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.

China defines “big city disease”

In announcing plans for Shanghai, China also defined “big city disease”:

China’s financial hub of Shanghai will limit its population to 25 million people by 2035 as part of a quest to manage “big city disease”, the cabinet has said…

State media has defined “big city disease” as arising when a megacity becomes plagued with environmental pollution, traffic congestion and a shortage of public services, including education and medical care.

Many of China’s biggest cities also face surging house prices, stirring fears of a property bubble.

This leads to two thoughts:

  1. If China, a country devoted to urbanization, thinks this is the population limit for big cities, does this mean other industrialized countries will follow suit?
  2. It would be interesting to hear urban experts weigh on regarding how big they think major cities can get. Twenty-five million people is quite a few but can some of the issues Chinese officials raise be ameliorated by good planning or technological advances?

Perhaps one of the key features of major global cities of the future will be a limited population size in order to have a certain quality of life. In contrast, major cities that are not as important may grow to unheard of sizes with all sorts of symptoms of “big city disease.”

Does the population size of the US get in the way?

One idea I’ve had in my mind in recent years is how the population size of the United States interacts with the country’s stated ideals and policies. Is it possible to be the United States with over 320 million residents? When I hear discussions of policy, I am regularly struck by the size of the issue at hand. Healthcare is a good example. Any changes at the Federal level – whether adding to existing policies or retracting what currently exists – would have significant impact on millions of people as well as have a sizable effect on the budget. Additionally, we have multiple layers of government (federal – three branches, state, county, township – not everywhere, municipality, some regulatory and taxing bodies that span these layers) that can sometimes add to the complexity. Furthermore, we are a relatively open society that incorporates many people and comes out with something “American.” We may not be one of the happiest countries in the world but a number of the countries at the top of the list are simply not as socially complex. Indeed, of the 13 countries ahead of the United States, only one is 1/10 the population size (Canada) and the rest don’t come close to that.

On the other hand, we have had an explosion of the Internet and social media that allows us to drill down to individual experience after individual experience. One way to think about social media is that it allows the experiences or opinions of individual actors to reach a wide audience. However, these individual experiences can blur the wider patterns at play. How can we compare anecdotes?

Perhaps the practical question in this: how do we operate between these two scales of a large-scale complex society versus the individual actor? It is not easy to do as either scale has drawbacks and benefits. At the least, it highlights that the “American Experiment” continues, perhaps now less based on our democratic and republican aspirations but more in terms of size and complexity.

Who is moving to cities? Young, educated, wealthy, childless, white

Certain people – not everyone – are moving to American cities:

Americans aren’t moving back to the cities. Just 20- and 30-somethings.

But actually, not all 20- and 30-somethings are moving back to the cities. Only those with a four-year college degree and incomes in the top 40 percent are.

And not even all 20- and 30-somethings with a four-year college degree and incomes in the top 40 percent are moving back into cities. Mostly the ones without school-age kids are.

And if you thought that was it, it turns out that not all 20- and 30-somethings with a four-year college degree in the top 40 percent of income without school-age children are moving back into cities. It’s mostly just the ones that are white.

And does this group receive disproportionate attention from (1) city leaders who want a new generation of wealthy city residents and (2) the media who may identify well with these particular demographics? If the people moving to cities did not share these traits (such as immigrants), would they get as much attention?

Thompson also suggests geographic segregation by class: the wealthiest clustering in the densest cities with everyone else setting for suburbia. It has been this way for a while…

Exodus of black residents from Chicago’s South Side

A long-time resident of Chicago’s South Side discusses the movement of black residents to other locations:

For South Side residents, the writing has been on the wall. Starting as a slow trickle into the suburbs as industrial jobs began drying up in the 1970s, black flight increased in the 2000s, with blacks seeking the suburbs like never before — as well as places like Georgia, Florida or Texas, according to U.S. Census data.

The population shift has folks like myself, left behind on the South Side, feeling like life after the rapture, with relatives, good friends and classmates vanishing and their communities shattering. A recent study found that nearly half of the city’s African-American men between 20 and 24 were unemployed or not attending college…

Every senseless death, every random shooting and every bullet-riddled weekend means another family, another frightened parent must make the decision to stay or go.

Those of us left behind must deal with the aftershocks: lessening political clout, limited public services and the creep of poverty and crime into neighborhoods like South Shore and Auburn-Gresham.

Even as some trumpet the demographic inversion of metropolitan areas other research suggests poor neighborhoods, particularly in Rust Belt cities, can often slowly lose residents. On one side, there is a lot of attention paid to whiter and wealthier residents moving into urban cores and hip neighborhoods while on the other side, little attention is granted to disadvantaged neighborhoods. In some of these neighborhoods, it is remarkable just how much open space there can be as buildings decay and few people clamor to move in (think of Detroit and its urban prairies as an example).

Predicting resegregation in 35% of metro area neighborhoods

A new study looks at the possibility of numerous metropolitan neighborhoods becoming less diverse in the coming decades:

Neighborhood integration is a great goal, but just because a place is currently home to more than one race doesn’t mean it will retain this diversity in the decades to come. A new study published in Sociological Science explores this potential future for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston. It finds that 35 percent of all neighborhoods in these cities—around 3,800 total—are likely to resegregate in the next two decades…

Bader’s analysis predicts that, in the next two decades, many of the neighborhoods in the pale green (“steady black succession”), navy blue (“Latino enclaves”), royal blue (“early Latino growth, white decline”), teal (“early Latino growth, black decline”), sky blue (“recent Latino growth”), and pink (Asian growth) categories are the ones where a single racial group will become dominant over time. Here’s Bader on that process, again via the study website:

“We were disappointed to learn that many integrated neighborhoods were actually experiencing slow, but steady resegregation — a process that we call “gradual succession.” The process tended to concentrate Blacks into small areas of cities and inner-ring suburbs while scattering many Latinos and Asians into segregating neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area.

Meanwhile, the fuchsia “quadrivial” neighborhoods, located in the suburbs like Aliso Viejo, California, and Naperville, Illinois, are likely to retain their diversity for some time. (Of course, as my colleague Amanda Kolson Hurley has noted, in general, diverse suburbs aren’t immune to the threat of resegregation.) Despite fair housing and civil rights legislations, housing discrimination is an ongoing problem with multigenerational effects—and one of the possible reasons behind the trends Bader has highlighted in the study. Another is the tendency of white Americans to self-segregate.

Given the complexity of race and ethnicity in the United States plus its regular manifestation in residential patterns, this makes sense. Just because certain locations were once diverse doesn’t mean they will remain so in the future. City neighborhoods provide plenty of examples of this, whether looking at places that have had waves of immigrant groups or other locations where blacks moved in and whites never returned. And that these patterns will be reproduced across suburban areas has already been happening for decades.

What seems to be new here is the possibility of predicting these changes. If a suburban community knew that demographic change was likely, would they do things differently? Or, how about a city neighborhood that had a particular character and identity? Now that there are scholars out there working on this, might the research itself have an effect on future population changes?

Balkanized suburbs and declining local revenues

A story about several suburbs outside Philadelphia highlights a problem facing many suburban communities: how can they counter declining revenues when residents and businesses move away?

Pennsylvania’s Delaware County is a crazy quilt of municipalities. Just to the west of Philadelphia, it is home to some of the oldest suburban communities in America. It is dense, with more than half a million people packed into townships and boroughs as small as a half square mile. Such tight confines can make governance difficult under any but the best conditions.

If a neighborhood starts to change in a way its middle-class residents don’t like, they can move a few miles to a newer house, a better school district, and lower property taxes. The communities they leave behind are faced with the impossible math of declining revenues, rising taxes, and an increasingly needy population…

But Hepkins’ most attainable plan is his ongoing effort to lash Yeadon together more tightly with its neighboring municipalities. He dreams of creating a non-profit 311 call center that could cover the six eastern Delaware County municipalities served by the William Penn School District. This centralized office could connect residents with immigration, veteran, and senior services…

The mayors of Lansdowne and East Lansdowne have been receptive to Hepkins’ advances, but his other three counterparts are hesitant. Even if the local politicians do overcome their own parochial interests, it’s an open question how much resource-sharing between six struggling municipalities would accomplish. A system incorporating the region’s more prosperous communities would be far more advantageous, akin to the revenue-sharing policies utilized in the Twin Cities metro region. But nothing like that is being seriously discussed in the Philadelphia area.

Several thoughts come to mind:

  1. This is a reminder that suburbia is much more diverse than the standard image of white and wealthy communities. Suburbs have increasing numbers of non-white and poor residents and there are various types of suburban communities ranging from bedroom suburbs to industrial centers.
  2. Local governments are often very reliant on property taxes. And Pennsylvania has a lot of local taxing bodies though it trails Illinois. Thus, suburban communities are very interested in wealthier residents as well as businesses that can bring in money through property taxes and sales tax revenue. This creates a kind of competition that is difficult for everyone to win.
  3. A number of metropolitan regions and urban communities in the United States have considered ways to band together to tackle common economic and social issues. This can be hard to do because one of the features people like about the suburbs is having more local control. Moving local revenues to another community – even if it is needed or might benefit the region as a whole – can be a hard sell, particularly in better off suburban communities.

I suspect we’ll see more and more stories like this in the years to come.