Predicting the ongoing rapid urbanization of the South

The American South is known for its sprawling cities and one new model suggests this will continue in force in coming decades:

New predictions map the future spread of urban sprawl in Dixie, and it is immense. Basing their model on past growth patterns and locations of existing road networks, researchers at North Carolina State University projected the region’s expansion decades into the future. According to their forecast, the Southern urban footprint is expected to grow 101 percent to 192 percent.

The projected map in 2060:

Read the full paper here. As the discussion section notes, the model doesn’t really account for future decisions in opposition to current patterns. In other words, such a model is not deterministic: it is based on past data but communities could make decisions that continue down this path (and even intensify urban growth beyond the predictions here) or pursue different patterns of urban growth (say if New Urbanism catches on in a big way and exurban growth slows quite a bit).

Put another way, is it possible to imagine an American South that in 50 or 100 years wouldn’t be noted for its sprawl?

Does the South beat out Chicago because of better weather?

Here is a quick summary of research looking at how weather might affect population changes in Chicago and similarly cold-weather places versus the warmer weather of the South:

Renn pointed me towards the work of Edward Glaeser, the Harvard economist and U. of C. grad who’s become one of the most prominent analysts of the American city in the 21st century. And he thinks there’s a strong correlation. He’s got a whole paper on it, in fact: “Smart Growth: Education, Skilled Workers, & the Future of Cold Weather Cities.”

Cities with average January temperatures under 30 degrees Fahrenheit grew in population only one-third as quickly from 1960 to 1990 as did cities with average January temperatures above 50 degrees. The shift of population toward the Sun Belt can also be seen at the state level: while population in the colder 25 states grew 95 percent between 1920 and 1980, the warmer 25 states saw their average population grow 309 percent…

In short, there’s something of a chicken-and-egg question with the air-conditioning solution that Glaeser cites. Adoption of air conditioning, across the South, was slower than you might expect from the weather. Its availability is a well-established boon to the South, but so is being able to power and afford air conditioning.

It’s significant that Enrico Moretti, like Glaeser an economist interested in how knowledge workers cluster in cities and regions, has most recently turned his focus back to the Tennessee Valley Authority. That’s a government project so ingrained in Southern culture that, as a kid, I thought that the Tennessee River was just called the TVA (emphasis mine):

We find that the TVA’s direct productivity effects were substantial. The investments in productive infrastructure resulted in a large increase in local manufacturing productivity, which in turn led to a 0.3% increase in national manufacturing productivity. By contrast, the indirect effects of the TVA on manufacturing productivity were limited. While we do find strong evidence of localized agglomeration economies in the manufacturing sector, our empirical analysis clearly points to a constant agglomeration elasticity. When the elasticity of agglomeration is the same everywhere in the country, spatially reallocating economic activity has no aggregate effects, as the benefits in the areas that gain activity are identical to the costs in areas that lose it. Thus, we estimate that the spillovers in the TVA region were fully offset by the losses in the rest of the country.

The intensely regressive economic (and cultural) practices of the South damned up potential across its old borders; once they began to fall, it created a flood, draining Yankee knowledge, technology, and workers.

While everyone wants to talk about the weather, it isn’t the only factor nor the most important factor in population and economic growth. To suggest this is the case is to rely on strong ecological arguments, perhaps like those made by Jared Diamond in his more popular books. Yes, air conditioning matters but humans were able to live in both the warmer South and colder North before air conditioning or central heating. More broadly, factors like electricity and water (see the recent troubles in the Southwest) matter more and are essential to even having air conditioning in the first place. Thus, the twist of invoking the TVA, an important adaptation to nature, makes the matter all the much more complex: essential infrastructure makes all sorts of other things possible.

Kotkin argues a rising South could overtake the North

Joel Kotkin argues that a variety of changes in the South including economic and population growth could help it eventually overtake the North, even with its negative image:

One hundred and fifty years after twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg destroyed the South’s quest for independence, the region is again on the rise. People and jobs are flowing there, and Northerners are perplexed by the resurgence of America’s home of the ignorant, the obese, the prejudiced and exploited, the religious and the undereducated. Responding to new census data showing the Lone Star State is now home to eight of America’s 15 fastest-growing cities, Gawker asked: “What is it that makes Texas so attractive? Is it the prisons? The racism? The deadly weather? The deadly animals? The deadly crime? The deadly political leadership? The costumed sex fetish conventions? The cannibal necromancers?”…

While the recession was tough on many Southern states, the area’s recovery generally has been stronger than that of Yankeedom: the unemployment rate in the region is now lower than in the West or the Northeast. The Confederacy no longer dominates the list of states with the highest share of people living in poverty; new census measurements (PDF), adjusted for regional cost of living, place the District of Columbia and California first and second. New York now has a higher real poverty rate than Mississippi.

Over the past five decades, the South has also gained in terms of population as Northern states, and more recently California, have lost momentum. Once a major exporter of people to the Union states, today the migration tide flows the other way. The hegira to the sunbelt continues, as last year the region accounted for six of the top eight states attracting domestic migrants—Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. Texas and Florida each gained 250,000 net migrants. The top four losers were New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and California…

Bluntly put, if the South can finally shake off the worst parts of its cultural baggage, the region’s eventual ascendancy over the North seems more than likely. High-tech entrepreneurs, movie-makers, and bankers appreciate lower taxes and more sensible regulation, just like manufacturers and energy companies. And people generally prefer affordable homes and family-friendly cities. Throwing in a little Southern hospitality, friendliness, and courtesy can’t hurt either.

Kotkin is determined these days to wave these economic and population figures in the faces of urbanists and coastal residents. That said, the shift to the South is intriguing and significant. Whereas the Northeast and Midwest were ascendent in the early 1900s, the South and Sunbelt have rebounded.

One way this play out with undergraduates is when we discuss how to control for geography in basic regression models. One of the most common ways in sociology to do this is to make a dummy variable for the South. When students ask why this is, I explain that sociologists tend to assume the South is the most unusual region compared to the other three. There are demographic and cultural reasons for this but I wonder if there is some latent feelings about the South…

“The Great Reverse Migration”: blacks move away from northern cities

The Great Migration brought more than 6 million blacks to the north from the south starting in the early 20th century but now it looks like the population flow might be working in reverse:

The New York Times noticed in the early 1970s that, for the first time, more blacks were moving from the North to the South than vice versa. Last year, the Times described the South’s share of black population growth as “about half the country’s total in the 1970s, two-thirds in the 1990s and three-quarters in the decade that just ended.”

Many of the migrants are “buppies” — young, college-educated, upwardly mobile black professionals — and older retirees. Over the last two decades, according to the Census, the states with the biggest gains in black population have been Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Florida. New York, Illinois and Michigan have seen the greatest losses. Today, 57 percent of American blacks live in the South — the highest percentage in a half-century.

Much of the migration has been urban-to-urban. During the first decade of this century, according to Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey, the cities making the biggest gains in black population were Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. Meanwhile, New York City’s black population fell by 67,709, Chicago’s by 58,225, Detroit’s by 37,603.

Plenty of the migrants have been moving from cities to suburbs, too. “By 2000 there were 57 metropolitan areas with at least 50,000 black suburbanites, compared to just 33 in 1980,” notes sociologist Andrew Wiese. The 2010 census revealed that 51 percent of blacks in the 100 largest metro areas lived in the suburbs. As journalist Joel Garreu describes it, suburbia now includes a “large, church-going, home-owning, childbearing, backyard barbecuing, traffic-jam-cursing black middle class remarkable for the very ordinariness with which its members go about their classically American suburban affairs.”

The article goes on to talk about four reasons why this is occurring: the private sector has been creating more jobs in the south, housing is cheaper in the south, public services in the north like schools aren’t that great, and retirees are looking for better weather.

The suburbs data mentioned above is fascinating: more blacks are in more metropolitan areas and a majority of blacks in the largest metro areas live in the suburbs. While there is some evidence blacks are moving to the south, might there even be stronger evidence that blacks are moving to the suburbs? At the same time, this does not necessarily mean that these suburbs are great places; many inner-ring suburbs face a lot of big city problems and perhaps have even fewer resources to deal with the problem. For example, see this post from last year about blacks moving from Detroit to suburbs that have similar troubles.

This also reminds me of some of the demographic mobility in the United States: 110 years ago, there were relatively few blacks in northern cities. Five decades ago, whites fled many of these cities because they thought blacks were invading their neighborhoods. Now, blacks are moving to the suburbs and back to the south. I have never seen any figures on this but it seems like the United States has a relatively high degree of internal mobility compared to other countries.

Some big cities only made possible by air conditioning?

This seems pertinent with the recent heatwave in the Midwest and East Coast: how many of the major cities of the world wouldn’t exist without air conditioning?

It wasn’t until the beginning of World War II that homes in southern U.S. cities began using air conditioning units. By 1955, one in every 22 American homes had air conditioning. In the South, that number was about 1 in 10, according to the historian Raymond Arsenault [PDF]. Since this increase in air conditioning use, many of these Southern cities experienced a population boom.

I took a look at the metro areas in the U.S. with more than 1 million people and found which have historically been the hottest, based on the number of cooling degree days per year — a statistic used to measure how much and how many days the outside temperature in a certain location is above 65 degrees. Using numbers from NOAA, I found that between 1971-2000, six big cities in the South had an average of at least 3,000 cooling degree days. I also compared the 1940 metro population (when available) to the metro population in 2010. From the time just before air conditioning became popular in the South to today, population growth in the region has skyrocketed. This raises the question: would these hot Southern cities be around, at least in their present form, if air conditioning hadn’t been invented?

But, of course, there are bigger, hotter cities across the globe. In fact, seven of the largest metros in the world have an average high temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Not surprisingly, all of these cities are found in developing countries. As Michael Sivak, a professor at the University of Michigan notes, only two of the warmest 30 global metros can be found in developed countries. With the middle class growing in warm metros in countries like India, demand for air conditioning is increasing. A recent New York Times article reported that sales of air conditioning units in India and China are growing 20 percent per year and are fast becoming a middle-class status symbol. Last year, 55 percent of new air conditioners were sold in the Asia Pacific region.

Is there some sort of giant control group we could use to figure this out? Over the weekend, I was in a 150 year old church with no air conditioning. It was hot though I think this was primarily because there was no air movement; indeed, when we walked outside afterward, it felt more pleasant as there was a slight breeze. Before air conditioning, people obviously survived in such temperatures (and also survived in the winters without central heating as we know it today).

So this seems to be the real question: could we expect that there would be major changes in population distributions if there was no air conditioning whatsoever? Would Florida really have few people and post-World War II Sunbelt expansion not taken place? The best solution to all of this would be to have people move to more temperate climates where it doesn’t get too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. This generally requires consistent breezes, usually off major bodies of water. Of course, not everyone can live in places like Hawaii which only has a record high temperature of 100 degrees. Did the Mediterranean climate help give rise to empires like Greece and Rome (though it makes it difficult to then explain the Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires which must have adapted to desert climates)?

More broadly, we could discuss the influence of ecology on population growth and state building. I remember studying the mysterious decline of the Maya in southeastern Mexico/Guatemala. More recent scholars have suggested some kind of ecological explanation, perhaps a drought, that led to increased contentious competition for dwindling resources.

Is the American Sun Belt boom over?

One of the biggest changes in the American population in the last sixty years has been the migration to the Sun Belt. But new data suggests that this boom may have come to an end:

Between 2007 and 2010, Florida lost more people to internal migration than it gained, for the first time since the 1940s. Nevada, too, which had been growing for decades, had a net migration loss of 30,000 in 2009. And Arizona had a net gain of just 5000, way down from 90,000 five years before.

Meanwhile, New York and California both saw their net losses shrink in 2009 by more than half since 2005.

The analysis, based on Census Bureau and IRS data, was conducted by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

What explains the shift? The Sun Belt states, of course, were hit hard by the housing bust that helped trigger the recession and its aftermath. The early aughts housing boom was responsible for much of the growth in places like Clark County, Nev., and Maricopa County, Ariz. in the first place.

But just as important, migration as a whole, which has been on the wane for three decades, has really tailed off since the downturn began.

The economic crisis has limited mobility across the United States, particularly for the less wealthy who are then more tied to existing jobs and homes.

It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues or (1) the Sun Belt will grow again in the future or, in a longer shot, (2) older cities in the Midwest and Northeast (“Rust Belt”) regain some of the population that shifted south and west. In other words, once people have some more freedom to move, what will they choose to do and what social forces will push or pull them in certain directions?

The problems with white stereotypes in movies like The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird

Here is an interesting take on how the presentation of white people in The Help (and To Kill a Mockingbird) obscures the existence of racial systems in the Jim Crow South:

This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists…

To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.

Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.

But that wasn’t the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man’s Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. An analogue can be seen in the way popular culture treats Germans up to and during World War II. Good people were never anti-Semites; only detestable people participated in Hitler’s cause.

Turner is arguing that the Jim Crow South was a system supported by much of Southern society of all social classes. In contrast, movies can portray racism as being the opinion of particular individuals or of people of smaller social groups. This “whitewash” perhaps helps us feel better today – only bad people were racists – and also reflects our own moral calculus where racists can’t be good people.

But we know from American history that this was not exactly the case. Many “virtuous” and celebrated Southerners supposed slavery and Jim Crow laws. And the North is also complicit: “sundown towns” were the norm and segregation were quite high (and still are). Overall, racism and discrimination still takes place within systems that require beginnings and maintenance provided by people living within the systems and also those in charge.