The relative concept of “the big city”

The United States has big cities of various sizes. For example, the Wikipedia list of the largest cities in the United States ranges from New York City to #326 on the list, Roanoke, Virginia, at just over 100,000 residents. By important measures, whether population size, density, or land size, some places are definitely bigger than others.

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But, a trip this week to Springfield, Illinois reminded me that these absolute measures obscure how different big cities function within their own regions or geographic areas. Take Illinois. The biggest city by far is Chicago and the majority of Illinois residents live within that metropolitan region. Yet, within Illinois there are numerous smaller big cities that anchor sizable areas as well as the big city of St. Louis just over the Mississippi River. If you are in Quincy, Illinois, with roughly 40,000 residents, Springfield at over 114,000 residents might be the big city over an hour away. Chicago is even further away both geographically, five hours by car or train, and culturally. Regional political, economic, cultural, infrastructure, and health systems revolve around these smaller big cities which then have links to the less common truly big cities.

This even happens within the Chicago area. Yes, the truly big city is close and can even be seen from different high points 25-30 miles away. But, in daily activity, many suburbanites do not travel to the big city. They may travel to a different suburb for work as jobs can be concentrated in suburban job centers,e they attend religious services or lessons for their kids in yet other suburbs, and they look for restaurants in entertainment in even more suburbs. The suburban lifestyle is dominant, even thought a world-leading global city is nearby.

Put these different experiences together and “the big city” can mean different things in different contexts. Is it the regional center an hour away, the truly large city with a major international airport several hours away, the sizable suburb nearby that offers some different options, the tourist magnet that many people visit, or the big city as it is depicted on television and movie screens?

Reasons for suburban legislators leading the Illinois Democrats

As American political divides currently sit in the suburbs, the tension between Chicago Democrats and suburban Democrats in Illinois is interesting to consider:

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In adding suburbia to the Democratic base, it turned out, Madigan also created a party that would no longer tolerate his Chicago ward boss style of leadership.

“Suburbanites tend to be less enamored of machine politics,” said Christopher Z. Mooney, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “Machine politics is about one thing: getting jobs. Suburban voters tend to be more concerned about corruption. They’re a little better off,” and thus don’t need the government jobs political bosses can dole out…

While many suburban representatives had benefited from Madigan’s operation, the ComEd scandal marked the moment that “a limit had been reached,” Mooney said. “They felt that his usefulness was over. The fact that they were from the suburbs allowed them to have some cover. Madigan’s political tentacles are more effective in the city of Chicago or Cook County.”…

Suburbanites haven’t just changed the way politics is conducted within the Democratic Party, they’ve also made certain issues more important to the party. Abortion, for instance. In the 1980s, the Catholic Madigan declared himself “100% pro-life.” In 2019, he supported the Reproductive Health Act, which ensured that abortion will be legal in Illinois if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and declares that a “fetus does not have independent rights under the laws of this state.”

The explanations here suggest the changes in suburbs have had significant consequences for politics. As noted above, corruption turns off suburban voters – who often like the idea of more virtuous smaller local government – and there are more pro-choice suburban voters.

I could imagine several other factors involving suburbia that have influenced this change:

  1. The increasing suburban population compared to the population of Chicago. As a proportion of Illinois residents, there are more suburbanites than in the past. This does not necessarily guarantee changes toward what suburbanites want but it could be a factor.
  2. The suburbs have changed in demographic composition. There are now different kinds of suburban residents, including more racial and ethnic minorities and more lower-income residents. The whiter and wealthier suburbs still exist in places but so does more complex suburbia. The suburban voters today are not just more educated whites.
  3. While the comparison above is between Chicago style politics and suburban politics, I wonder how suburbanites view the big city more broadly as compared to the past. Are more suburbanites interested in life in denser communities with more cultural opportunities (even if they are in the suburbs)? How essential is Chicago to the region and state compared to all of the activity – business, cultural, civically – in the suburbs?

US with lowest population growth over a decade in its history

New Census estimates suggest sluggish population growth in the United States between 2010 and 2019:

The new statistics permit an estimate of the U.S. population on Census Day (April 1, 2020) to have been 329.2 million people. If that turns out to be the case, the decade growth rate between 2010 and 2020 will be the lowest decade growth in U.S. history.

Figure 2 displays population growth rates for 10-year periods between the first U.S. census (taken in 1790) and projected results for the 2020 census (downloadable Table A). The projected growth of 6.6% between 2010 and 2020 is lower than in any previous decade, including the Great Depression years of the 1930s, when the nation registered 7.3% growth. It is roughly half the growth rate of the 1990s, a time of rising immigration and millennial-generation births.

The 2010s decade was one of fewer births, more deaths, and uneven immigration (downloadable Table C). Although immigration may have become unusually low due to recent federal restrictions that led to a decline in the noncitizen foreign-born population, low natural increase levels—fewer births, more deaths—will likely continue regardless of federal policy, as a result of the aging of the population. Some of this change can be attributed to lower fertility rates and the aging into adulthood of the last of the millennial population. However, census projections show older populations—especially those over age 65—will continue to display far higher rates of growth than youth.

In the United States, population growth is good. It implies status, expansion, success, new markets, getting bigger, being an attractive place for people from elsewhere to come. And without immigration, what would the population change be?

At this particular moment, I would guess that relatively few people are aware of such data. The Census Bureau continues to pump out information about communities and the country. The average resident may not need to be following such information. Is daily life significantly changed if the decade growth rate was 5% versus 8%? What are the effects of these different numbers on social life, politics, and the economy? Yet, in the broader view, these numbers might be more interesting.

I could imagine multiple ways leaders and the American public might take this data about growth. Is there an appetite for more population growth or an underlying assumption that America – and everything about it – will continue to grow at much higher rates? Is this slowdown in population growth taken as a sign of decline or indicative of multiple social issues? Perhaps other concerns are far more important today that basic demographics. And I suppose other might note that higher percentage population growth requires a lot more people than it did historically when the United States was much smaller.

The American communities paying people to move there

At least a few American communities are offering financial incentives to try to entice new residents:

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Some cities and regions in America’s heartland are offering this sum — and more. They’re seeking to bring energy and vitality to their towns by attracting dynamic workers. With legions of people working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, these programs are getting a lot of attention as people in congested cities seek more space and affordable housing.

Northwest Arkansas launched its program this year, in the middle of the pandemic. Other cities in the nation’s heartland have similar incentives: Topeka, Kan.; North Platte, Neb.; Hamilton, Ohio; and Newton, Iowa

The city had its sights set on the growing number of “laptop workers” who can do their jobs from home — or at the local co-working space or coffee shop — when it launched the program two years ago. Since 2018, it has welcomed nearly 500 new residents, according to Stewart…

The urbanist Richard Florida has worked with both Tulsa and northwest Arkansas on their efforts to attract remote workers. And he thinks these types of campaigns will benefit small cities in the heartland. But only if they’re attractive places to live. Cash incentives won’t do the trick on their own.

This story profiles communities largely in the center of the country that want to attract residents but likely have limited population growth (perhaps due to low birth rates, low numbers of immigrants, and some younger residents moving away) and are not in the public eye. Without long-term population growth, many communities may feel they are stuck. Growth is good – and population stagnation or less is unspeakable.

But, as the story hints, these incentives have not exactly led to a flood of people moving to these locations. For how many people would a payment like this make all the difference? On one hand, people often do desire good jobs – higher pay, that provide opportunities for advancement, in exciting fields, etc. – and some may be able to go where those jobs are. On the other hand, people live where they do for more than just new opportunities or a financial incentive: they may have social and personal ties to a community, be coming from an area that has lots of options, and moving can be costly. Sometimes, people talk as if all people need is a good job or money to move somewhere new. It does not exactly work this way.

I also wonder how these incentives line up with different pressures the people being targeted by communities face. The article said communities are interested in remote workers. I also imagine these communities – and many others – are interested in young professionals. What do these workers want? A financial incentive, a cheaper cost of living, and a slower pace of life in a smaller community might be attractive. But, so might urban neighborhoods in exciting cities with lots of cultural opportunities and plenty of tech jobs and corporate entities nearby. Or, perhaps a walkable suburb is attractive with jobs and culture available via a reasonable commute. In other words, these remote workers could go anywhere they can afford. We are not at the level yet of communities acting like they do to attract major companies with tax breaks but I would not put it outside the realm of possibility in the future.

So you want to live in an affordable big city – that is a suburb

Looking to live a big suburb that is affordable? Zillow and Yelp have you covered:

https://www.zillow.com/research/zillow-yelp-suburbs-cities-2020-28058/

Increased opportunities to work remotely are pushing more Americans to rethink how and where they want to live. But even if there’s less of a need to live as close to urban job centers, traditional urban amenities — think restaurants, nightlife, museums and sports venues — remain a big draw and demand for city living remains high. As a result, many buyers may seek places that balance the space and affordability of the suburbs, while still maintaining that big-city feel.

A new “Cityness Index” created by Zillow and Yelp Inc. helps identify the U.S. suburbs that best strike that balance. Key metrics include housing affordability compared to the nearest big cities and to the country at large, housing availability, the mix and diversity of businesses — including restaurants, nightlife and the arts — and consumer reviews and check-ins…

There were four individual Yelp indicators evaluated for each suburb to determine its cityness.

1. A mix of businesses similar to major cities

2. A diversity of restaurant and nightlife businesses

3. A diversity of arts businesses

4. A high level of consumer activity

This is an interesting suburban niche to highlight: communities for those who do not want to live in a big city but want more affordable housing and want to have some urban amenities. Of course, people could find this in less affordable suburbs or suburbs near the big city or other suburbs that have these more urban amenities. Is there something inherently more appealing in being in one of these big suburbs?

The reason I ask is that many Americans equate suburbs with small town life. The appeal of suburbs for Americans involves features often associated with smaller communities including lots of single-family homes (as opposed to denser concentrations of residences) and local control. Big suburbs often have a lot of jobs and can be significant jobs centers within a region. Furthermore, they could offer a mix of more dense housing as well as single-family homes. But, these big suburbs are also close in size to legitimate small big cities including Providence, Rhode Island, Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Akron, Ohio.

Perhaps if you live in a large metropolitan area, it matters less if you live in a particular suburb and more if you live near your work and desirable amenities within a certain budget. If this is the case, perhaps living in a suburb of over 150,000 people does not matter much. It is still more suburban than the big city but you are not at the edges of sprawl and the price is right.

Interpreting data: the COVID-19 deaths in the United States roughly match the population of my mid-sized suburb

Understanding big numbers can be difficult. This is particularly true in a large country like the United States – over 330,000,000 residents – with a variety of contexts. Debates over COVID-19 numbers have been sharp as different approaches appeal to different numbers. To some degree, many potential social problems or public issues face this issue: how to use numbers (and other evidence) to convince people that action needs to be taken.

This week, the number of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19 approached the population of my suburban community of just over 53,000 residents. We are a mid-sized suburb; this is the second largest community in our county, the most populous suburban county in the Chicago region outside of Cook County. The community covers just over 11 square miles. Imagining an entire mid-sized suburb of COVID-19 deaths gives one pause. I had heard the comparison a week or two ago to the deaths matching the size of a good-sized indoor arena; thinking of an entire sizable community helps make sense of the number of deaths across the country.

Of course, there are other numbers to cite. Our community has relatively few cases – less than hundred as of a few days ago. Considering the Chicago suburbs: “If the Chicago suburbs were a state, it would have the 11th-highest COVID-19 death toll in the nation.” The COVID-19 cases and deaths are scattered throughout the United States, with clear hotspots in some places like New York City and fewer cases in other places. And so on.

Perhaps all of this means that we need medical experts alongside data experts in times like these. We need people well-versed in statistics and their implications to help inform the public and policymakers. Numbers are interpreted and used as part of arguments. Having a handle on the broad range of data, the different ways it can be interpreted (including what comparisons are useful to make), connecting the numbers to particular actions and policies, and communicating all of this clearly is a valuable skill set that can serve communities well.

 

 

America’s “cities have effectively traded away their children, swapping capital for kids”

Derek Thompson discusses the decrease in children in large American cities:

Cities have effectively traded away their children, swapping capital for kids. College graduates descend into cities, inhale fast-casual meals, emit the fumes of overwork, get washed, and bounce to smaller cities or the suburbs by the time their kids are old enough to spell. It’s a coast-to-coast trend: In Washington, D.C., the overall population has grown more than 20 percent this century, but the number of children under the age of 18 has declined. Meanwhile, San Francisco has the lowest share of children of any of the largest 100 cities in the U.S…

But the economic consequences of the childless city go deeper. For example, the high cost of urban living may be discouraging some couples from having as many children as they’d prefer. That would mean American cities aren’t just expelling school-age children; they’re actively discouraging them from being born in the first place. In 2018, the U.S. fertility rate fell to its all-time low. Without sustained immigration, the U.S. could shrink for the first time since World World I. Underpopulation would be a profound economic problem—it’s associated with less dynamism and less productivity—and a fiscal catastrophe. The erosion of the working population would threaten one great reward of liberal societies, which is a tax-funded welfare and eldercare state to protect individuals from illness, age, and bad luck…

Finally, childless cities exacerbate the rural-urban conundrum that has come to define American politics. With its rich blue cities and red rural plains, the U.S. has an economy biased toward high-density areas but an electoral system biased toward low-density areas. The discrepancy has the trappings of a constitutional crisis.  The richest cities have become magnets for redundant masses of young rich liberals, making them electorally impotent. Hillary Clinton won Brooklyn by 461,000 votes, about seven times the margin by which she lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin combined. Meanwhile, rural voters draw indignant power from their perceived economic weakness. Trump won with majority support in areas that produce just one-third of GDP by showering hate and vitriol on cities that attract immigration and capital…

For those young and middle-aged Americans who are having sex and having children, the smaller cities and suburbs might simply be a better place to live—and not just for the obvious reason that they’re more cost-friendly for the non-rich. Perhaps parents are clustering in suburbs today for the same reason that companies cluster in rich cities: Doing so is more efficient. Suburbs have more “schools, parks, stroller-friendly areas, restaurants with high chairs, babysitters, [and] large parking spaces for SUV’s,” wrote Conor Sen, an investor and columnist for Bloomberg. It’s akin to a division of labor: America’s rich cities specialize in the young, rich, and childless; America’s suburbs specialize in parents. The childless city may be inescapable.

The book and film Children of Men suggested people in the near future would not have children for some uncontrollable reason but perhaps cities will have fewer children by the collective individual and social choices of urban dwellers.

This also has implications for the American Dream which has tended to suggest parents will work hard and pass along benefits to future generations. Not having as many direct beneficiaries of actions could alter how people think about the future: it is one thing to project changes for a community (“this is good for Chicago’s future, whoever happens to live here”) versus thinking about more direct benefits which could also help a community (“my children will be better off – and they can continue to live in Chicago and benefit others”).

Final thought: this is a rare time when someone could claim the suburbs are “more efficient” for raising children. On one hand, I see the point: the suburban infrastructure has been built around children for decades. On the other hand, this idea of “efficiency” is an odd one as children can also be raised in cities and what Americans value for children and families is often closely tied to perceptions of cities and suburbs.

Patterns in racial/ethnic change in Chicago area counties 2010-2018

Recently released Census data at the county level shows the shift toward larger non-white populations in the Chicago area:

The Chicago Tribune article also points out a few of the notable patterns:

The six suburban counties gained a total of 14,857 non-Hispanic black residents from 2010 to 2018, most of them in Will and DuPage, the new census data shows.

Cook County, meanwhile, lost 75,081 black residents over the same time period. Black residents’ share of the county population decreased the most of any racial group in the last eight years…

In each of the six suburbs surrounding Cook, non-white Asian residents grew by at least 13% since 2010. DuPage County grew by the most people, with an increase of 21,960 Asian residents in that time.

I’ll throw in three more patterns I see in the table:

  1. The further out counties, the more exurban locations (Kendall and McHenry Counties) have much higher proportions of white residents. It will be interesting to see how these change in the coming decades. Not only are those locations farther from Chicago, they also have fewer historic industrial suburbs (like Joliet in Will County and Elgin in Kane County) that attracted more non-white residents.
  2. In all of the six counties, Hispanics account for larger proportions of the overall population than black residents. Whether this translates into political representation or status within the region is debatable.
  3. The Asian population is more concentrated as a proportion in some counties – DuPage, Cook, and Lake – compared to others.

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.”