Are American cities in trouble or are we focusing too much on the business core of cities?

Recent data suggests the biggest American cities are facing several issues, including population loss. I wonder if the bigger issue is too much focus on the business and downtown core:

They are all among the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country. All of their populations were growing in 2011. And then, in 2021, they all shrank by a combined 900,000 people, according to an analysis of census data by the Brookings scholar William Frey. That’s an urban exodus nearly the size of two Wyomings.

The great metro shrinkage is part of a larger demographic story. Last year, the U.S. growth rate fell to a record low. The major drivers of population—migration and births—declined, while deaths soared in the pandemic. But America’s largest cities are getting the worst of this national trend. In the past three years, the net number of moves out of Manhattan has increased tenfold. In every urban county within the metros of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, immigration declined by at least 50 percent from 2018 to 2021. In downtown Detroit and Long Island, deaths actually exceeded births last year.

The great metro shrinkage also appears to be part of a broader cultural story: The rise of remote work has snipped the tether between home and office, allowing many white-collar workers to move out of high-cost cities. Nearly 5 million Americans have moved since 2020 because of remote-work opportunities, according to Adam Ozimek, the chief economist for the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank in Washington, D.C…

So what might this period of urban struggle look like? Just check out what’s happening now. Mass-transit ridership has collapsed from its pre-pandemic highs in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. Although restaurant bookings and travel have bounced back almost entirely, office occupancy remains 50 percent below its 2019 levels. In San Francisco, vacant office space has nearly quadrupled since the pandemic to 18.7 million square feet. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has practically begged white-collar workers to return to Midtown, even as those workers patronize businesses in more residential parts of the city, closer to where they live. America’s downtown areas support millions of jobs that can’t be made remote—in retail, construction, health care, and beyond. But for millions of white-collar workers, something important has changed: They don’t work “in” cities anymore. They work on the internet. The city is just where they go for fun.

The overall numbers are what they are. Yet, the emphasis in this piece and in others I have read are about a downtown core that COVID-19 weakened. What if American cities no longer need a dense downtown core in the same way? With more work from home, less demand for downtown office space and more interest in downtown residential space, and the ways cars and mass transit allow workers to live in different places from their workplaces, how much focus should be placed on struggling cores?

This could be a larger existential issue about American cities. In the 1990s, a group of scholars in Los Angeles wrote about a new Los Angeles School of urbanism built around the unique features of the LA region. This includes a decreased emphasis on a downtown core and more sprawl and fragmentation across the region. In contrast, Chicago and New York and many other American cities stand as the established alternative: an important business core in response to which all other city activity is oriented.

So is the problem really cities are in big trouble or that the model of an ultra-dense center with all that comes with it is breaking a bit? This could be a huge change for certain places – particularly parts of Manhattan, downtown San Francisco – but there would also be opportunities throughout cities if development and business and residential activity could be more spread out. Indeed, the picture attached to the story says a lot about this:

This picture is taken from the vantage point of a sizable property just south of Chicago’s Loop. Why is it not developed? If the core did not have to be as dense, could this significant property be better woven into the fabric of the city?

More broadly, observers can think about complete cities and complete regions in addition to changes or issues facing the downtown. If activity is moving elsewhere, what does this mean and how might it improve life elsewhere?

View housing – and America? – as “a country of 384 metro areas”

Housing is all about location so why not view it as a metro by metro issue?

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

When it comes to housing, it might be better to think about the U.S. as a country of 384 metro areas (plus 50 million Americans who don’t live in places big enough to qualify as a metro area) rather than one continuous country. In 2021, the U.S. population grew just 0.1% – the lowest annual expansion rate since our nation’s founding. But housing dynamics are best viewed through the different metro areas that are growing and shrinking. Of the 384 metro areas, 72 had declining populations in the decade leading to 2020, according to the Census.

The general argument makes some sense: supply and demand for housing depends on the metropolitan region. I have lived in one of these regions that has very limited demand for housing and experienced numerous foreclosures in the late 2000s. In places such as these, housing is cheap and plentiful – but there are relatively few people who want to move there and, if they do, there is limited desire to rehab older homes. On the other hand, the activity in particular housing markets – such as the coverage of housing and population in Manhattan and San Francisco during COVID-19 – draws all sorts of attention because of the prices and demand. All of this contributes to why housing is difficult to address at a national level.

More broadly, seeing the United States as a collection of metropolitan regions (or expanded city states?) may make some sense. For example, the 9+ million people in the Chicago region may see themselves as more of a collective than describing people from Illinois or people from the Midwest. These people share a particular housing and jobs market, common sources of information, entertainment options, a transportation network, and regional forces.

Of course, some regions may be more like other regions. Scholars have examined some of these broader collections, such as Rust Belt or Sunbelt regions or immigrant gateways, or used particular cities as models – particularly Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles – by which we can better understand all cities and regions. Yet, even these regions that share common characteristics have particular histories and current realities that would help set them apart from other.

All of this gets at an ongoing issue in sociology and other disciplines: at what point is it worthwhile to group phenomena together because of common traits or is it better to leave them as distinct entities because of their differences? There are both common traits in and a lot of variation among the 384 metro areas (plus all the other people living outside metro areas). At least for housing, it is tempting to treat each market as unique even as there are common patterns.

The United States as “a decentralized nation”

One analysis of the concentration of people and activity in American cities leads to this conclusion about the country today:

The modern U.S. is thus a decentralized nation, where despite an urban revival in recent years the periphery has kept growing faster than the center. Rural areas aren’t growing; most American counties actually lost population in the 2010s. But low-density suburban counties attached to large metropolitan areas grew faster than either high-density suburbs or urban counties, economist Jed Kolko calculated recently, while the fastest-growing major metro areas (Austin, Orlando, Raleigh, Nashville) aren’t among the largest.

This is a little hard to square with claims that large cities continue to wield great political clout. If it weren’t for the Electoral College, according to one oft-heard argument, voters in New York, Los Angeles and/or Chicago would choose every president. How they would manage to do this with only 4.7% of the nation’s population is a bit of a mystery. True, the three cities’ metro-area populations added up to 13% of the U.S. total in 2020, but that was down from 13.3% in 2010 and traditionally suburbs and cities largely canceled each other out politically — although that has been changing lately.

There’s a stronger argument to be made that economic power and cultural clout remain concentrated in a few places. Gross domestic product grew more slowly in the 10 largest metro areas than the country as a whole from 2010 to 2019 (2020 data aren’t out yet), but per-capita personal income grew faster. New York still dominates finance and the news media, Washington dominates government, Los Angeles rules entertainment and San Jose and San Francisco technology.

Census data suggests that the majority of the American population lives in suburbs. But, population alone cannot explain the importance and persistence of big cities. They will continue to remain powerful and important for multiple reasons. They help anchor broader metropolitan regions. They are centers of finance, innovation, real estate, cultural opportunities, key transportation infrastructure, and other essential activity. They occupy some of the most important and strategic locations. They have long histories.

At the same time, a decentralized landscape means (1) no single city or set of cities may dominate activity and/or (2) residents of the United States may not feel the importance of cities. For example, even with data showing the importance of cities and their regions for economic activity, Americans consistently discuss small businesses and farmers. Or, Manhattan and Washington, D.C. may dominate headlines but many Americans will be more invested in their local regions or communities.

More broadly, it may be safe to describe all of American society as more decentralized than other developed countries. I am thinking of Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy where France is the example of a more centralized state, both in terms of government structure – more power at the state level – and geography – all roads/rails lead to Paris. The United States has had from the beginning a system with distributed powers at the federal, state, and local levels as well as a broad landscape with many kinds of settlements.

Houston as the example of what decentralized pluralism and social trust could look like?

When David Brooks looks at the need for social trust in the United States, one example he looks to is the city of Houston:

Photo by Nick Bee on Pexels.com

Can America in the 2020s turn itself around the way the America of the 1890s, or the Britain of the 1830s, did? Can we create a civic renaissance and a legislative revolution? I’m not so sure. If you think we’re going back to the America that used to be—with a single cohesive mainstream culture; with an agile, trusted central government; with a few mainstream media voices that police a coherent national conversation; with an interconnected, respected leadership class; with a set of dominant moral values based on mainline Protestantism or some other single ethic—then you’re not being realistic. I see no scenario in which we return to being the nation we were in 1965, with a cohesive national ethos, a clear national establishment, trusted central institutions, and a pop-culture landscape in which people overwhelmingly watch the same shows and talked about the same things. We’re too beaten up for that. The age of distrust has smashed the converging America and the converging globe—that great dream of the 1990s—and has left us with the reality that our only plausible future is decentralized pluralism.

A model for that can be found in, of all places, Houston, Texas, one of the most diverse cities in America. At least 145 languages are spoken in the metro area. It has no real central downtown district, but, rather, a wide diversity of scattered downtowns and scattered economic and cultural hubs. As you drive across town you feel like you’re successively in Lagos, Hanoi, Mumbai, White Plains, Beverly Hills, Des Moines, and Mexico City. In each of these cultural zones, these islands of trust, there is a sense of vibrant activity and experimentation—and across the whole city there is an atmosphere of openness, and goodwill, and the American tendency to act and organize that Hofstadter discussed in The Age of Reform.

Not every place can or would want to be Houston—its cityscape is ugly, and I’m not a fan of its too-libertarian zoning policies—but in that rambling, scattershot city I see an image of how a hyper-diverse, and more trusting, American future might work.

The key to making decentralized pluralism work still comes down to one question: Do we have the energy to build new organizations that address our problems, the way the Brits did in the 1830s and Americans did in the 1890s? Personal trust can exist informally between two friends who rely on each other, but social trust is built within organizations in which people are bound together to do joint work, in which they struggle together long enough for trust to gradually develop, in which they develop shared understandings of what is expected of each other, in which they are enmeshed in rules and standards of behavior that keep them trustworthy when their commitments might otherwise falter. Social trust is built within the nitty-gritty work of organizational life: going to meetings, driving people places, planning events, sitting with the ailing, rejoicing with the joyous, showing up for the unfortunate. Over the past 60 years, we have given up on the Rotary Club and the American Legion and other civic organizations and replaced them with Twitter and Instagram. Ultimately, our ability to rebuild trust depends on our ability to join and stick to organizations.

Houston is a growing city – now the fourth largest American city – and is a unique city in the United States. Brooks notes three features above: sprawl and a decentralized landscape, a lack of zoning policies, and diverse residents.

A fourth factor could be worth adding that might undercut Brooks’ example. Sociologists Michael Emerson and Kevin Smiley examined people-oriented cities and market-oriented cities. One of their case studies is Houston, a paradigmatic market-oriented city. Heavily influenced by the oil industry, the city has prioritized business over people. Can such a setting foster more social trust? If so, would it primarily be based on economic interdependence and would that be enough to overcome the problems Brooks suggests Americans face? If not, how can places combat the tendencies for current systems to pit interested parties against each other?

Furthermore, it would be worth hearing more how “islands of trust” can cooperate together to pursue projects for the good of the whole city. In a decentralized landscape, wealthier private residents may have what they want – access to a home and yard, for example – but it is less clear what kinds of institutions successfully bring people together over an expansive metropolitan region. A limited number of regions have tried metropolitan wide initiatives – see Minneapolis for sharing revenues, building housing across the region – but these can be difficult to sell and implement (see, for example, trying to promote mass transit in the Nashville region).

The contrast to Houston would be more established cities in the Northeast and Midwest that have long-standing institutions and coherent neighborhoods. Yet, the fault lines in these places may be too entrenched for significant coming together to happen.

Is there a growing smaller sized city that could lead the way in building social trust amid the pressures of pluralism, disagreement, and limited social trust?

New publication: Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness

Christian Higher Education just published online an article from co-author Ben Norquist and I titled “Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness: The Locations of CCCU Institutions.” Here is the abstract:

This article examines the locations of the 111 governing members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and consider how these locations hinder evangelical Protestants from reaching their goal of engaging American society. We found that CCCU institutions cluster in cities in mid-sized metropolitan regions in the South and Midwest, are more likely than the United States population as a whole to be in rural areas, and have a limited presence in the largest metropolitan regions in the United States, particularly their central cities. In comparison to the top 102 liberal arts institutions and top 101 national universities, CCCU governing members were on average founded later and they have locations more similar to liberal arts schools than research universities. We argue that these patterns are physical manifestations of the modernist-fundamentalist debate, suburbanization pressure and anti-urban sentiment, and concentrations of evangelical residents. We conclude that CCCU members’ locations limit their ability to help students and constituents engage society with locations away from the largest cities and their power, resources, and networks

This project began several years ago amidst a search for data on where evangelicals in the United States are located. Given that Ben and I are in a particular location and working for a CCCU member institution, we dug into this data (with the help of my TA Rebecca Carlson) to uncover the patterns of where CCCU schools are located, particularly in comparisons to other kinds of schools and where Americans live more broadly. The last two sentences of the abstract sum up our findings and the implications: with many locations away from the biggest cities and metropolitan regions in the United States, CCCU institutions may only be able to do so much in engaging a country (and globe) dominated by cities and their metropolitan areas. More broadly, if evangelicals are not present or active in these global cities and regions, their opportunities to engage American society are limited.

The development of a changing and global northern Virginia

Alongside the rise of Washington, D.C. as an American center, the suburbs of northern Virginia have expanded and evolved:

One such non-DC-centered book was published in 2013 by the scholar Andrew Friedman. “Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia” stands out as a serious application of academic history and landscape studies about the Dulles Corridor. It just may be the first 21st-century attempt to mold a critical perspective on Northern Virginia…

The book is built on Friedman’s understanding that “there is no American place that’s not also a global place.” He establishes a dichotomy between the “Overt Capital” of Washington, where the Capitol dome represents the public sphere, and the “Covert Capital” of the Dulles Corridor, where the CIA and Pentagon manage their operations in relative privacy. As Friedman examines how foreign policy and foreign interventions shaped the domestic landscape, he locates the cross-border flows of material and people that have made our region what it is today…

For Friedman, the history of the Dulles Corridor begins with the construction of the Pentagon in the 1940s, followed a decade later by the CIA headquarters. These buildings took advantage of car-oriented development to gain a new kind of hiddenness, obscured behind forests and parking lots. A drive through Langley can reveal nothing about what takes place behind the agency’s doors.

Friedman sees the seven years since his book was published as the beginning of a “third generation” in the development of the Dulles Corridor. It’s no longer characterized by leisurely semi-rural landscapes nor by McMansions, but by “lifestyle centers” and “placemaking,” as in the Mosaic District or The Boro. These centers, Friedman says, are in danger of becoming “fortified cells… reinventing the ‘urban’ into subdivisions, compartmentalized, buy-in-based.” Rather than creating an inclusive environment, he worries that lifestyle centers will only create a new form of “landscapes of denial.”

On one hand, this like the development of Sunbelt suburbs after World War Two. With defense spending, the spread of highways, and sprawling suburbs, this could describe any number of regions from D.C. to southern California. Over time, communities developed and became part of a global system: new immigration flows starting in the late 1960s brought new people, multiple generations of people lived in the new communities, and suburbs began to differentiate themselves. On the other hand, few places have the CIA and Pentagon – defense spending in suburbs could run the gamut from aircraft plants to military bases to government offices. And individual communities and regions have their own particular histories that affect local development character.

More broadly, looking at regional development – not just at cities – is a worthwhile endeavor. Major cities, like Washington, D.C., cannot be separated from their suburbs and vice versa. Considering the variation within a region versus connections between particular parts of the region and other parts of the United States is fun. Tyson’s Corner, cited above would be a good example: is it more like edge cities or northern Virginia. And what lessons could northern Virginia provide for the rest of the country about what to do or not to do?

The spread of upzoning and metropolitan regions

A number of cities and states in the United States have changed zoning guidelines or are considering changes to allow multiple housing units in what used to be areas just for single-family homes:

Minneapolis and Seattle are among cities that have effectively abolished zoning that restricts neighborhoods to owner-occupied, single-family dwellings. Oregon has done so in its largest municipalities, and Californians, like residents of Salt Lake City, are now free to build small cottages, sometimes called “granny flats,” for use as rentals in neighborhoods that were previously single-family only…

Before World War II, only about 13% of Americans lived in a suburb; now more than half of us do, and as the New York Times reported, in many American cities, more than 75% of residential land is zoned for single family use only.

In some cities, the share is even higher: in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, 84% of residential land is zoned single-family; in San Jose, California, 94% is, according to a Times analysis in collaboration with UrbanFootprint…

Other states with single-family zoning in the legislative crosshairs in 2020 include Virginia and Maryland, where House Delegate Vaughn Stewart says upzoning can correct social-justice issues, as well as housing problems. “For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart told Kriston Capps of CityLab.

Sonia Hirt, quoted in this article, argues that single-family homes drive zoning in the United States as the goal is to protect homes and homeowners from uses they find less desirable, threatening to a residential character, and negatively impact property values.

As someone who studies suburbs, zoning, and housing, here are a few thoughts about the future of these changes:

  1. Making changes at the city or municipal level will be easier or more palatable to more voters who tend to like local control over land use decisions. If zoning changes are made at the state level, it will be harder to enforce the guidelines or penalize communities that do not comply.
  2. Wealthier communities will fight hard to avoid these zoning changes. Part of the appeal for some to move to wealthier suburbs is to keep others out and have a particular aesthetic (and these homeowners usually are not looking for more density).
  3. Adding some accessory dwellings throughout single-family home neighborhoods may not change the character of communities much but asking for bigger changes – multi-family housing, apartments, condos, turning large single-family homes into multiple units – on a bigger scale will be a tough sell in many communities.

These difficulties suggest progress in providing more affordable housing or more housing units could be slow. If change and enforcement primarily happens at the local level, this limits the ability of regions to address affordable housing issues because the problem simply becomes one that other communities should address. Housing, like transportation or water, is an issue that benefits greatly from the cooperation of all actors in a region. While it is a difficult topic to address at this level, let alone a national level, significant progress requires broader cooperation and efforts.

Tech jobs continue to congregate in particular metropolitan regions

A new analysis looks at where tech jobs located between 2005 and 2017:

Researchers from the Brookings Institution and the Information Technology and Innovation Fund, a tech-industry-backed think tank, arrived at their conclusion by looking at a fairly narrow slice of jobs—13 industries that involve the highest rate of research and development spending and STEM degrees per worker. That includes much of the software industry, as well as jobs in areas like pharmaceuticals and aerospace. The researchers found that, between 2005 and 2017, five metro areas—San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, and Boston— not only added lots of jobs, they were also becoming more dominant in those industries overall.

TechJobsWired2005to2017

In part, that’s due to changes in what businesses need, says Enrico Moretti, an economist at UC Berkeley who wasn’t involved in the study. The enduring dominance of some tech hubs is somewhat counterintuitive. Technology was supposed to be a democratizing force—the internet and iPhone would make it possible to do innovative work from just about anywhere. But instead, high-tech industries became about proximity to your fellow high-tech workers. Businesses clustered around hubs of investment, in places where skilled workers could stick around after school, hop between jobs, and stay in touch with contacts. That plays out on an individual level too, Moretti says. In recent research tracking the patent activity of scientists as they moved in and out of places like the Bay Area, Moretti found that they were far more productive in those innovative hubs…

The researchers’ point is that it’s hard to build hubs of innovation from scratch—in places where the economy is really struggling, and where there’s little existing tech talent. Instead, you want to start with places that are already buzzing, and through a mix of investment—in things like R&D, education fellowships, and financing for small businesses—and tax incentives to encourage new business, nudge them to become innovation hubs. In other words, those places are already fertile ground for high-tech companies, but they need a little more fertilizer to get there. The researchers prefer federal investment to local subsidies that try to attract individual businesses—an often fruitless effort for smaller communities, as incidents like the downsized Foxconn factory in Wisconsin and Amazon’s HQ2 search demonstrate.

How exactly these centers of industry arise, thrive, and consolidate (and then maybe fade away or die?) is a good subject of academic study. Through a series of decisions, conditions, and good circumstances, agglomerations start. Inertia can carry them for a long time. As noted in the last paragraph, it can be difficult to introduce competition from other centers or create new centers once the main locations are well-established. Tech center do not just happen; they are the result of multiple social processes, interactions, and decisions.

Additionally, it is interesting to see that there is still a lot of value of actual physical locations near other businesses or organizations – even in a field that can render spatial and time distances less relevant. Being close to other people, being able to actually stop by or talk to them, still matters. All of this can add up to a location with a collection of similar organizations being more than the sum of its parts.

Designing your own Peytonville, Part 3

A new Peytonville commercial from Nationwide is on television. This one focuses on the college campus:

Peytonville3

For all of the big images from the first commercial – the wide shots of a metropolitan region – the focus here is on a traditional looking college campus. In the image above, there is the impressive brick building, likely home to administrative offices. There is the gate marking the main entrance. Students and other people are walking and biking in and around campus. The lawns are well-manicured, the sidewalks wide.

And lurking in the back left is the football stadium. I should have known that with Peyton Manning in the commercials that the emphasis would not remain solely on small town life outside the big city. In the wide shots from the original commercial, it appears the college campus is on the top left:

Peytonville1

The campus is a good distance away from downtown and might even exist on its own platform.

One concern: do viewers associate Peyton Manning more with college football or pro football? He had successful years at Tennessee. But, he really stood out in the professional ranks where he won two Super Bowls, one season MVP, went to the Pro Bowl numerous times, and set multiple passing records. Peyton is on campus in the commercial but wouldn’t he be better set outside of the Colts stadium in downtown Indianapolis or the Broncos stadium in Denver? Such a scene would not lend itself to the green, bucolic college campus.

National political leaders’ connections to cities, urban areas, and population centers

In thinking over the (dwindling) 2020 Democratic field for president, I wondered whether national politicians on the whole come from big cities and metropolitan regions. Some (somewhat incoherent) thoughts on the possible connection:

1. The United States is an urbanized country with a little over 80% of residents living in metropolitan areas. Most people live in these places, more politicians come from these places.

2. Politicians need to connect to large pools of voters before they hit the national stage. They can do that in sizable regions/cities and build a base before seeking a larger presence.

3. If national politicians do not necessarily connect with cities, it still seems to help to come from a more populous state where they have appealed to more voters and can make a stronger case about facing complexity before addressing a national stage. I’m thinking of George W. Bush who had numerous connections to Dallas, came from Texas, yet seemed to prefer more rural life in Crawford. He may not have been an urbanite but he had enough connections and experience in one of the most populous cities and states. In contrast, politicians like Bill Clinton or Nikki Haley might have to work harder to reach the national scene coming from less populous states or communities or those operating in second tier cities or regions like Jay Inslee in Washington state or Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota.

4. Does social media help candidates breakthrough an urban/rural divide? If the ultimate outcomes still come to votes, probably not.

5. Is there a major candidate or figure in any party who truly exemplifies a suburban lifestyle? I can think off the top of my head of numerous figures from big cities and others from more rural areas but who is a suburbanite in an era when political elections are decided by suburban voters?