Thursday, March 4th, 2010

The 10% Solution

My latest post is online at New Geography. It is called “The 10% Solution for Urban Growth“. My thesis is that for cities below the top tier (tier one’s are already seeing a major urban influx because of their high quality product and economic changes), the best policy is to seek to capture about 10% of net new regional growth for the urban core. If we can get more, great, but let’s start with that base goal and develop a strategy to get there.

This might seem particularly unambitious, but it would actually be totally transformative:

Cincinnati provides another example. It is a metro growing a bit less than the national average, but still adding people at a rate of about 150,000 per decade. The city of Cincinnati declined from a peak of 503,998 in 1950 to 333,336 today, a loss of 170,000 people. Again, if the city captured 100% of just regional growth, in little more than a decade it would be back to a record high population. That’s not realistic of course, but 10% of that total, or 15,000 people, would still make a tremendous impact on the city. Like Indianapolis, there’s already some sign of an inflection point, as the city population began growing again in the 2000’s.

Can this 10% solution really happen? The answer is a resounding Yes, because it is already happening in Atlanta. Its reputation as a sprawlburg overshadows the fact that it is experiencing one of America’s most impressive urban core booms. The city of Atlanta has added almost 120,000 new residents since 2000, an increase of 28%. This is a mere 10.5% of the metro area’s growth during that time – but it has totally changed the city. Atlanta lost over 100,000 people from its 1970 peak, but is now at an all time high.

I know many people would love to see a more aggressive return to the city, and even view it as an imperative for environmental or other reasons. But just because it is desirable, doesn’t mean it is going to happen. The numbers just don’t add up for it, which you can read about in my piece.

Also, excessive rhetoric about the need for mass re-urbanization is actually counterproductive outside of those few cities where people are already primed to accept it. James Howard Kunstler comes to mind. Don’t get me wrong. I own some of his stuff and enjoy reading it. He’s a great writer and I enjoy a good screed as much as anyone from time to time. But he obviously has nothing but contempt for the suburbs and the people who live in them. Given that in most places in America, suburbanites are in the majority, and we need their votes for the Congressional and state action we have to have to reinvigorate our cities, I don’t think picking a fight is advisable. This sort of over the top writing or advocacy for change only scares people and lends itself to caricature as urban advocates wanting to force people back into overcrowded tenements and such, when I’m not aware that’s actually the case.

Again, if we can get more than 10%, great. I’m all for it. But I’d rather set a modest, realistically achievable target that we can hold ourselves and our leaders accountable for reaching than a pie in the sky vision of growth that isn’t likely outside of places like New York City. And in practice today, few cities are getting anywhere near 10% of regional growth in the urban core.

Obviously this only works if your region is growing. If you are stagnant or shrinking, you’ve got a bigger challenge on your hands. There the imperative is to restart the regional economic and demographic engine. Hopefully the core can play a role in doing that.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction
Cities: Atlanta, Cincinnati

12 Responses to “The 10% Solution”

  1. cdc guy says:

    Excellent post, Aaron.

    I don’t like suburbs and don’t want to live there, but I understand and accept that others do. Apparently some folks have trouble with the concept that in a nation of free choice, lots of people will make different choices for reasons that are perfectly valid to them.

    The great thing about re-populating the urban core is that the entire infrastructure to support those new folks (streets, sidewalks, alleys, utilities, sewer systems, police, fire, schools, shopping, entertainment) is already in place…some of it in need of rehabilitation, but already there.

    There appear to be two marketing possibilities: surely 10% of new move-ins either (1) are sufficiently imbued with a green/conservation ethic to want to lighten their own environmental footprint, or (2) want “big city lite”, as you suggested.

  2. TM says:

    ^Can core cities capture 10% of growth by focusing on the green/urbanist crowd? Something tells me that people are already aware of these facets of city life, and that a majority who would choose based on those concerns are already doing so. I think you have to appeal to motivations that are a little lower on the brain stem than concern for the environment or the desire to live within walking distance of a corner store. Namely, safety and affordable attractive middle-class housing. In many core cities your choices are a loft downtown, a rehabbed 100 year-old house, or a fixer upper. Despite how you and I feel about old buildings these options aren’t most peoples’ cup of tea. With a lot of distressed land and neighborhoods close to downtown, midwestern cities could make workforce housing more of a priority, and give them a little more variety in their housing stock.
    This also gives city-dwelling immigrants and poorer people an option other than the suburbs as their financial condition improves. iow, part of any 10% strategy has to be retention, not just attraction, and I’m not sure how many immigrants or poor minorities making their way into the middle-class would count reducing their carbon footprint or pursuing any kind of “big city” lifestyle among their priorities.

  3. the urban politician says:

    You focus too much on population growth and give Atlanta too much credit.

    Atlanta’s urban core has been losing jobs and its downtown is simply not on the radar as a place for companies to locate their headquarters.

    Any sundry suburban boomtown is not an example I’d set for rebuilding aging midwestern cities.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    It’s a good post, but I have to ask, which city core boundaries do you think should cities aim for their 10% growth? In Indianapolis you talk about the pre-merger city, but obviously not all city cores are the same. Getting 10% of regional growth is easier in Columbus than in Dallas.

    By the way: Kunstler doesn’t think there will be massive reurbanization; he thinks there will be massive ruralization. He thinks peak oil will force the world to return to the population distribution of 1850.

  5. the urban politician says:

    Agree with Alon.

    I’ve read Kunstler’s book “The Long Emergency” and he actually things that dense urban cities like New York and Chicago (with their energy-consuming large buildings) are doomed.

  6. Wad says:

    Kunstler is not counting on the fact that cities will likely leverage their wealth to manage or solve the energy problem.

    Even if Kunstler believes there will be massive ruralization, even agrarian economies will supply to the highest bidder. In order to get to markets, they must rely on supply networks that are usually in or near cities.

    Also, Kunstlerian ruralism is what Jane Jacobs has described as a passive region. This is not an ideal vision for a society; for any urban society to fall into this state means that they are trapped in a dark age. They’ve lost information networks, markets and processes, and are unlikely to be able to recover them.

    Europe went through this period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the renaissance. This wasn’t true for the Middle East, which was economically robust and leading the world in trade, science and education. Then in the 1400s-1500s, Europe and the Middle East essentially traded places.

  7. Ok, busted on Kunstler. I made an incorrect leap from his rhetoric, which I do think is over the top, to those folks who think pro-urban policy is a plot.

    Alon, I’m not sure what the best definition of the “urban core” is. Probably something like the urbanized area of the city pre-1950 + some streetcar suburbs. The percentage you could get depends on the market size, the area of that core, and regional growth rate. I don’t think that 10% is a hard and fast rule. The idea is that you pick some reasonably attainable goal that makes sense from a numbers perspective and figure out how to make it happen.

  8. Jim Russell says:

    I gather from the job density research that the urban core has been defined. Brookings used a 3-tier geography: 3-mile, 10-mile, and 35-mile. The limit of knowledge spillovers is roughly 10km, so the 10-mile ring is too large. I think the 3-mile ring is a good working definition.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Wad: I think a bigger issue is that intercity transportation costs are so small relative to the size of the economy that there’s nothing that will force people to ruralize. A lot of ruralists insist that peak oil will make long-distance transportation of food untenable, but in reality, transportation is a tiny amount of the cost of food. Even at $20/gallon, class I freight rail could ship rice from Arkansas to New York at a premium of 2-4% of its current retail price.

    Aaron, Jim: history can be a good guide here, okay. Though I’d put the boundary much further back, in the 1920s or 30s. Even in that period, some streetcar suburbs would later become auto-oriented in the 1950s. (Bear in mind, I’m thinking mainly of New York area suburbs, which became auto-oriented earlier than in the Midwest.)

    I don’t think rings defined by distance are a good idea, because they depend so much on city size. This is what made Ed Glaeser’s “Chicago has too much job dispersion” argument so wrong – you can’t really compare Chicago, whose urban area breached the 3-mile radius in the 1880s, with smaller cities, where at 3 miles you’re almost in the suburbs.

  10. Wad says:

    Alon Levy wrote: I think a bigger issue is that intercity transportation costs are so small relative to the size of the economy that there’s nothing that will force people to ruralize. A lot of ruralists insist that peak oil will make long-distance transportation of food untenable, but in reality, transportation is a tiny amount of the cost of food.


    Furthermore, under peak oil prices will become even more of an important distribution mechanism that will help prevent oil from running out. Earth will never suck its endowment of petroleum dry; there will come a price point where petroleum becomes too expensive to burn.

    As oil becomes more scarce, prices will rise. Value-added users of fuel will crowd out discretionary users.

  11. netdragon says:

    I think considering Atlanta growth as inner-core growth in the metro area is a bit misleading. Many of the inner suburbs of Atlanta have been almost completely developed for more than 40 years. These suburbs are also increasing in density at a fast pace. Examples are Smyrna, Marietta, Decatur. Smyrna has been almost completely redeveloped from 1/4-1/2 acre lots to townhomes and high-density neighborhoods. So it’s not all sprawl in the suburbs.

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