What City Observatory did this week

1. Muddling income inequality and economic segregation. What does it mean to be a prosperous city? What does it mean to be a city with high economic inequality? These questions can be difficult because they apply statistics we’re used to using at a national level to municipalities or neighborhoods—and that context makes all the difference. At a local level, indicators of great prosperity, like very high income levels, often means that a city or suburb has simply managed to push out the poor. And indicators of inequality that are unambiguously bad at a national level may actually be good at a local level, because they suggest a measure of integration. As journalists increasingly bring the important questions of economic opportunity and inequality to local contexts, it’s crucial to understand those differences.

2. How we shut the door on housing. Among policy analysts and urban observers, there’s growing recognition that major shortages of housing in high-job-growth cities are behind skyrocketing housing prices. But there’s less understanding of how we got to this point. In a new paper, the Dartmouth professor William Fischel, long a leading scholar on the subject, brings out data suggesting that concern about housing prices suddenly spiked in the early 1970s—around the very same time as zoning laws became much more restrictive about new housing construction. He speculates that a period of high inflation, combined with broader homeownership and tax laws that gave preferences to homes as financial vehicles over other investments, increased demands from homeowners for assurance that their greatest assets wouldn’t lose their value.

3. How should cities approach economic development? A new report from the Brookings Institution is a must-read primer for local officials and stakeholders interested in state or local economic development. We add a few caveats and notes of our own, including the centrality of talented, highly educated young people; the importance of providing the kind of high-quality urban spaces that attract those young people; how strategy is about choosing what not to do, and why the federal government has a crucial role to play, even in state and local success.

4. How is driving mode share changing in your city? Last week, we published a tool for exploring how commuting patterns have changed in the US since 2006 by age cohort. We pointed out that despite the real movement of young people to urban centers, the national changes in commutes by cars, transit, and other modes of transportation have been surprisingly small, because of how dependent those choices are on a slow-changing built environment. This week, we published another tool that breaks down changes in driving by age for the 25 largest metropolitan areas—which shows the importance of having those options. Especially in regions with walkable urban cores and higher-quality transit systems, the shift away from driving is more pronounced, and generally even more so among younger cohorts.

The week’s must reads

1. Much has been written about whether, and how, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft will affect public transportation. This month, an Orlando suburbs will become the first city in the country to actually attempt to use Uber as a substitute for some public transit trips, subsidizing 20 to 25 percent of the cost of the on-demand service. While officials say they hope that the subsidies will solve some residents’ “first and last mile problems” getting to SunRail commuter train stations, they will also subsidize trips that do not intersect with transit. The Fortune article also quotes an economist concerned that the subsidies may encourage more trips, and end up costing more than the municipality of 43,000 can afford.

2. At Shelterforce, Rick Jacobus has written one of the more nuanced interpretations of the “to build or not to build”debates on housing affordability. He argues that blocking the construction of luxury housing, which has become a prime tactic of anti-gentrification activists across the country, can’t solve the problem—but that allowing more housing isn’t the whole answer, either. Jacobus also makes an important distinction between the ability of more housing supply to produce “filtered” affordable housing at the regional level, as opposed to in a particular hot neighborhood. He also makes some points we would take issue with, including on rent control. Look for a longer City Observatory response to Jacobus’ post soon.

3. Journalists Deborah and James Fallows of The Atlantic talk about their travels around the US, and how many of the “forgotten” cities they visited are thriving, far from the coastal hubs that get the lion’s share of media attention. They highlight the importance of having a distinctive downtown, even in smaller towns: “To a surprising degree,” James Fallows says in his interview with PBS, “just the identity of a place…depends on having a downtown with restaurants and with not just a shopping mall. It was amazing to go see how many parts of the country are attracting really ambitious, really well-educated, really first-rate people who think that the best arena for their ambitions and their whole life prospect is someplace where they can do work of the very first tier, but also have some effect on the local community.”

New knowledge

1. New York University’s Furman Center has released a new study, the “National Affordable Rental Housing Report.” Looking at the 11 largest metropolitan areas in the US, the report finds a growing renter population in both central cities and the suburbs, with a majority of central city residents renting in each of the regions except for Houston and Philadelphia. Increasingly, renters are living in single-family homes, in addition to multifamily buildings. And a “considerable” gap between supply and demand has pushed down vacancy rates and contributed to the affordability crisis.

2. “The Case for Age-Friendly Communities” is a new report from Grantmakers in Aging and researchers at Portland State University and Boston College, explaining what urban design and policy can do to create neighborhoods where you can both “grow up and grow old.” That’s an increasingly important challenge given the interest both in retaining and attracting families with children to urban neighborhoods, as well as accommodating America’s growing elderly population. The paper underscores the importance of accessible transportation, including public transit; a variety of affordable housing types; and access to public and inclusive social events.

3. The real estate company RedFin gave the public a peek at a new “Opportunity Index” tool this week. The Index computes the number of jobs paying at least $40,000 a year that are accessible to any given neighborhood within a 30 minute bike, walk, or transit commute, and displays the results on a heatmap reminiscent of David Levinson’s maps at the University of Minnesota. (Levinson’s, however, just track transit commutes, and don’t have an income screen.) While the full interactive tool has yet to be released, the screenshots are worth checking out.

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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