Populations – national or local – can grow or decline through births, deaths, and immigration

While the focus here is on the United States as a whole, this is also worth considering at the community level:

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A country grows or shrinks in three ways: immigration, deaths, and births. America’s declining fertility rate often gets the headline treatment. Journalists are obsessed with the question of why Americans aren’t having more babies. And because I’m a journalist, be assured that we’ll do the baby thing in a moment. But it’s the other two factors—death and immigration—that are overwhelmingly responsible for the collapse in U.S. population growth…

As recently as 2016, net immigration to the United States exceeded 1 million people. But immigration has since collapsed by about 75 percent, falling below 250,000 last year. Immigration fell by more than half in almost all of the hot spots for foreign-born migrants, including New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco…

The implications of permanently slumped population growth are wide-ranging. Shrinking populations produce stagnant economies. Stagnant economies create wonky cultural knock-on effects, like a zero-sum mentality that ironically makes it harder to pursue pro-growth policies. (For example, people in slow-growth regions might be fearful of immigrants because they seem to represent a threat to scarce business opportunities, even though immigration represents these places’ best chance to grow their population and economy.) The sector-by-sector implications of declining population would also get very wonky very fast. Higher education is already fighting for its life in the age of remote school and rising tuition costs. Imagine what happens if, following the historically large Millennial cohort, every subsequent U.S. generation gets smaller and smaller until the end of time, slowly starving many colleges of the revenue they’ve come to expect.

Even if you’re of the dubious opinion that the U.S. would be better off with a smaller population, American demographic policy is bad for Americans who are alive right now. We are a nation where families have fewer kids than they want; where Americans die of violence, drugs, accidents, and illness at higher rates than similarly rich countries; and where geniuses who want to found new job-creating companies are forced to do so in other countries, which get all the benefits of higher productivity, higher tax revenue, and better jobs.

This matters for communities and cities in at least a few ways:

  1. The “growth is good” model in the United States assumes continued population growth. This is good for status as well as for other things (see #2).
  2. When populations are growing, the incoming revenues help pay for existing infrastructure and services as well as suggest money will be there in the future. In contrast, stagnant or declining populations can require cuts or reductions.
  3. The role of immigration cannot be understated and it affects population as well as demographics and local economics. For example, Chicago would have likely had more population loss over recent decades without immigrants coming to the city.

It will be particularly interesting to see what happens if more major population centers experience relatively little or no population growth while a few continue to grow rapidly. Does this change the balance of power and status among places?

Why people do not flock to the American cities that keep showing up in the most affordable places to live

I recently saw another list of the most and least affordable metropolitan areas in the United States with a key metric of how many families in the region could purchase a home at the median price. Here are the five most affordable places:

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Home prices and incomes vary widely, and there are oases of affordability, mainly in the Rust Belt and Midwest. The top five most affordable places among metro areas with population of 500,000 or more:

Lansing, Michigan: As a result of modest home prices, 90.6 percent of all new and existing homes sold in the fall months were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $79,100. The median home price was $155,000 in the fourth quarter of 2021, the builders’ index says.

Scranton-Wilkes Barre-Hazleton, Pennsylvania: Wages here are below national levels, but so are home prices — the median sale price was $150,000 in the fourth quarter. As a result of rock-bottom prices, 88.5 percent of all new and existing homes sold in October, November and December of 2021 were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $70,600.

Pittsburgh: This metro area has a median family income of $84,800 and a median home price of just $166,000. As a result, 88.4 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Indianapolis. This metro area has a median family income of $81,600 and a median home price of $215,000. As a result, 87.6 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Akron, Ohio: With a median family income of $83,300 and a median home price of $165,000, fully 86.5 percent of homes were in reach of median-income families in the state capital.

Two features quickly stand out: the homes in these regions really are cheap (particularly when compared to local earnings) and they are all in the Midwest/Rust Belt.

Still, I have seen some version of this list many times now and I am not sure what to make of them. Why aren’t people moving to these locations?

The most obvious answers to me: it is not necessarily easy to move and these cities are perceived to have a lack of opportunities (economic, cultural, housing, etc.). American geographic mobility as a whole is down but do people actually move just for cheaper housing? What this list does is highlights that median income families can access median level housing in these five places. Get a decent job and owning a house is possible.

There are other possible answers that get more complicated:

  1. People just do not think of the Midwest/Rust Belt when thinking of places to live. Lack of opportunities, the weather, the middle of the country, a Midwestern blah-ness, etc.
  2. It is not just about a lack of opportunity; these are places seen as on the decline. Even if they are cheaper, who wants to live in a place that has already seen its best days when “growth is good” is a key marker of communities?
  3. These communities are lacking incentive campaigns to try to attract new residents.
  4. These communities may not want too many people to move in because it could drive up prices and bring in outsiders. (Yet, growth is good and many declining communities would do a lot to become a destination again.)

In sum: some American metropolitan areas are much cheaper than others, they have common characteristics, and there are a number of compelling reasons why people do not move to the places with cheaper housing.

Naperville’s status and Farley’s “Van Down by the River” performance inspired by Naperville bridge over the DuPage River

According to Naperville native Bob Odenkirk, he was inspired by his hometown when writing Chris Farley’s famous SNL skit “Matt Foley: Van Down by the River.”

Q: Speaking of “SNL,” that famous sketch for Chris Farley you wrote, about him living in a van down by the river — were you writing with Naperville in mind?

A: There is the DuPage River, and when I was writing that I did picture the bridge in Naperville over the DuPage. It was a bridge for stoners when I was a kid. Stoner kids hung out there. So this guy parking his van by a river — yes, that was the image I had.

There are several bridges Odenkirk could be referring to. Could it be this bridge (in a picture from nearly a decade ago)? This is a little removed from the busier downtown area and the more manicured areas of the lively Riverwalk.

Naperville has a reputation as a wealthy and large suburb with a thriving downtown and numerous high-status jobs. Does the image of a guy living in a van down by the river fit this or kids smoking pot by the DuPage River? Probably not and the city in recent years was not interested in marijuana dispensaries.

I cannot imagine a statue of Matt Foley near the DuPage River in downtown Naperville among the suburb’s collection of public art...but perhaps Odenkirk could eventually make the cut?

Design standards, paint, and appearances in a suburban downtown

A new business in downtown Naperville chose a different paint job compared to nearby establishments and this led to some discussion:

Members of the city’s planning and zoning commission gave a chilly reception to the freshly painted exterior at JoJo’s, a self-described “next generation diner” with milkshakes, milk and cookie flights and diner classics that’s scheduled to open this month at 5 Jackson Ave.

But because JoJo’s adhered to city codes regarding its main color choice and the amount of accent color it used, there’s not much the commission or the city can do except possibly ask JoJo’s to change the facade and create stricter guidelines for the future…

Behind white raised letters reading “JoJo’s Shake Bar” is a turquoise background stretching across the two-story building that looks like dripping ice cream extending down past the top of the second-floor windows.

Commission members said a uniform block of turquoise across the top would have been acceptable. They believe the dripping effect, however, isn’t appropriate for downtown Naperville…

The issue came up at the end of Wednesday’s meeting when Commissioner Anthony Losurdo said he saw the facade while driving by, labeling it a “sore thumb.” Stressing he wouldn’t have approved the look had it been subject to a vote, Losurdo said he has received complaints about the paint scheme from residents.

Many communities have guidelines for signs and facades. This helps create a more uniform look, ensures that no single property sticks out too much from others, and can limit concerns from nearby residents (such as signs that are too bright or too big). The aesthetics help contribute to an overall character the community wants to promote.

Naperville’s downtown is important for the community. With its revival in recent decades, the city is proud of the bustling business and social activity downtown. It wants to both nurture and protect that for the future. The downtown helps the community stand out from other suburbs and generates revenue.

So, protecting the look of downtown buildings makes sense. On the other hand, concerns about this new business could send out other signals. It sounds like JoJo’s followed existing guidelines. The end result may not be what some leaders and residents desire but it was within regulations. This commission is supposed to talk about issues like these; their task is to see how properties align with the city’s guidelines. The regulations can be changed to prevent such outcomes.

Even having an article with a headline like this might contribute to perceptions that Naperville is a snobby place. The appearance of dripping paint is a big problem for the community? Does a negative reaction welcome the new business? Is it helpful to have these conversations through a local newspaper?

It is unclear how many people and leaders in Naperville have concerns with the paint job. Will it soon be changed and/or the regulations updated to avoid a similar case? Or, can one building stand out a little in a successful downtown?

What does it mean if the suburb of Naperville is the first US community to have two Amazon Fresh locations?

Signs point to a second Amazon Fresh store in Naperville and if it comes to reality, the suburb will be the only community in the country with two locations.

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All signs point to a second Amazon Fresh grocery store opening soon in Naperville.

While city officials haven’t been notified of definitive plans for the site at 1351 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche said Amazon Fresh recently applied for a liquor license at the location. An opening date is unknown, but the building is currently being renovated and looks similar to the city’s other Amazon Fresh location on Route 59.

Naperville would become the first city in the country with two Amazon Fresh grocery stores…

According to Amazon’s website, there are only four Amazon Fresh locations in Illinois. In addition to Naperville, there are stores in Bloomingdale, Oak Lawn and Schaumburg.

Naperville may not be the only two store location for long and being the first means something. What is so attractive about Naperville as a location? Here are a few possible reasons:

-It is a wealthy and large community: over 148,000 residents with a median household income of nearly $126,000 (both 2019 estimates). This adds up to a lot of potential customers. Naperville is known for high white-collar jobs and tech jobs. These could also provide a good customer base.

-Naperville as a community has received many accolades. It has a high quality of life, high performing schools, and a vibrant downtown. It is a high status community and companies like to associate with such communities.

-Naperville is in favor of business and growth. This dates back decades with pro-growth decisions in the postwar era, includes tax incentives for corporations, and a desire to improve the streetscape along Ogden Avenue, a major roadway.

-Naperville is outside Chicago and in the Midwest, “normal America” locations for testing new concepts and ideas.

Put this all together and Amazon finds it worthwhile to go forward with two locations in Naperville.

Fighting the 2020 Census population count in Aurora, Illinois

Leaders in Aurora, Illinois are not happy about the 2020 Census results that suggest the second largest city in Illinois lost 17,000 residents:

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said this week the city will continue its fight to get what it considers a more accurate census count…

[The 2020 Census] showed Aurora had lost about 17,000 residents during the past 10 years – about the equivalent of one of the city’s 10 wards – and officials have said they doubted that kind of population loss would have gone unnoticed among other city metrics, such as housing stock, water customers and traffic counts…

The big concern is that the city has estimated the new count could cost Aurora about $31 million a year in lost distributions of motor fuel tax, sales tax, income tax and money from federal programs for housing and education…

He has called for a review of the numbers by the government, and has even said the city could call for a special census down the line.

Another loss for the large suburb: no longer being able to highlight the growth of the community. Looking at the dicennial Census figures on Wikipedia, Aurora has never lost population over a decade until the 2020 count. And the growth has been particularly strong since 1990; the city had 99,581 residents then before growing to 142,990 in 2000 (43.6% increase) and then to 197,899 in 2010 (38.4% increase). In American communities, “growth is good” so a population loss is a sign of something wrong.

A special census could be worth calling for given the money and status at stake. I recall that neighboring Naperville had at least a few special censuses in recent decades as they sought to benefit from a rapidly growing population. The goal would be similar here – acquire more resources – but also different in that the population may have dropped rather than increased.

Given my own knowledge of the area, a drop of 17,000 residents does seem large. This could go against the larger trends of the region – Chicago suburbs and the City of Chicago – which slightly gained population in the 2010s.

Starchitect Jahn’s buildings in the Chicago suburbs

World famous architect Helmut Jahn died over the weekend. He built iconic buildings in major global cities and several notable buildings in the western suburbs of Chicago.

A native of Germany, Jahn won international recognition and awards for projects around the globe, including United Airlines Terminal 1 at O’Hare International Airport, the former Citigroup Center (the main entrance to the Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center) in Chicago, and the Sony Center in Berlin.

Besides MetroWest in Naperville, his suburban work includes the Oakbrook Terrace Tower in Oakbrook Terrace.

Here are images of the two buildings referenced:

Both buildings are interesting structures to see in their suburban settings. They would not be out of place in a major city. They are full of steel and glass. They have sharp angles. They can be seen from a distance and are of a height beyond most suburban buildings.

But, they also stick out. They are right next to major highways. They are not surrounded by other tall buildings; the size of the Oakbrook Terrace Tower is particularly notable. Instead, they are surrounded by parking lots and smaller suburban office parks. They are in the suburbs but they are not of the suburbs; few residents would want these structures anywhere near their single-family homes.

In other words, a starchitect can build in the suburbs. In many parts of the United States, they are growing and a majority of Americans live in suburban settings. Interesting buildings help add to the status of certain suburbs as job centers. Yet, the interesting buildings by a famous architect can only go so far in sprawling settings: they do not really fit in even as they provide something different to view at 70 miles per hour.

Target on The Magnificent Mile is preferable to empty retail space

With reports of Target’s interest in moving to Macy’s former space in Water Tower Place along Michigan Avenue in Chicago, I heard some concern about such a normal big box retailer moving into a prestigious retail space. Here is the problem for Chicago and many other communities facing retail vacancies: filling space can be really hard.

Google Street View image August 2019

Brick-and-mortar retailers are not doing well overall. This extends from suburban shopping malls to high-status locations like Manhattan or downtown Chicago.

And this issue is not just about shopping and what people can purchase. Busy retail anchors a number of important activities: sales tax and property tax revenue for municipalities; tourism or visitors from other communities who want to come spend money because of the scene; restaurants and other land uses that cater to those out for a shopping trip. Vacant structures do not just lack these features; their emptiness is also a blight, a suggestion that corporate and visitor interest is low, a reminder that the property is not generating the kind of revenue it could.

Filling large retail spaces is no easy task. Many communities are struggling with this and seeking other land uses (recent examples here and here). A building with some sort of activity, even if it is a downgrade in terms of status, is preferable to no activity. The Magnificent Mile might not seem so magnificent with Target – people can find this shopping all over the place – but it beats becoming The Vacant Mile.

Videogames under the tree to sizable global industry

The flood of new gaming consoles and new game titles to Americans for the Christmas season hints at the size of the video gaming industry:

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Global videogame revenue is expected to surge 20% to $179.7 billion in 2020, according to IDC data, making the videogame industry a bigger moneymaker than the global movie and sports industries combined. The global film industry reached $100 billion in revenue for the first time in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association, while PwC estimated global sports would bring in more than $75 billion in 2020

The videogame industry has boomed in recent years because of the variety of ways to play games. Gone are the days when all one had to track were console sales and games sold for their respective consoles and PCs. With the rise of digital-copy game sales, mobile games, in-app purchase freemium games, cross-platform games that aren’t limited to a specific console, streaming game services like Microsoft’s Game Pass, games-as-a-subscription models, and online distribution services like Steam, along with varying levels of transparency, anyone wanting to make apples-to-apples comparisons encounters an unwieldy fruit basket.

While console sales will get a boost from new versions, that’s not the biggest chunk of the industry, nor the fastest-growing. The biggest gain is expected to come from mobile gaming, with China playing a big role in smartphone and tablet gaming revenue, Ward said. Excluding in-game ad revenue, world-wide mobile gaming revenues are expected to surge 24% from a year ago, to $87.7 billion.

The gamification of the world is well underway.

Seriously, it is interesting to compare the status of videogames compared to the two industries mentioned in the article: movies and sports. These are established industries with prominent actors around the world. They have been established for decades. Videogames, on the other hand, are more recent – only several decades in the hands of the global public – and still have negative connotations for many (too violent, a waste of time, played only by a certain segment of the population, etc.). Since videogames are big business and part of their spread is due to the smartphone, which many have, will videogames have a different status in a few years?

Naperville considering affordable housing – but primarily for current residents?

Naperville will soon discuss recommendations from a consultant regarding affordable housing. Several of the suggestions point to at least some of the affordable housing serving current residents:

low angle photo of balconies

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Commissioners say the ideas are designed to help the city meet a state mandate on affordable housing and provide more places where seniors, young professionals and others who can’t afford many of the houses in Naperville can live…

Establish a rehabilitation loan fund to help low-income senior homeowners make repairs so they can age in place.

Establish a housing trust fund to help veterans, seniors, populations with special housing needs and first responders (including nurses, police officers and firefighters) purchase a home…

These ideas and others are listed in the report from SB Friedman, which found that roughly 22% of homeowners and 44% of renters in Naperville are spending more than 30% of their income on housing, making them “cost-burdened.” Many of these households are low-income, the report found, saying “there appears to be a considerable need for both owner- and renter-occupied affordable housing and income-restricted housing throughout the city to meet current residents’ needs.”

One way for wealthier suburbs to address affordable housing is to look for solutions for some of the populations mentioned above: seniors who are retired and are downsizing or having a hard time affording local housing on a restricted income; young professionals who are just out of school and looking to establish their career; and local workers who are seen as essential to the community such as teachers, fire fighters, and police officers. These are all groups that a wealthier suburb would want to keep as older residents should be able to age in place, attracting young professionals is important for keeping a strong tax base and having more young families in the community, and having certain occupations near their jobs and involved in the community is viewed as a plus.

At the same time, it is not clear that this gets at the full range of housing needs in the Naperville area, Chicago region, or the United States. There are lots of people who would benefit from cheaper housing costs yet the issue of affordable housing in many places is also connected to race and class. As noted in this article, housing is a social justice issue. Is Naperville addressing social justice issues if it is providing housing for the populations discussed above? Or, would providing housing for those with lower-wage jobs make more sense? Or, could cheaper housing provide opportunities for some future residents to experience upward economic mobility in a community with a lot to offer?

There is still much that could happen in these discussions. Naperville has a lot to offer to residents and it is a well-off and high-status community. What comes out of these conversations could help determine what the population of Naperville looks like in the coming years.