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.

“To urbanists, suburbia is self-evidently evil”

A reflection on the recent book Radical Suburbs includes this paragraph about critiquing American suburbs:

To urbanists, suburbia is self-evidently evil: sprawl is an environmental disaster, subsidized by lavish post-World War II road-building programs and the mortgage interest deduction (which promotes home ownership) and turbo-charged by low interest rates. Why would any sophisticated architectural thinker want to get involved with such iniquity? In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art tried to rouse a group of high-caliber architects to stage a suburban intervention in the wake of the 2008 recession and the foreclosure crisis that followed. The show, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” was well-meaning and inventive but it left no trace in the real world, and the designers who were recruited to rethink towns and subdivisions didn’t return to the topic. The trouble with throwing up your hands at suburbia’s obstacles and contradictions is that it means giving up on most of the country.

And plenty of suburbanites notice the negative assessment of suburban living:

Getting ignored by snobs is just fine with millions of Americans, whose only complaint about their center-less towns is when they become too much like cities: clogged, expensive, and big.

Presumably, this writer is trying to model a different way: working in small ways to push suburbs toward more density and more community without asking suburbanites to give up everything they say they like:

One radical step would be for towns to hold competitions, inviting the world’s designers to make adjustments to their layouts—not to plow them under or replace them with faux urban centers, but to find new ways to tweak roads, shorten commutes, and encourage people to live in closer quarters—all while satisfying the desires of privacy, peace, and contact with nature that lured people out of the city in the first place.

Tying far-flung suburbs together with public transit is expensive, complex, and controversial, but modest modifications aren’t. It’s not insurmountable to recycle dead malls into community centers, art spaces, and indoor plazas; to lay down footpaths that steer clear of cars and converge on a park or a playground; to legalize back alleys and rentable granny flats— standard items in the New Urbanist toolkit.

This approach might be dubbed “urban-lite” or “retrofitted suburbia” or “surban.” All of these get at putting together denser pockets of suburbia without needing to get rid of all of the sprawling areas. This is the pragmatic approach to transforming suburbs rather than hinting at the nuclear option of moving everyone to cities (as some fear).

Similarly, middle-range steps to altering suburbs also can help those opposed to suburbs make strong value judgments that will simply provoke defensiveness among suburbanites. Tell someone their lifestyle is evil or wrong and this likely will not prompt the response the critiquer desires. And American suburbanites have heard some version of this critique for at least six decades and continued to move there. Amidst the similar architecture, the conformity, the mass consumer culture, the private space that enriches only the homeowners, the lack of community, and the effect on the environment, Americans have moved to and have been pushed to the suburbs in large numbers. Did these critiques have any effect on making some think twice?

Focusing on the fastest-growing American cities reinforces the idea that growth is good

For American communities, growth is generally good. Growth comes with multiple benefits including the idea that it is an important community to pay attention to. In other words, growth equals a higher status (and population stagnation or decline is bad).

So when USA Today publishes a list of the fastest-growing cities in each state, it helps reinforce the idea that explosive growth is good. Here are a few of the listings with higher rates of growth:

Arizona: Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 15.6% (state: 11.9%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 4.3% (state: 5.1%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 20.1% (state: 16.6%)
• Median household income: $61,506 (state: $56,581)…

Colorado: Greeley
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 23.7% (state: 12.8%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 2.9% (state: 3.7%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 34.1% (state: 19.9%)
• Median household income: $68,884 (state: $69,117)…

Florida: The Villages
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 36.6% (state: 13.0%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 5.1% (state: 3.5%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 42.9% (state: 19.5%)
• Median household income: $54,057 (state: $52,594)…

Oregon: Bend-Redmond
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 21.7% (state: 9.2%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 4.5% (state: 4.4%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 36.0% (state: 17.8%)
• Median household income: $66,273 (state: $60,212)

Growth can have additional benefits beyond a higher status. Having more residents  is related to more taxes, more businesses, and more clout in the political realm. Growth can make local politicians who presided over the changes look good. Communities can change their character in significant ways when growth comes.

At the same time, growth can have a number of downsides: strained local services, lots of new residents in the community (which can lead to issues with more longer-term residents), the use of more land and resources, and an accrual of the benefits of growth to only some in the community (usually in the local growth machine) rather than the community as a whole. Furthermore, communities can usually only experience significant growth for a short period.

On the whole, there are many worthwhile American communities that have limited population growth (and the growth could be limited for a variety of reasons). Only paying attention to the fast-growing places and drawing lessons from those communities unnecessarily valorizes big population increases while diminishing the other factors that contribute to what makes a worth community to live in.

Learning about the notorious criminals of other major cities

In recently reading Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, I learned about several notable criminals and crimes in the largest city in the United States. This got me thinking: does every large city have its cast of unsavory lawbreakers that are relatively unknown to those who live outside the city or region?

Without reading histories of every large American city, it is hard to know. And I wonder if it is harder for these infamous characters to go unnoticed on the national scene today with the round the clock news coverage online and on TV that can talk about possibly criminal activity for hours and days without stop. On the flip side, these local characters might even become a part of civic pride or a grim experience everyone has shared or even tourist fodder. While cities can be compared on overall crime statistics (such as with claims that Chicago is the murder capital of the United States), stacking criminal individuals or groups against each other is a more nuanced task.

And would it be worthwhile to be able to name a few notable criminals from every major American city? These cases could help reveal some unique local history and character. But, they could also reinforce notions that cities are centers of crime. With so much interesting material to learn about a large city and/or a metropolitan region, criminal activity would be far down my list of what I would want to know.

Building a 1,000+ foot skyscraper in a rural town of 7,000 residents

Skyscrapers and cities are tightly linked. Can one be built in a small town in the countryside?

Until a local company announced plans to send a 320-metre skyscraper soaring over the surrounding countryside, most people in Denmark had only the haziest idea where Brande, a town of 7,000 people in rural Jutland, even was.

The Bestseller Tower, designed by star architectural studio Dorte Mandrup, will not only be the tallest building in Denmark, but the tallest in western Europe, besting the Shard in London by a crucial 10.4 metres…

It won’t be the first rural skyscraper. At the height of Japan’s property bubble back in 1991, a 41-story residential tower, Sky Tower 41, was erected among fields.

But in Jutland, the surrounding landscape is so flat that the tower will be visible from 60km away. Visitors to Jelling, the royal seat of Harald Bluetooth, the Viking king who united Denmark, will see its slender form jutting up from the horizon, as will visitors to Legoland 30km away.

While the article suggests it will not be the only rural skyscraper in the world, they are certainly rare. They are rare enough outside of sizable central business districts that numerous tall buildings in the Chicago suburbs – probably in the 20 to 30 stories in height – attract attention as unusual and sticking out in the landscape in a metropolitan region that takes pride in its tall buildings and architecture.

It is certainly possible to build such a structure almost anywhere but I wonder how this will all work out in day-to-day life in this community. Small towns and rural areas have a particular scale that people are used to and that is human scaled or even dominated by nature and landscapes rather than human creations. Constructing a building over a 1,000 square feet disrupts all of this: it will be visible for miles, it will dwarf anything nearby, and it will cast shadows and block the sun from certain angles. It is not slightly out of scale for this community; it is a massive change. It could be beautiful, modern, and efficient and still have negative consequences for the community.

 

Suggestion that Hudson Yards and other urban megaprojects threaten suburbs

The glitz of the new Hudson Yards in New York pushes one theater critic to argue such spaces threaten suburbs:

A problem faced by suburbs becomes all too clear at Hudson Yards. Affluent Americans are almost all going to live in cities, starving urban centers of affordable housing just as they’ll choke up the traditional suburban resources. No suburb, I kept thinking, can compete with this. And Hudson Yards, or Lincoln Yards, or whatever comes next, are far from done.

Such large developments in significant urban neighborhoods are worth keeping an eye on because of all the change that comes at once plus what is included in the new spaces.

But, I don’t think Hudson Yards or the proposed megaproject on Chicago’s north side or the development around Staples Center in Los Angeles will threaten suburbs in the long run:

  1. These spaces do not have the same combination of factors that Americans like in suburbs starting with the emphasis on single-family homes and family life. Projects like these have elements of what suburbia can offer but primarily offer a different experience: bustling activity, diversity of dining and cultural options, presumably a greater mix of people. Suburbs can indeed compete with this by offering a different lifestyle.
  2. The housing available in these new projects is primarily for wealthy urbanites, likely appealing to young professionals and older adults who like all the activity and the newness. This may indeed continue to help concentrate the affluent in certain urban neighborhoods but there will be plenty of working to middle-class residents who will be priced out and will find suburban housing more affordable.
  3. Surveys continue to suggest that even young Americans desire a suburban life in the long run, particularly when they reach a certain age or have families. From my vantage point, the emphasis on the rush to the big cities is overplayed.

Both sizable and exciting urban megaprojects can find success alongside suburban life. Perhaps they may even draw on different people groups in the long run, segmented by age as well as resources. And perhaps we should continue to keep paying attention to who has difficulty finding a true home in either type of space.

The urban theory behind SimCity

In constructing the game SimCity, Will Wright worked with the ideas of James Forrester:

Looking to understand how real cities worked, Wright came across a 1969 book by Jay Forrester called Urban Dynamics. Forrester was an electrical engineer who had launched a second career as an expert on computer simulation; Urban Dynamics deployed his simulation methodology to offer a controversial theory of how cities grew and declined. Wright used Forrester’s theories to transform the cities he was designing in his level editor from static maps of buildings and roads into vibrant models of a growing metropolis. Eventually, Wright became convinced that his “guinea-pig city” was an entertaining, open-ended video game. Released in 1989, the game became wildly popular, selling millions of copies, winning dozens of awards, and spawning an entire franchise of successors and dozens of imitators. It was called SimCity

Largely forgotten now, Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics put forth the controversial claim that the overwhelming majority of American urban policy was not only misguided but that these policies aggravated the very problems that they were intended to solve. In place of Great Society-style welfare programs, Forrester argued that cities should take a less interventionist approach to the problems of urban poverty and blight, and instead encourage revitalization indirectly through incentives for businesses and for the professional class. Forrester’s message proved popular among conservative and libertarian writers, Nixon Administration officials, and other critics of the Great Society for its hands-off approach to urban policy. This outlook, supposedly backed up by computer models, remains highly influential among establishment pundits and policymakers today…

Forrester spent months tinkering with this model, tested and corrected it for errors, and ran a “hundred or more system experiments to explore the effects of various policies on the revival of a city that has aged into economic decline.” Six months after beginning the project, and over 2000 pages of teletype printouts later, Forrester declared that he had reduced the problems of the city to a series of 150 equations and 200 parameters…

Forrester thought that the basic problem of urban planning—and making social policy in general—was that “the human mind is not adapted to interpreting how social systems behave.” In a paper serialized in two early issues of Reason, the libertarian magazine founded in 1968, Forrester argued that for most of human history, people have only needed to understand basic cause-and-effect relationships, but that our social systems are governed by complex processes that unfold over long periods of time. He claimed that our “mental models,” the cognitive maps we have of the world, are ill-suited to help us navigate the web of  interrelationships that make up the structure of our society.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. How many people dream that cities could be reduced to equations and parameters? Cities are both fascinating and frustrating because they are so complex. And the quest to find overarching rules governing urban life continues – see the work of Geoffrey West as an example.
  2. Figuring out when more government intervention is helpful or not is a difficult task, particularly when it comes to complex cities. Housing is an area I have written about before: free markets do not bring about fair results and the federal government has promoted one kind of housing, single-family homes, over others for decades.
  3. This is a reminder that game users can learn about how the world works – they are not just mindless entertainment – but they also do so under the conditions or terms set up by the designer. Cities are indeed complex and SimCity presents them in one particular way. All games have a logic to them and this may or may not match reality. How much theory do we imbibe on a daily basis through different activities? At the least, we are forming our own individual theoretical explanations of how we think society operates.