Sunday, April 6th, 2008

The Europeanization of American Cities

The FT ran a great analysis column this week talking about how American cities are now starting to more resemble European cities in one important way. Whereas in the past the inner city was decayed and the suburbs were nice, this trend is starting to invert as central cities gentrify and it is inner ring suburbs that now find themselves in decay.

I think the trend they note is a bit overdone, largely affecting only the largest cities – their big example is Washington, DC – and select other places such as Atlanta. But it is telling nevertheless. A similar but different dynamic has been underway in smaller cities that haven’t had the same level of central city gentrification, such as Indianapolis. Here older suburban areas are nearly at the end of their “useful life”, and residents are fleeing to new, more remote suburbs. This depresses prices and opens opportunities for central city residents to move out. I call this the pull model versus the push.

Forty years ago today, Washington DC witnessed riots that carved a path of destruction through the city, at one point coming within blocks of the White House.

Yet walk along the U Street corridor in Washington today, past new condominiums, restaurants and coffee shops, and it is hard to imagine the scene 40 years ago. The turnaround of formerly depressed areas is not limited to the District of Columbia. Since the mid-1990s, educated young people and baby-boomers have been returning to the cities, in search of amenities and cultural stimulation. Serious urban poverty has as a result declined by more than 40 per cent across the US, according to research by the Brookings Institution, a think-tank.

But the rejuvenation of inner cities is shadowed by another dramatic shift in the location of poverty in America. For as city centers fill with wealthy whites, the suburbs are increasingly seeing growing numbers of low income residents and more impoverished immigrants.

This is simply stating what has been known for some time: gentrification only affects buildings. The people still have to live somewhere, and increasingly that somewhere is the fringes of cities and inner ring suburbs. This is exactly the model of European cities, where we see a favored historic quarter inside a ring road, surrounded by miles of banlieus and the like that American tourists rarely see apart from cab rides to and from the airport.

Indeed, poverty in the suburbs now exceeds that in cities, according to Alan Berube, author of a Brookings report on the suburban poor. Among recipients of the earned income tax credit in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, 59 per cent – or 8m people – live in inner suburbs, compared with 41 per cent in the centers.

Wow. Why have inner ring suburbs been experiencing these problems?

One reason is that suburban housing stock is aging and losing its appeal, and is therefore more affordable. ‘The housing is not built to last 60 years,’ says Myron Orfield, a former Minnesota state senator. ‘They don’t age well and don’t gentrify – they are not beautiful old homes.’

Ok, that may be true some places, but it isn’t true in some of the examples they cite. For example, inner ring suburbs in Chicago such as Evanston, Cicero, Berwyn, and Oak Park are for all practical purposes built the same as the city neighborhoods they abut, but were never annexed. The claim of inferior housing stock is more true in the south suburbs. Some inner burbs have prospered, while others have declined.

The trend is troubling, according to experts, because suburbs often do not have sufficient tax bases to deal with poverty. Some inner suburban areas are struggling to come to terms with rising crime, strained public school systems and increased demand for social services. ‘A number of suburban communities are beginning to look like a caricature of inner cities,’ says Bruce Katz, founder of the metropolitan policy programme at Brookings.

The problem has been particularly marked around Chicago, where the demolition of large public housing projects beginning in the late 1990s led rising numbers of poor residents to move further out.

Whatever the cause, the continuing decline of the suburbs, whether inner ring in Detroit or DC, or brand new subdivisions in Charlotte, is an emerging trend to watch.

Topics: Demographic Analysis
Cities: Chicago

7 Responses to “The Europeanization of American Cities”

  1. Peter says:

    If gas prices continue to increase, there will be a concrete incentive for people to live closer to where they work, and perhaps a related incentive for businesses located in the suburbs to also located downtown.

  2. thundermutt says:

    When you posted the link to the Atlantic article a month or so ago, I asked the very same question.

    The ability of a city neighborhood or first-ring suburb to be gentrified largely depends upon when the majority of the housing stock was constructed and whether it was above-the-median or below at the time of construction.

    The lower-end housing stock from the 1950s and on…plywood-clad ranches and worker bungalows built on slabs…those are the endangered neighborhoods today.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I live in an inner-ring Chicago suburb, and not all are created equal. I’m not in one of the higher-end locations (like Oak Park or Evanston), but mine has higher housing prices and lower turnover than others. Of course, this might have to do with the fact that when you sell your house, you have to pay a tax ONLY if you live this particular suburb.

    However, clearly east of I-57 for the most part has become the line of demarcation between poor and better-off, and black and white (though there are some poor white suburbs as well). Lake and Porter counties in Indiana are getting a lot of residents moving out of those areas.

  4. Anonymous says:

    To Peter; Gas prices will certainly effect living patterns if they continue to raise. I for one see little relief for the future. Most certainly cities with strong central business disticts may be a gainer but so will many of the ring or edge cites that are centers for business. The small outlaying and rurual areas will continue to decline. The days of commuting by car 60 miles or more each way are comming to an end for workers of modest means.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I agree, there is not accuse. We saw this coming and now cities like Indy have no plan for light rail..and Ballard continues to say he isn’t for it as does the urbanophile. I guess they just think the rich will just still be able to drive and let the middle class and poor…eat cake.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    Given that the proposed light rail line would serve predominantly the high income northeast corridor and white collar downtown job market, I think it is more likely light rail that will benefit the well off. Who else do you expect to be buying all those condos in TOD spinoffs around stations?

    What percentage of the region’s trips do you realistically expect to be serviced by light rail?

    How does your view of light rail square with the data?

    I think there are much better, more cost effective ways to provide public transit.

    If the people of Indianapolis want to pay $1.2 billion for a “starter” light rail line to Fishers, I guess that’s ok. It wouldn’t be an actively bad idea and I’m sure it would bring some benefits. But I were going to shoot a $1.2 billion bullet, that’s not where I’d point the gun.

  7. MightyMe says:

    I live in DC, where “gentrification” is major. I might be considered a gentrifier, but I don’t have a”Manifest Destiny” mentality. I support urban revitalization; blight doesn’t help anyone. But, the poor (many of them minorities) are ignored and excluded at the expense of more affluent newcomers, who decided they want to enjoy city life. There has to be a way of improving a city without displacing longtime residents, jacking up property taxes and home prices, and ignoring the needs of all residents. Money always talks I guess. I’d like to see city governments not cave in solely to money and put their great minds together to figure out a way to be inclusive and progressive.

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