Do cities matter? Are the suburbs declining or healthy? I'm sharing a variety of links today that take differing looks at things. Note – I don't necessarily agree with everything written here, but found the articles of interest.
First, the Center for American Progress writes about "Trouble in the Suburbs: Poverty Rises in Areas Outside Cities." This is not unexpected: As center cities have gentrified, some of the low-income families who were displaced have moved farther out. And as jobs have moved to the suburbs, workers have followed, including those earning lower incomes. Then, the recession is forcing some middle-income families into the ranks of the poor.
The article links to a 2000 paper by the UNC Center for Community Capitalism, "Facing the New Suburban Housing Crunch," which found that the problem of finding affordable housing is not just a problem for the poor but is moving deeper into the middle class.
The article also links to this Brookings look at the new map of poverty in the U.S. It reports, "The number of poor people in large metro areas grew by 5.5 million from 1999 to 2009, and more than two-thirds of that growth occurred in suburbs." Last March Brookings had an interesting report, "Job Sprawl and the Suburbanization of Poverty."
The natural order of land values would hold that being near the center would make land more valuable, hence most costly, hence center cities would be home to the wealthier people. That's the pattern in European cities, where the poor live in the suburbs. (The very rich have in-town homes and villas or chateaux in the country.) The U.S. has been different, due in part to federal involvement in housing programs dating to the mid-20th century, when federal loan programs specifically encouraged suburban housing and pretty much forbade federally backed loans in neighborhoods inhabited by black people or other ethnic groups. That had the effect of reserving the suburbs for white, middle-class homeowners. Of course, the disinclination of many white people to live next door to black people played a huge role, too. And large-lot, single-family zoning created large areas where only middle- or upper-income homeowners could afford to settle.
But the end of those discriminatory policies and the efforts of many cities to add more multifamily housing in the suburbs seems to be changing the U.S. suburban landscape as well.
In some ways, spreading low-income families through the suburbs is not a bad thing. As several of the articles point out, it means poverty is less concentrated. But social services and public transportation are not as readily accessible in the suburbs, where local governments may not be equipped to serve the poor the way city governments are. (This, of course, raises the question of what is "suburban"? In a city such as Charlotte, with liberal annexation laws, the city limits themselves take in plenty of "suburban" neighborhoods that, in other areas of the country, would be separate municipalities.)
Changing topics, here's a provocative piece from National Resources Defense Council blogger Kaid Benfield: " 'Cities' may not matter as much as we think - regions and neighborhoods are where things actually happen."
He starts off noting that, of course, cities do matter. He also notes the problem of city limit lines having little to do with the reality of a metro region's functioning. But, he says, not enough attention is being focused on the suburbs (he means separate municipalities). He writes: "Stormwater runoff per capita is much worse in suburban sprawl, as are emissions of all sorts (CO2 per capita from transportation). One can even make the case that we should be going easier on cities than on sprawling places: To paraphrase David Owen, why put skinny people on diets? My personal view is that our environmental framework absolutely should be tougher on sprawling places than urban ones, but that urban ones should also do their fair share to heal our ecosystems, through appropriate standards, safeguards and mitigation."
He continues: "Unfortunately, I think we remain relatively less attentive to the suburbs, largely because our crazy patchwork of municipalities makes them legally so diffuse and with very rare exceptions there simply is no regional authority to address them as a group."
Illustration from San Jose Mercury News/MCT