Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

More on the Census and center cities

The Post got around to doing another story about center city population increases/declines, pointing out the fact that most of this is generated by inflows of Hispanics and Asians. See "Without influxes of Hispanics and Asians, some U.S. cities would be smaller."

In other words, it's immigrant-driven, and a pretty traditional pattern historically. People quoted in the article make the point that the Recession changed the patterns somewhat, limiting both outmigration by people unable to sell their properties, but also limiting in-migration.

The Market Urbanism blog had a post about one month ago about Center City growth, "If we’re in an urban renaissance, why are cities still losing population?," and along with the entry I wrote last weekend ("More on the 2010 Census and center cities") it reminds me about how it's not a good thing ("think") to be driven by fashion--"the cities are back!"--in interpreting these trends.

First, I think Market Urbanism is right that it takes a long time to play out in terms of righting the decades long trends that have fostered suburban living at the expense of the center cities.

Second, the reality is that the "growth" in center cities is uneven. Strong population inflow exists at the core of a center city and/or in competitive neighborhoods outside of the core, while continued leakage occurs in other parts of the city, except if there is a strong program of intensification at transit centers.

This needs to be addressed big time--in fact, I would argue improvement of transit in the center cities that don't have it is fundamental, even if Edward Glaeser, wrongly in my opinion, disagrees. See "Detroit's Decline and the Folly of Light Rail: The country needs to unleash entrepreneurs, who will only be held back by tax-funded make-work projects" from the Wall Street Journal.

(Although it is interesting that cities like Philadelphia, which has a relatively high quality heavy rail transit system, isn't benefiting from this in the same way that Washington, DC is.)

Third, most center city real estate markets are weak overall even so, so what's happening in Washington, DC is an outlier and it's sometimes a mistake to generalize from this experience.

Fourth, the population increase has been a function of attracting younger, mostly single households (although Market Urbanism commenter Randy Simes makes a good point about shrinking household sizes) and there is a big problem with retention as household type changes--from single to married, from married no children to married with children--and amenities demands and other requirements (e.g., quality local public schools) can't necessarily be met by urban locations.

Dealing with household/population retention as households change should be a policy priority. Focusing on schools as key civic assets as part of a neighborhood revitalization and stabilization strategy should be key as well, but clearly this is outside of the scope of school district planning and unfortunately, offices of planning/community development don't seem to be keyed into the necessity of such a focus either. Otherwise, for example in DC, we wouldn't be closing neighborhood schools, especially in neighborhoods that are otherwise attractive with the potential for in-migration.

Fifth, the continued problem of leakage of employment from most center cities provides a strong push for suburban residential location because of work proximity commuting issues. This is a significant problem for most center cities, even Washington, DC.

For people who want to reduce commuting time, increasingly it makes sense to not live in the center city, because your job is in a suburban location.

In the early part of the last decade, I never understood it when I would meet people who moved to the city because of all the hype, but they still worked in the suburbs. Many of these people ended up moving back to the suburbs over time for two reasons--they couldn't deal with the urban problems of crime (new people are targeted, especially in changing neighborhoods, see the book Streetwise by Elijah Anderson) and because their commutes were long and bothersome.

This is especially true in other regions, with the possible exception of NYC, although even there is an intra-city sorting, as jobs and business functions that don't require "centre" location are being shifted to other areas (periphery locations) in the metropolis (such as Jersey City, Brooklyn, Hoboken, etc.) where rents are cheaper.

The same thing has happened in DC as high rents because of the building inventory restriction that results from the height restriction has shifted organizations that don't need the center city location to the suburbs.

NOTE THAT THIS PHENOMENON WILL INCREASE IN THE FUTURE. Suburban developers are working really hard to get organizations based in DC to relocate departments/personnel in the suburbs who don't necessarily require a center city location for their work.


(Plus the difficulty of getting to federal buildings and the U.S. Capitol from locations west of the White House--the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 15th and 17th Streets makes problematic surface traveling into the city from westward locations.)

In short, center cities (including DC) have plenty of work ahead of them, a very long agenda concerning stabilization and revitalization, in order to maintain their relevance in a United States that continues to metropolitanize and suburbanize.

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