American median income, poverty rates, and inequality by county

Check out these maps of American inequality and income using the latest American Community Survey data.

The below five maps were created by Calvin Metcalf, Kyle Box and Laura Evans using the latest five-year American Community Survey estimates provided by the Census Bureau for last weekend’s National Day of Civic Hacking (we’re geeking out on these projects this week).

Working from Boston, the group has so far mapped nearly a dozen demographic points from the data, including a few they calculated on their own (be sure to check out the very bizarre map of America’s gender ratios by county). These five maps, however, jumped out at us for how they each illustrate deep and lingering differences between the American North and South, as seen through several different data points. Of course, the patterns aren’t perfect, and exceptions abound; major cities in the North turn out to be hotspots of inequality on par with much of the Deep South…

Median income (in annual dollars)

Population living below the poverty line (by percent)

Income inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient, the closer to zero the better)

There do seem to be seem some regional differences. But, these three maps raise other questions:

1. This may be a good place for population weighted maps. While counties are one unit of geographic measure, they can obscure finer-grained data. For example, the map of median income shows higher incomes in urban areas but this glosses over poor urban and suburban neighborhoods. Plus, many of the counties in the South, Great Plains, and Mountain West have relatively fewer people.

2. The income map shows one story – generally higher incomes in urban areas – and the inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, shows that these same urban areas have high levels of inequality. This may be an issue with the county measure but it also highlights that while cities are economic engines, they are also homes to pronounced inequality.

The current state of Zipcar

The Infrastructurist provides a quick overview of the current state of Zipcar. Some of the things you should know:

Zipcar went public last week, and how. On its first day of trading, the company raised $174.3 million and finished up 56 percent. All told, Zipcar sold 9.7 million shares of stock at $18 a pop and earned itself a market value of $1.21 billion, according to Bloomberg…

The 11-year-old company currently operates in 14 cities — 12 in the United States, plus Vancouver and London — and 230 college campuses. Its fleet stands at around 8,000 cars, and its membership at 560,000.

Robin Chase, the company’s founder, has been known to say: “Infrastructure is destiny.” The business world is more concerned with whether profits are destiny. So far, for Zipcar, they have not been. Last year the company generated about $186 million in revenue but still posted a net loss of roughly $14 million…

Zipcar’s biggest problem, writes the Wall Street Journal, may be growing competition from traditional car rental companies…

In the end Zipcar’s success may hinge on how transportation evolves in the near future.

This overview is pitched as a look at whether Zipcar is “a good investment.” This would be the business angle: the company has not turned a profit even as it seems like investors are at least somewhat confident that they could make some money down the road.

But there are plenty of other questions to ask (the answers to these questions would have an impact on the business side but are more interesting to me): is this company on to something regarding infrastructure and the use of cars? In recent months, there is some data to suggest Americans want to live in more walkable environments (which could presumably lead to less interest in owning a vehicle). Is this model sustainable even in these cities, let alone less dense cities? It would be interesting to see Zipcar usage data regarding less urban college settings (like the Zipcars at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois – currently, there is a Toyota Matrix and Toyota Prius available on campus) compared to the big cities. Ultimately, is a car-sharing model the end goal or a middle step between gasoline powered vehicles and vehicles of the future that will be powered by something cleaner and cheaper?

Selling a car by selling Detroit

The troubles of Detroit have been well documented and discussed in the American media in recent years (see here and here). So why would Chrysler mount a full advertising campaign (and I see this commercial almost every commercial break at times) based on Detroit  for its new 200 model? See the long-form (2:03) video here.

The entire campaign seems to be built around this idea that Detroit is something different: the ad says it is not New York, Chicago, or Las Vegas. While we get some typical shots, of a high school team running and a woman ice skating, the emphasis is on their hard work. The scenes on the street are at night with steam coming out of manhole covers as the 200 rolls along. The longer ad features Eminen, perhaps the only celebrity known to most Americans as being from Detroit (does Kid Rock count?). And all of this is driven home by the tagline: “Imported from Detroit.”

Perhaps the strategy is this: why not take all of this talk about Detroit’s darker side (and the commercial mentions that this is a “town that has been to hell and back”) and turn it around so that the commercial makes a positive point about this gritty, tough, and edgy car. Will this explicit linking to Detroit, a city on the decline, boost sales of a particular car model? Do Detroit residents see this commercial as positive and representative of their city?

Richard Florida argues cities increase levels of inequality

Richard Florida, dubber of the Creative Class, argues that data shows that cities exacerbate levels of inequality:

“Something fundamental has changed in our economy, and it’s happening at the metropolitan level,” explains Baum-Snow. “If we want to understand what’s causing the wage gap, we now know we need to look at the unique economies of our larger cities,” adds Pavan.

Both the U.S. and the world have grown increasingly spiky, with our socio-economic divide increasingly overlaid with a growing economic geography of class.  Big cities like New York and LA have attracted wealthy people not just from America but from around the world.  This trend reflects the growing advantages of geographic clustering or agglomeration.  The larger and more populous a city or region, the more likely it is to have the human capital and economic ecosystems required to support the most advanced — and hence the highest-paying — technologies and industries.  Bigger cities attract more innovators, more entrepreneurs, and more highly skilled and ambitious people in general, and provide a fluid environment where these individuals can combine and recombine their skills. Big cities also generate powerful economies of scale and scope, resulting in higher rates of innovation, new firm formation, and productivity.  They attract better-educated, better-trained, more-experienced workers, driving up wages.

At other side of the spectrum, manufacturing, which once clustered in and around large cities and metros, has shifted to less expensive suburban, exurban, and off-shore locations. And large cities have become home to a large and growing contingent of lower-skill, lower pay service jobs — from childcare and food preparation to retail sales and personal services.  Taken together these factors have in effect divided or bifurcated the labor market in big cities into highly paid “creators” and much lower-paid “servers.”

On the other side, Florida also shows a (very modest) correlation that city size is related to higher wages. But overall, Florida argues that cities draw both the uber-wealthy and those who “serve” the city.

Florida doesn’t present much data here so we would need more analysis in order to figure out what is going on. Does this argument present a  counterpoint to these two articles about the future of cities and suburbs in Foreign Policy last fall? It is hard to tell – Florida also says that cities are centers of innovation and entrepreneurship. And even if cities do have extreme levels of inequality, do they benefit larger society enough to offset the inequality within their borders?

(Interestingly, both Florida’s data and the study he cites use metropolitan areas to mean cities. This makes a lot of sense: central cities and suburbs should be viewed more often as single, interdependent units. Would the inequality be even more pronounced if the analysis was limited to central city borders?)

In review of Triumph of the City, summary of how city dwellers view the suburbs

As he reviews the new book Triumph of the City, a reviewer summarizes how city dwellers view the suburbs:

But look past the rhetorical flourishes, and you see an ambivalent verdict on post-1960s urban policy: It is often the actors most philosophically “urbanist” in intent that are the most deleteriously anti-city in effect. Mr. Glaeser brings us, in striking detail, a gated subdivision in the Houston outskirts called “The Woodlands.” The city dweller’s inborn cultural revulsion to the place is the stuff of any number of Sundance dramas: the sterility of the McMansions, the moral vacuity of the micropolitics, the ecological nihilism of the SUVs. But the appeal of such prefab townlets—one million people have moved to the Houston area since 2000—has little to do with culture; the Sun Belt beckons because urban California and the Northeast have radically distorted the market for any city’s most crucial commodity: property.

These complaints about suburbia do seem to be commonly found in Sundance-type dramas, books, and music. This is practically its own genre: the “average person” (often middle to upper class whites) finds emptiness in sparkling (but shallow) suburbia yet comes alive when encountering something different than white, crass, depressing suburbia. But as the reviewer notes, there are reasons that people move to places like Houston.

(A condensed version of this book’s argument, particularly about how skyscrapers will help the city thrive,  can be found here.)

City locations straddling the fine line between acceptable and edgy

Certain urban neighborhoods draw attention because they are “edgy” and offer something different than mainstream American locations. What happens when these “edgy” areas start to disappear or start to become established, mainstream places? Here is a look at this process in New York City:

Around countless corners, the weird, unexpected, edgy, grimy New York — the town that so many looked to for so long as a relief from cookie-cutter America — has evolved into something else entirely: tamed, prepackaged, even predictable.

“What draws people to New York is its uniqueness. So when something goes, people feel sad about it,” says Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the City University of New York…

If there’s one thing that doesn’t change in New York City, it’s nostalgia. Consider Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. After his election in 1934, he worked to remove the pushcart peddlers clogging the streets of the Lower East Side, viewed by many as a problem.

Once they were gone, people missed them.

A couple of thoughts about this article:

1. Cities thrive on these edgy or odd locations. The whole city doesn’t have to be different but young people (and perhaps even the Creative Class) tend to like these edgier locations. When it becomes too mainstream, people move on to the next novelty. But the character of a city is expected to be more unique and odd than a typical suburban setting.

2. The article highlights how people generally don’t like change, even if it is dealing with issues they once thought were problems.

3. I wonder how much money this has been worth to New York City. For example, what kind of taxes did the seedy Times Square bring in compared to the sanitized and Disneyfied version of Times Square? Certainly, some of these areas are now more palatable to suburban residents and families, broadening the group of people who might visit a location.

4. This is a reminder that what is now “edgy” or “cool” likely won’t stay that way for long. Cities, in particular, change fairly rapidly as new residents and businesses move in and out. I’m sure more edgy places will pop up in New York City.

4a. Could a city develop a “historical preservation district” (or something like it) to protect an edgy establishment or block? By making it official, does the site automatically lose some of its edgy status?

Population loss of 200,000 in Chicago from 2000 to 2010

Chicago has often been held up as an example of a Midwestern/Rust Belt city that managed to thrive in the 1990s and actually gain population. But new Census numbers show that the 2000s weren’t as kind to Chicago as the city’s population fell about 200,000. Here are a few of the key numbers and thoughts from the front-page article in the Chicago Tribune.

1. One of the key conclusions is that suburbanization continued during this past decade:

“I think these data from here and elsewhere in the country reflect that the United States has become a suburban nation,” said Scott W. Allard, a University of Chicago associate professor of social service administration.

This quote seems somewhat silly to me: the United States has been a suburban nation for decades now. It is not just a feature of the 2000s or the 1990s; a larger number of Americans have lived in suburbs (compared to cities or rural areas) for several decades.

2. The population growth of Chicago in the 1990s was helped by Latino immigration:

In the 2000 census, Latino immigration fueled a modest 4 percent population increase in Chicago, marking the city’s first decade of growth since the 1940s.

This time around Chicago’s Latino population was up just a little more than 3 percent. The white population was down a bit, while black numbers dropped nearly 17 percent.

Latinos and Asians accounted for the metropolitan area’s biggest population increases during the 2000s. In both cases, the biggest gains for those groups were in collar counties, not in the city or suburban Cook County.

So in the 2000s, the Latino population still increased but the Black population, in particular, declined in Chicago.

3. Minorities are living in places throughout the Chicago area:

“The biggest (change) is finding more minority people in different places in the metropolitan area where you didn’t used to find them,” said Jim Lewis, a demographer and senior program officer at Chicago Community Trust. “That and the loss of black population in the region and the state.”

The census information isn’t yet complete enough to track where blacks who left the city went, Lewis said. The figures indicate some have moved to suburbs, but a slight decline statewide suggests some African-Americans have been moving out of the region entirely, Lewis said.

This is also not surprising. This is a growing trend throughout the United States in recent decades: minorities and new immigrants are moving to the suburbs in increasing numbers.

4. The whole Chicago region did grow but the numbers were down compared to 1990s growth:

Carried by the collar counties, the population of the six-county Chicago region grew almost 3 percent during the decade, to 8.3 million. That’s down significantly from the region’s 11 percent growth in the 2000 census.

5. DuPage County is no longer a hotbed of growth as it was from 1950-1990. This likely due to the fact that there is little open land remaining for new subdivisions. The growth has moved on to locations further out from the city:

DuPage County, long the region’s epitome of booming suburbia, barely grew at all. The county lost about 45,000 white residents, which was offset by more African-American and Asian residents.

“You could say that Kane County is the DuPage County of yesterday,” said Rob Paral, a Chicago demographer. “The things we’re saying about Kane County today is what we said about DuPage County 20 years ago.”…

For the second decade, Aurora and Joliet experienced dramatic growth. Aurora (197,899) passed Rockford (152,871) to become the state’s second-biggest town, while Joliet moved up three places to No. 4, with 147,433 residents, nearly 40 percent more than in 2000.

So now we should sit back and wait to hear how various people, including politicians, talk about this new data. Overall, it mirrors a lot of national trends: people, including minorities and immigrants, continuing to move to the suburbs. This has some important implications: Illinois is losing a US House seat and Chicago could lose some status. What are the new figures for Houston, the city that trailed Chicago in the rankings for the largest US cities?  Does this mean Chicago is in trouble? Will Chicago enact a plan to draw people back to the city in the next decade?

Plans for real megalopolis in China

The idea of a megalopolis dates back to the middle 1900s when people started thinking that collections of large cities, such as the large American cities on the Eastern seaboard including Boston, Hartford, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., such be considered as a larger grouping. But even this good example has cities separated by decent distances.

China is planning its own version of a megapolis near Hong Kong. The plans including merging nine cities with a combined population of 42 million:

The “Turn The Pearl River Delta Into One” scheme will create a 16,000 sq mile urban area that is 26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.

The new mega-city will cover a large part of China’s manufacturing heartland, stretching from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and including Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizhou and Zhaoqing. Together, they account for nearly a tenth of the Chinese economy.

Over the next six years, around 150 major infrastructure projects will mesh the transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks of the nine cities together, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan (£190 billion). An express rail line will also connect the hub with nearby Hong Kong.

“The idea is that when the cities are integrated, the residents can travel around freely and use the health care and other facilities in the different areas,” said Ma Xiangming, the chief planner at the Guangdong Rural and Urban Planning Institute and a senior consultant on the project.

This sounds like a sizable project. The article suggests that this is being done for several reasons: to achieve economy of scale in certain things (like medical services) and the ability to create unified policies for the region (including transportation and pollution initiatives). And this grouping of cities could conceivably grow even larger if Hong Kong was ever added to this mix.

The article calls this a “mega city” but I think it would fit the definition of a megalopolis perfectly. In fact, compared to most examples of a megalopolis, this one would be much better suited to the idea: the cities are relatively close and will be highly connected. Additionally, the cities are laid out more in a circle pattern rather than a line, allowing a variety of connections between urban centers.

I wonder how many planners around the world would approve of such a project. Combining certain infrastructure has its appeal as planning can be done on a broader scale and without cities constructing competing systems.

Interestingly, there are no plans to give the region a new name: “It will not be like Greater London or Greater Tokyo because there is no one city at the heart of this megalopolis.” Will future residents identify themselves as residents of the region or their specific city?