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.”

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).