What City Observatory did this week

1. Even in a relatively dense city like Chicago, large amounts of off-street parking goes unused daily. A new report from the Center for Neighborhood Technology documents the over-supply of residential parking, and lays the blame on municipal parking requirements that force developers to build parking lots or garages even when they don’t believe their tenants need them. With a single stall of parking costing up to $37,000, this is especially burdensome for affordable housing developers, whose buyers are especially unlikely to even own a car, but it can also add to market-rate prices, and encourage car ownership by forcing everyone to pay for parking whether they drive or not.

2. The argument that misguided zoning laws are behind many of our urban problems—from housing shortages and rising rents to low-density, car-dependent sprawl—is no longer such a fringe argument. But it’s worth digging into the other kinds of urban policies that lead to environmentally and socially unsustainable neighborhoods. A useful place to do that is Houston, which has created some picture-perfect sprawl without a formal zoning code. In some cases, that’s because they’ve replicated some zoning staples, like parking requirements, outside a zoning code per se. But there are also issues like street widths and block lengths that create an inherently pedestrian-hostile environment, and encourage car-dependent neighborhoods.

3. Millennials are buying more homes as they get older—but at every age, they’re buying fewer homes than previous generations. We get into the difference between lifecycle and generational change, and why the fact that people are more likely to buy a home at 35 than 25 doesn’t mean that today’s 35-year-olds are as likely to buy a home as 35-year-olds ten or fifteen years ago. In fact, homebuying is down among virtually every age cohort except those over 70, with profound consequences for the housing market.

4. A recent challenge to hackers to use public data to reimagine Staten Island, NY’s bus network demonstrates both the promise and the limitations of data-driven urban planning. At City Observatory, we obviously believe in the power of data—and grassroots-led action—to improve our communities and cities. But we also need to be aware of what data doesn’t tell us: in this case, how much of the trip patterns being analyzed are a result of the existing structure of the bus system; what might happen in a more radical reimagining of Staten Island’s transportation landscape; and how hidden priorities and assumptions draw borders around our plans.

The week’s must reads

1. Last summer, the Supreme Court’s opinion upholding “disparate impact” claims under the Fair Housing Act made front page headlines; last month, one of the first such cases since the opinion was handed down against Yuma, Arizona. At CityLab,Kriston Capps writes about how a court deemed that city’s zoning laws discriminatory—in particular, the rejection of a developer’s request to reduce minimum lot sizes for his development from 8,000 square feet to 6,000 amidst racially charged rhetoric from nearby homeowners. Yuma is far from the only city to engage in large-lot zoning; this is a decision that potentially implicates many other municipalities.

2. At first glance, this isn’t a story with much relevance to the US: Toronto isplanning to loosen commercial use requirements in its postwar suburban apartment towers. Of course, the vast majority of US metro areas don’t have many suburban towers—but the basic idea applies anyway. Just like the Canadian highrises, US suburbs are held back economically by large single-use districts, where residents are unable to walk to neighborhood retail or everyday services, or start home businesses to bring in some income with low overhead.

3. Massachusetts has taken a major step towards more inclusionary housing policy, with a state legislator introducing a bill that would require every municipality to zone some of its land for multifamily residential buildings. As Vox‘s Matthew Yglesias writes, such a law would put Massachusetts in a small collection of North American governments, including Washington state, Oregon, and the province of Ontario, that force cities to allow some amount of denser, urban housing. Such a policy not only creates room for more housing infill without pushing sprawl further into the countryside, but can help integrate exclusionary neighborhoods.

New knowledge

1. The face of American debt is increasingly a young graduate with student loans—or perhaps a family who bought their first home during the real estate bubble of the last decade and is still underwater. But a new report from the New York Federal Reserve suggests that the age cohort with the fastest-growing debt loads is over 50, increasing roughly 60 percent between 2003 and 2015. (Some, but not most, of that increase is a result of population growth.) In the wake of the Great Recession, credit standards have tightened, and (with the exception of student loans) younger people are borrowing less. Conversely, older adults are carrying greater debt into their retirement years—perhaps reflecting the lingering effects of the housing bust.

2. Income segregation is one of the most important indicators for cities because of its established link to intergenerational economic mobility. Using the latest American Community Survey, Sean Riordan of Stanford and Kendra Bischoff of Cornell find that neighborhood-level income segregation—which their previous research showed had been growing substantially from the 1980s through 2007—continued to grow from 2007 to 2012. The changes varied by metropolitan area, and, not surprisingly, were strongly correlated with changes in income inequality. The growth of income segregation also appears to be picking up steam: after growing by 4.5 percentage points on a per-decade basis from 1970 to 2007, it grew at a 6.4 percentage point per decade pace from 2007 to 2012. Unlike previous studies that have emphasized the “secession of the rich,” Riordan and Bischoff find that the growth of income segregation from 2007 to 2012 was driven largely by increased sorting among working- and middle-class households, rather than the very wealthy or very poor.

3. Another study, this one in The Lancet, finds that urban neighborhoods are good for your health. Comparing behavior across several cities, from Baltimore to Bogotá, researchers found the residents of more urban neighborhoods walked an average of 90 minutes more per week than residents of more car-dependent communities. Indicators of more physical activity included residential density, a greater number of intersections, public transit, and mixed land use patterns.

The Week Observed is City Observatory’s weekly newsletter. Every Friday, we give you a quick review of the most important articles, blog posts, and scholarly research on American cities.

Our goal is to help you keep up with—and participate in—the ongoing debate about how to create prosperous, equitable, and livable cities, without having to wade through the hundreds of thousands of words produced on the subject every week by yourself.

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