many Americans would give up where they currently live to move to one of these places that supposedly offers a better chance at finding the American Dream? Some experts suggest Americans should simply go where there are opportunities, whether these are jobs, cheaper housing, or less taxes. Yet, it is not necessarily easy to just pick and go, particularly to places like these that might not be very well known. (And, it could also be the case that a large influx of people to each of these top-ranked locations would influence these places.)

City vs. suburbs in Nashville transit vote

An ambitious transit plan in the Nashville metropolitan area was roundly defeated by voters:

Had it passed, Let’s Move Nashville—the boldest municipal transit plan in recent memory—would have launched five light-rail lines, one downtown tunnel, four bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown buses, and more than a dozen transit centers around the city. Depending on how you do the math, the scheme would have cost $5.4 billion or more like $9 billion, funded by a raft of boosted local taxes. More than 44,000 voters across Metro Nashville’s Davidson County came out in favor of the referendum, with more than 79,000 voting against it…

That’s a simplified version of the city’s politics, of course; while the vote fell broadly along urbanite versus suburbanite lines, a map reflecting the vote tally, and not just the vote result, would look more purplish. But not all that purplish. In the end, a vision for transforming transit in Nashville could not transform the politics of the city.

“There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments),” writes Emily Evans, managing director for healthcare policy for Hedgeye Potomac Research, in an email. Evans previously worked as a municipal financial analyst and served on the Nashville City Council for nine years.

A complicated plan like this has a lot of moving parts that voters could either support or vote against. At the same time, it can be a difficult sell for those outside the city core or in the suburbs to support mass transit plans that (1) they feel are not as necessary since they are able to drive where they need to go and (2) that might bring new people to their neighborhoods. When given a choice and their own personal resources, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit, particularly if they would have to pay more for something they do not perceive helping them.

I would suggest this gets back to larger issues of whether regions really want to work together. Can cities and suburbs both thrive due to joint projects and shared resources? Or, is this a zero-sum game where resources can taken from one area and given to another in the same region is seen as a loss? The voters of Nashville remain to be convinced that mass transit is a big enough boon for themselves, let alone everyone.

Fallacy: if suburbs or a big city gain people, the other necessarily has to lose

The history of American metropolitan areas suggests that if a big city loses people, the suburbs gain people and vice versa. Yet, I argue this is an inadequate view of metropolitan regions. Consider a recent story on how the revival of downtown Detroit could harm its suburbs:

The failure of a few landmarks does not mean Detroit’s suburbs are doomed, but some local leaders see writing on the wall. Oakland County’s famously abrasive county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, has long taken a vocal pro-sprawl position, but even his government is making an effort to invest in the county’s handful of historic downtowns, via what’s touted as the “nation’s first and only county-wide Main Street program.” Archetypal suburbs like Troy are also getting in on the act. While it may be hard now to imagine walking along Troy’s main drag, a busy six-lane thoroughfare called Big Beaver Road, the city recently installed wider sidewalks, revised zoning to encourage taller buildings and multifamily housing, and took a stab at transit with a trolley-style shuttle bus.

“Everybody’s trying to create places in Southeast Michigan, which didn’t really have places before,” says Barry Murray, director of economic and community development for Dearborn, which borders Detroit to the southwest. “And there’s a lot of interest in diversified housing options, from young people who want to be in the hearts of downtowns.”

Dearborn, with a bustling commercial center of its own less than seven miles from Detroit’s, is in a better position to adapt to the changing times than most of its suburban peers. The city has been Ford’s hometown for the past century, and while a few thousand Ford workers might be moving down Michigan Avenue, the automaker is also spending more than $1 billion to reimagine its Dearborn headquarters along the lines of a Silicon Valley Tech Campus, and to create a new mixed-use development around Dearborn’s historic Wagner Hotel. Murray expects at least 1,000 new apartments to come online over the next few years—at present, he estimates, 90 percent of the city’s 38,000 housing units are detached single-family homes. Meanwhile, a declining mall where 1,800 Ford employees are temporarily occupying an old Lord & Taylor is “an active planning area,” Murray says. “We know these retailers are not going to be there forever.”

Southfield, just across Eight Mile Road from Detroit, could tell Dearborn a thing or two about disappearing retail—last year, it began tearing down Northland Center, the first shopping mall in America. Since Amazon turned down the city’s offer of the site for its second headquarters, Southfield is moving forward with a plan to crisscross the property with through streets and make way for offices, restaurants, apartments and a park—an effort to create a downtown in a city built without one. Says Mayor Kenson Siver, “We have a lot of plans here.”

This is a common approach to population changes: cities and suburbs are locked in a zero-sum mortal combat for residents. Suburbs have won this battle over time with over 50% of Americans living around major cities. (Hence, the countless stories in recent decades about a population migration to cities which will come at the expense of suburbs. I believe the data overall is limited regarding a major shift in American preferences for city life.)

I would suggest this view contains some truth – communities do compete with each other for prestige, jobs, their tax base, and residents – but also ignores the larger reality of how cities and suburbs work in today’s world. The metropolitan region is a connected unit and the communities and agents work together. The differences between suburbs and city are ultimately smaller than the differences with other metropolitan regions. If Detroit’s core attracts new businesses and residents, this can only be good in the long run. If Detroit is only able to attract businesses and residents from the suburbs, this is not real growth – it simply shuffling actors around within the region. When both Detroit’s suburbs and core bring in people from other regions, they can grow together and the metropolitan region (and all the people within it can thrive).

Of course, there are hurdles to coming to this perspective. Individual communities, city or suburbs, will not like if they lose assets and others around them gain. Racial and class differences lurk behind these current and historic differences. Money is tight. Ideally, suburban and urban leaders would come together to talk about how to proceed positively as a region. Going further, they could discuss how to share resources. (This is probably the toughest sell in American regions, particularly from wealthier communities who do not want to lose the resources they see as theirs.) But, working together for the greater Detroit area would pay off in the long run and help ensure a thriving region.

City landmarks, maps, and status

A Chicago group recently used a survey to look at how well big city residents know local landmarks:

According to a 360 Chicago spokesperson, the impetus for the survey was to “see how familiar residents in major cities across the U.S are with their hometowns, but also determine which cities have the type of stand-out landmarks that even outsiders can pick out on a map.”

The survey quizzed 2,000 residents from 10 cities, wherein every person was provided a list of 10 famous landmarks in their city and asked to ID those pinned on the map (five of the 10 listed were not pinned).

Some of the Chicago landmarks included were Robie House, Navy Pier, Second City, Merchandise Mart, the Art Institute and the 606 trail.

The Art Institute was the best known landmark, while the 606 stumped the most folks.

The data revealed Chicago residents were savvier at identifying Los Angeles landmarks than those in their own backyard. Not sure what that says about Chicagoans, but at least residents from other major metropolises in the country know the Chicago landscape more than their own towns — shout out to Houston and Seattle!

I do not know exactly how the survey was put together but three parts intrigue me:

  1. Landmarks are important for big cities, both for residents and possible visitors. For residents, they provide a sense of the character of the city. For visitors, they become perhaps the only thing they really know or have seen in the city. Either way, landmarks are anchors for millions of people. This could be seen as strange; could the Sears Tower or Empire State Building really represent the lives of millions of people?
  2. Putting landmarks on a map requires an extra set of knowledge. Landmark buildings and their images or silhouettes are all over the place. But, being able to place them in a particular context is much harder. Residents of a big city, let alone visitors, may have few opportunities to make it to other parts of the city.
  3. Landmarks are tied to the status of the city. I would guess larger and more important cities are likely to have more recognizable landmarks. For example, I could not likely pick out a single building or landmark from Houston even though it is the fourth largest city in the United States. Some of these landmarks become status symbols for the city. On the other hand, some buildings are just really unusual – think the Space Needle in Seattle or the Opera House in Sydney – and this could help put a particular city “on the map.”