Profiles of Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods

Our new CityReport dives deep in data; but what does a diverse, mixed income neighborhood look like?

As we explained in our new report–America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods–nearly seven million Americans live in one of the neighborhoods we’ve identified as America’s most racially and ethnically diverse and mixed income. While we’ve got copious amounts of data, and maps showing where these neighborhoods are located, what does a diverse, mixed income neighborhood look like at ground level?

To answer that question, we’ve profiled a handful of the 1,300 neighborhoods nationally that scored highest on our two measures of integration: the racial and ethnic diversity index and the income diversity index. The neighborhoods selected score in the top 20 percent of all urban neighborhoods in the US on each of these measures.

One of these highly diverse, mixed income neighborhoods is Hillcrest, Queens, in New York City. (To see the full neighborhood profile in PDF format, click on this image).

Hillcrest is located on a ridge between Jamaica and Flushing in Queens, and is adjacent to the campus of St. Johns University.

Hillcrest’s census tract is one of the most diverse, mixed income tracts in the US, ranking in the top 2 percent of all tracts nationally in measured racial ethnic diversity and income diversity.  The neighborhood is 35 percent Asian, 29 percent white, 16 percent Latino and 12 percent black, with the remainder mixed race or other.  Nearly equal segments of its population are in each of the five income categories we examined.  
Other neighborhood indicators show a mixing of homeowners (58%) and renters (42%), single family residents (55%) and apartment dwellers (45%).  The neighborhood’s poverty rate is about 18 percent, slightly higher than the US average.  Median income is about $58,000, roughly the same as the rest of New York City. Here’s a snapshot of Hillcrests scores on our racial/ethnic and income diversity indices, and a map showing its location:

To get a graphic idea of how diverse these neighborhoods are compared to other neighborhoods in the same metropolitan area, we’ve constructed a pair of box-whisker scatter diagrams that illustrate the pattern of income and racial ethnic diversity in each metropolitan area.  In these diagrams, each dot represents a single neighborhood (census tract).  The light and dark shaded rectangles correspond to the two middle quartiles of the income distribution: half of all neighborhoods fall into this range, and the midpoint between the two rectangles shows the median value for the metropolitan area. On this chart, the highlighted orange dot shows the racial and ethnic diversity of Hillcrest compared to all of the other neighborhoods in the New York metropolitan area.

We’ve compiled similar profiles of selected neighborhoods in other metropolitan areas around the country. For example, you can explore the demographics of the St. Mary’s Park neighborhood in San Francisco, the Near South Side in Chicago, and Corktown in Detroit. We’ve also prepared profiles of neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Memphis and Akron.  (In the case of Memphis and Akron, the profiled neighborhoods don’t meet both our screening criteria, but do represent what are the most locally diverse neighborhoods, we’ve included these profiles to show what the most diverse neighborhoods look like in smaller metropolitan areas.


Portland votes to increase housing supply

Portland’s City Council reversed its denial of one tall apartment building; we commend them

Back in March, we were critical of a decision by the Portland City Council to deny approval of a 17-story apartment building in the city’s growing Pearl District. The building was opposed by neighbors (who lived in other, recently build residential towers), who complained the new building, called Fremont Place, would block their views. The Council decided, ostensibly because the building didn’t fully comply with the cities riverside greenway setback requirements, to deny the approval.

We argued that this use of the city’s discretionary approval power ran counter to the City Council’s stated concern about city housing supply, and that it would send a chilling signal to other developers. The Fremont Place project generated considerable discussion in the media.

Council members, to their credit, re-thought their initial decision. The developers agreed to make some very modest changes to the building’s ground level plan to accomodate a wider walkway along the river, but kept the height and bulk of the proposed building the same. They also reached an agreement to get the local neighborhood association, which had fought the project, to endorse it with changes (and also with the promise of a $35,000 payment to the neighborhood association to cover its legal costs in the matter.

On May 31, the Council voted unanimously to reject the appeal, approving the project moving forward.  Portlander’s should be grateful to the City Council for drawing a deep breath, giving some time for the parties to make some adjustments, and then approving this needed housing.

Two steps forward, one step back?

While this is good news, another land use matter showed that this issue is hardly settled. Across the river from the Pearl District, in Portland’s Walnut Park neighborhood, a different developer sought a zone change to allow the conversion of a church parking lot into an apartment building. The developer was offering to 50 below-market, affordable apartments adjacent to the Alberta Abbey. As in the case of the Fremont Place matter, this decision was one in which the City Council had broad discretion to approve or not approve the project. (This is seldom the case in Portland, where state land use law provides that once an area is designated for a particular land use, such as apartments, the city must approve or deny the proposed development based on a limited set of clear and objective standards). Because this case involved a plan change–redesignating a parking lot designated for lower density use to a higher density, commercial category, it was subject to council discretion.

After a public hearing, the Council declined to move ahead with the needed zone change proposal. According to Portland for Everyone’s Michael Anderson, that means the property’s developer is likely restricted to building a much smaller building with no more than about 28 units. It’s a far smaller battle than the Fremont Place project, but it’s a reminder that Portland’s City Council–like municipal government’s everywhere–is always facing a steady stream of decisions about whether to allow more housing. The fact that rents and home prices are rising, especially in close-in urban neighborhoods,  is a good indication that demand is still outpacing supply, and that the city needs to lean more heavily in favor of making it possible to build more housing.  The change of heart on the Fremont Place project is a big step in the right direction, but the council will have to take many more similar steps in the months and years ahead, if it hopes to seriously address the city’s affordability challenges.


Handicapping the City-Suburb Horserace

The simple-minded comparison on city and suburb population growth rates is misleading and incomplete

Every year, in the late Spring, the Census Bureau releases its latest population estimates for the nation’s municipalities. That produces a raft of quick knock-on statistical analyses that flag which places are gaining and losing population. Inevitably, these estimates get aggregated to the national level, and pronouncements are made as to whether “cities” or “suburbs” are winning the race for more population.

It’s suburbs, by a neck – or is it?

The Brookings Institution’s Bill Frey published his nearly annual take on the Census Bureau population numbers late last month. His call on the City v. Suburb horserace: “the trend seems to be shifting toward a renewed suburban advantage.” That claim is likely to fuel arguments that America’s love affair with cities is over, that Americans (and especially Millennials) really want to live in the suburbs, and general harrumphing that urbanism is somehow past its peak.

As always, Frey’s math is impeccable. But we have to take issue with the analysis and the conclusions that people are likely to draw from the raw numbers. It’s too early, and this data is too ambiguous and incomplete to make any strong statements about the American desire for urban living. It turns out that municipal boundaries are problematic for making comparisons across space and over time; that when we take a longer-term perspective, the up-tick in city population is still quite noticeable (despite the data flaws), and finally, we ought to be paying much more attention to relative prices than relative growth rates, if we want to understand the value Americans place on urban living.

The limits of city limits

City boundaries are lousy for making these cross metro comparisons. Municipal boundaries aren’t standardized or consistent in any way. Some cities have copious amounts of low density sprawl inside their city limits (Jacksonville, San Antonio), while others are just a fraction of the urban core).

If we want to know the demand for urbanity and dense, walkable, transit-served city neighborhoods, you can’t just rely on aggregating census data for an entire city. What we and others have done to understand the varying spatial character of growth is to use much finer and more consistent measures, such as the 3-mile radius around the central business district. These data show a consistently strong performance for city centers in population and job growth.

This kind of aggregation also hides urban growth booms within cities.  Chicago’s downtown and near North and South neighborhoods are booming, even as the city’s total population decreases (mostly due to declines in the lowest density parts of the city). In addition, population growth is down sharply in the region’s outlying suburbs.

What’s the baseline?

Whether cities are performing well or poorly relative to suburbs also depends on the time period one evaluates.  Just looking at one or two year’s data isn’t necessarily very illuminating of long term trends. So it’s important to be explicit about the baseline for comparison.  As we’ve pointed out before, while growth has slowed in the densest counties it remains above its long term trends there, and while growth has rebounded in less dense counties, growth remains below longer term trends.

Let’s take a closer look at what the Census data show, and how that’s changed over time. Frey (and others) make a lot of the fact that over the past year or two years, suburbs are growing faster than central cities. Here’s Bill Frey:

Now suburban growth again exceeds city growth, though at more modest levels than in the early 2000s, and, for many areas, due more to a city growth slowdown than a suburban growth pickup. It is still the case that city growth exceeds suburban growth in 17 of these 53 metropolitan areas, including Boston, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Seattle, though no longer New York (download table 2 here). Yet between 2010 and 2011, this was the case for 25 of these metros, and the trend seems to be shifting toward a renewed suburban advantage.

So the bad news is that only 17 central cities are outperforming their suburbs, down from 25 earlier this decade.

But consider where we were in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. Helpfully, Bill Frey has been tracking this carefully in his Brookings Institution reports, so we went back to his 2012 retrospective on city growth trends to look at these two decades.

In the 1990s, only 7 central cities (in 53 top metros) grew faster than their suburbs: Charlotte, New York, Oklahoma City, Portland, Providence,  San Antonio and San Jose.

From 2000 to 2010, only 8 central cities grew faster than their suburbs:  Boston, Charlotte, Miami, Oklahoma City, Providence, Raleigh, Sacramento and San Jose).

So the way to look at it is this:  How many cities outperformed their suburbs?

  • 1990s:  7 cities
  • 2000s:  8 cities
  • 2010-11:  25 cities
  • 2016-17 : 17 cities

So recent performance is a huge improvement over the previous two full decades, even if it’s not quite at the breakneck level of 2010-11. (And again, keep in mind that these municipal population figures are a weak and uneven proxy for whether urban living is becoming more or less popular).  Also:  This list has some what we might call “false positives” where the central city’s growth is really due to the fact that the main city encompasses a lot of low density sprawl (i.e. Charlotte, Oklahoma City, San Antonio), or which grew by annexation (i.e. Portland in the 1990s).

What does this say about the demand for city living?

The deeper question is whether city growth is slowing relative to suburbs because Americans don’t want to live in cities. There’s been a surge of suburban triumphalism, based on a quick reading of the city population data.

The bigger issue is we’re bumping up against the limits of city growth imposed by zoning.  While cities could add population quickly for a few years by reducing vacancy rates, as housing fills up, you can only expand population by building more housing, which takes time, and in some cities (I’m looking at you San Francisco) is extremely expensive. A couple of articles make this point indirectly, arguing that Americans are moving to places where housing is cheaper.

As we’ve repeatedly shown at City Observatory, the premium that American’s are willing to pay for central locations has been steadily increasing. This constitutes what we’ve called the Dow of Cities. What really shows the value American’s attach to cities is the price they play for close-in urban housing, which is steadily rising relative to suburbs, virtually everywhere.

If city population growth isn’t keeping pace with suburbs, its not because Americans are desirous of suburban living, but rather because we have a shortage of cities.

The horse race metaphor makes for easy journalism, but in this case, doesn’t tell us much about the relative demand for city living. We really ought to be paying much more attention to prices.

The increasing centralization of urban economies: New York

Prime working age adults are increasingly clustering in the center of the nation’s largest metro area

City Observatory has long been following the movement of people and jobs back to cities.  Our inaugural study on the Young and Restless charted the growing propensity of well-educated young workers to live in close-in urban neighborhoods. Our follow up work on City Center Jobs plotted a remarkable resurgence in job growth in city centers compared to the urban periphery.

A new report from New York City’s Office of Planning sheds further light on how this trend is playing out in the nation’s largest metropolitan area. It has a couple of very salient maps.  The first shows the population growth of the greater New York region since 2010.  As widely reported, the most urban boroughs Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan, have been powering regional population growth, with the five boroughs accounting for 60 percent of the region’s population growth.  As this dot density map shows, population growth (the blue dots) is heavily concentrated in the center of the region. Population growth in the suburbs is considerably more sparse, and in some places (the orange dots) population is actually declining.

Population Change, 2010 to 2016 (Dot = 50; blue = gain, orange = loss). Source: NYC Planning

As the report concludes: “In recent years, population growth has shifted toward the region’s center. Recent growth patterns suggest that more people are moved to and stayed in our region, with a focus on the urban core and in areas well-connected to rail transit.” Overall, suburbs have grown more slowly, and in some areas, suburban population has declined. As we’ve pointed out before, far from “hollowing out” the New York region is growing, especially in its center.

The working age population is even more centralized

While much of the media attention gets devoted to overall population totals, we like to zero in on the demographic composition of city population changes.  What’s been driving the surge in city population? The answer, according to the new NYC planning report, is working age adults. The urban/suburban divide is even more stark for prime age workers (again, blue dots represent an increase and orange dots a decrease). The pattern of change since 2000 shows that with the notable exception of Manhattan’s East side, nearly all of the labor force gains have been concentrated in Manhattan and the close-in portions of the Bronx, Brooklyn and New Jersey.  There’s a consistent pattern of labor force decline in the more suburban parts of the region (Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island, and the New Jersey suburbs).

Prime Age (25-54) Labor Force Change, 2000-2016; Dot = 50; blue = gain, orange = loss. Source: NYC Planning

This growth was economically significant:  the five boroughs of New York City expanded their prime-age labor force much more rapidly than the nation as a whole.  As the report notes, “The rate of NYC’s prime-age labor force growth (gain of 17 %) was nearly three times higher than the U.S. average (gain of 6%), which increased more slowly as the baby-boomer cohort grew older and was replaced by younger, smaller population cohorts.”

What these data show in New York is the growing centralization of economic activity.  More people are moving to the center, and especially more working age adults. Several forces are powering these trends: the growth of the knowledge economy, which thrives on the density of smart people, the growing desire for urban living and amenities, and a generational shift in attitudes about the relative attractiveness of cities and suburbs. These forces are in important respects mutually reinforcing: firms are increasingly growing the in center of the region (in part to tap the labor force) and the labor force is growing more in the center (because of more concentrated job growth).

This shift to the center is closely connected to the region’s most pressing challenges. With more jobs and workers in the center of the region, its little surprise that there’s been a sharp increase in ridership on city subways. Likewise, the growing demand for urban living, in the face of a slowly growing housing stock is putting pressure on rents. In New York, as elsewhere, it’s yet more evidence that we’re experiencing a “shortage of cities.


The persistence of residential segregation

How slow growth and industrial decline perpetuate racial segregation

As regular readers of City Observatory know, we think that the continuing racial and economic segregation of the nation’s metropolitan areas is at the root of many of the nation’s most persistent problems. We got a fresh reading on the extent and persistence of racial and ethnic segregation in the nation’s large metropolitan areas from a sharp new analysis of Census data prepared by Rentonomics Chris Salviati.

If you want to see where your metropolitan area ranks in racial and ethnic segregation, and judge what progress its made since 2000, you’ll definitely want to have a look at this page.  In it, Chris has used data from the latest 2012-16 American Community Survey to compute dissimilarity indices for major racial ethnic groups in the nation’s metropolitan areas. The dissimilarity index measures how different or similar the residential settlement patterns are for pairs of racial/ethnic groups. The index runs from 0 to 100 and represents the percent of the population that would have to move to a different neighborhood (census tract) in order for the proportionate composition of each neighborhood to match the composition of the larger metropolitan area.  Higher numbers on the dissimilarity index correspond to greater levels of racial/ethnic segregation.

While it’s useful and important to look at rankings, it’s also important to consider trends, and the pattern of relationships over time among metropolitan areas.  There’s a very insightful chart in the Rentonomics analysis which compares the growth rate of metropolitan area population with the level of segregation in the metropolitan area.  The growth rate of the metropolitan area is proxied by the percentage increase in metro area population since 1970.  What this data shows is a strong correlation between recent population growth and lower rates of segregation.  Places that have grown more, recently, are less segregated.

This finding dovetails neatly with several strands of academic research about African-American migration patterns.

A recent paper by Richard Sander of UCLA and Yana Kucheva of CUNY–”Black Pioneers, Intermetropolitan Movers, and Housing Desegregation“–makes a good point about migration. They observe that black inter-metropolitan migrants are much more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods, compared to blacks changing homes within metro areas. This makes sense, as they’re less likely to be bound by preconceptions or family ties. Metros with a higher fraction of black in-migrants should, all other things equal, be less segregated than metros with lots of native born blacks. In general, we would expect faster growing metros to have a lot more migration and be less segregated (i.e. Las Vegas) while slower growing metros (or ones with declining black populations) would tend to be more segregated.

The reasons for this may be complicated, but it’s likely that a new metro area is a kind of clean sheet, one that’s less influenced by family ties or preconceptions. A new book by sociologists Maria Krysan of the University of Illinois, Chicago and Kyle Crowder of the University of Washington concludes that perceptions of neighborhoods had a major impact on whether people even considered moving there. Newcomers to a metropolitan area are less likely to have been exposed to and internalized these preconceptions, and therefore may be more open to a wider array of neighborhood choices.  Conversely, in slow-growing metropolitan areas, a larger portion of residents may be those who are long term residents, and who are more influenced by historical patterns of what constitutes an appropriate neighborhood for them.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this line of thought helps explain the persistent segregation problems of older industrial cities that the Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube explored in a recent commentary. Residents of older industrial cities, he reports,  are 30 percent more racially segregated than the national average. Workplaces are also segregated: workers of color in these older cities are more heavily concentrated in low-paying fields like sales and personal services than their counterparts elsewhere. Finally the income gap between white and non-white households is much greater in these segregated, older industrial cities.

Taken together, these data provide a useful snapshot of the extent and variation of racial segregation across metropolitan areas, and a plausible story about why segregation is so persistent in the nation’s older, more slowly growing metropolitan areas. Despite the disruption caused by migration, rapid growth and economic change, growing cities seem to create a more fluid environment in which patterns of segregation are more quickly eroded.

Sisyphus meets Bob the Builder

Why traffic engineers really aren’t interested in reducing traffic congestion

We now know with a certainty that investments in additional highway capacity in dense urban environments simply trigger additional travel, what we call “induced demand.” The phenomenon is so well-documented that a recent article called in “The Fundamental Law of Traffic Congestion.”

In a sense, this ought to be profoundly depressing to the traffic engineering profession. It implies that their work has been and continues to be the labors of Sisyphus, the Titan who was punished by the Gods who required him to push a huge boulder up a steep hill each day, only to have it come tumbling back down and need to be pushed up again the next day, and every other day.


But traffic engineers hardly seem fazed by the experience. If the reports of the industry’s trade associations–the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and AASHTO (The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials–are any indication, they’re positive delighted to tell you what a horrible job they’ve done in building insufficient capacity–there are lots and lots more rocks needing to be pushed up hill. This Sisyphean philosophy of highway engineering was perfectly—if unwittingly—captured in this Washington Post headline, from its traffic columnist, “Dr. Gridlock”:

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.18.20 AM

Given all this, you might think that the highway engineering profession would be composed of dour, deeply depressed individuals, frustrated by the collective failure–after decades of trying and hundreds of billions of dollars of spending–to reduce the scourge of traffic congestion.  But no. These engineers view their jobs with the child-like enthusiasm of Bob the Builder (motto:  We can build it!).  It doesn’t really much matter what the “it” is, it’s building stuff that counts.  Viewed in this light, induced demand isn’t really so much a depressing unsolvable problem as it is an never-ending excuse for operating heavy equipment, pouring concrete and building stuff. Cool!



Maybe it’s just that highway engineers have their own perverse spin on that mantra that “It’s about the journey, not the destination”—especially when it comes to building more roads. The inevitability of induced demand in urban settings means that trying to reduce congestion by widening highways means you’ll end up chasing your tail, forever. Which to them is a feature, not a bug—if you’re in the asphalt or concrete business, or are a highway engineer, that’s not a bad thing—it’s a guarantee of lifetime full employment. So little wonder that these asphalt socialists are really indifferent to whether multi-billion dollar highway projects have any effect on congestion at all.

So, for example, consider Houston’s Katy Freeway, at 23 lanes, America’s biggest. Texas has spent billions successively widening the road, each time resulting in more and more traffic and congestion. The latest multi-billion dollar project to widen the roadway, trumpeted by AASHTO as an example of how new construction could eliminate bottlenecks, actually generated so much additional traffic that travel times actually increased after it was opened.

The converse is also true. State departments of transportation, who will shed crocodile tears over the time lost to traffic congestion, routinely turn a blind eye to actual policies and investments that reduce congestion, like tolling. Take for example, the ongoing travel behavior experiment being carried out in Louisville Kentucky. There, Kentucky and Indiana have dropped a cool billion dollars on doubling the capacity of I-65 as it crossed the Ohio River near downtown Louisville. They widened I-65 from six lanes to twelve to reduce congestion. But what really reduced congested was charging a toll–cars pay between $1 and $4 per crossing. What they’ve stumbled on, perhaps inadvertently, is the most powerful congestion reducing technology any traffic engineer has ever seen: the toll gantry.

Actual, un-retouched photograph of 5 PM peak hour traffic on I-65 in downtown Louisville. Tolling the roadway eliminated traffic congestion.

Since implementing the tolls, traffic on the I-65 bridges has fallen by nearly half, from about 122,000 vehicles per day to just 66,000.  Even at rush hour, there are very few cars using the new tolled freeway.  Now you’d think that Louisville area engineers would be falling all over themselves telling the rest of the world how they’ve finally figured out a real live solution to traffic congestion. (They haven’t).

The truth seems to be that highway departments really only care about building stuff. They really don’t care about traffic congestion, except as it provides a convenient excuse to demand more money to expand roads. Look carefully at the prominent icons of any highway department office:  you’ll see pictures of roads and bridges and overpasses, and awards from the concrete association, steel fabricators and asphalt contractors. As long as transportation spending is guided chiefly by this “Bob the builder” mentality, we’ll just get more expensive roads, more traffic and more congestion.



Socioeconomic mixing is essential to closing the Kumbaya gap

Integrated neighborhoods produce more mixing, but don’t automatically generate universal social interaction. What should we make of that?

Our recent report, America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods identifies those places where people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and from different income strata all live in close proximity to one another. We’ve counted more than 1,300 neighborhoods with nearly 7 million residents that have high levels of racial/ethnic and income integration. In these places, at least, people from different backgrounds share a common neighborhood.  But is that enough? Some critics complain that while people may live close to one another in such places, there may be little meaningful interaction. Today we consider this issue.

In one idealized view of the world, economically integrated neighborhoods would have widespread and deep social interactions among people from different backgrounds. We’d tend to be color-blind and class-blind, and no more (or less) likely to interact with people from different groups than with people similar to ourselves. In practice, even in neighborhoods with a high degree of racial or income diversity, it still tends to be the case that people primarily associate with people like themselves. Even in the most integrated neighborhoods, there’s a “kumbaya” gap. Should we we regard that as a sign of failure?

That’s the argument that Derek Hyra makes about gentrifying neighborhoods, like U Street, in Washington DC. Blacks and whites, rich and poor live in close proximity to one another, but primarily associate only with people like themselves in daily live. Last week’s CityLab article interviewing Hyra is entitled: “Gentrification doesn’t mean diversity.” The article’s URL is “gentrifying neighborhoods aren’t really diverse.”

The point Hyra actually makes isn’t that the neighborhoods aren’t diverse, per se, but that within the neighborhoods, people still associate primarily with people with similar demographic characteristics. We may have alleviated segregation at one level, but in personal interactions, there’s still “micro-segregation.”

CityLab’s Tanvi Misri interviews Hyra about his new book, —Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City.  Hyra observes that Washington, DC’s U Street neighborhood is now more racially and economically diverse, but notes that its still the case that people mostly associate with others of similar backgrounds in places like churches, stores and coffee shops. His argument seems to be, sure, its great that so-called gentrifying neighborhoods are more integrated, but since people of different races/classes, aren’t socializing directly, its basically a failure.  From the interview:

Elaborate on what’s positive and what’s problematic about this change, and with this perception of the neighborhood.

We have been so segregated in the United States and that now that whites are attracted and willing to move into what was formerly a low-income African-American neighborhood does symbolize some progress, in terms of race relations in the United States. That we have mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods, I think, is a very positive thing.

But that diversity not necessarily benefiting the former residents. Most of the mechanisms by which low-income people would benefit from this change are related to social interaction—that low-, middle-, and upper-income people would start to talk to one another. They would problem solve with one another. They would all get involved civically together to bolster their political power. But what we’re really seeing is a micro-level segregation. You see diversity along race, class, sexual orientation overall, but when you get into the civic institutions—the churches, the recreation centers, the restaurants, the clubs, the coffee shops—most of them are segregated. So you’re not getting a meaningful interaction across race, class, and difference. If we think that mixed-income, mixed-race communities are the panacea for poverty, they’re not.

Is the failure to reach maximum kumbaya really an indication that more socioeconomic mixing isn’t a good thing?  We don’t think so, for several reasons  First, unless you first get mixed income, mixed race neighborhoods, you have almost no chance having the opportunity for regular  social interactions. When we live in neighborhoods widely segregated by race and/or income its even more difficult to establish these boundary-crossing personal relationships. Socioeconomic mixing is necessary, even if it alone isn’t sufficient–especially immediately–to produce deeper interactions.

Second, “kumbaya” integration is probably an unrealistic goal: even within our neighborhoods (and socioeconomic groups) we do spend our personal time disproportionately with people who share our own peculiar interests. That’s true even within economically homogenous neighborhoods: people tend to spend much more time and develop stronger relationships with people most like them.

Third:  The evidence of overwhelming that mixed income neighborhoods (kumbaya or not) have big benefits, especially for lower income kids.  They get more resources, can access stronger networks, find better partners and career paths, etc.  The evidence from the Equality of Opportunity project, led by Raj Chetty, the research of Patrick Sharkey, and Eric Chyn’s study of Chicago Housing Authority residents all confirm that simply moving to a more mixed income neighborhood materially improves the life outcomes of poor kids. In addition, an important aspect of the socioeconomic mixing in the civic commons is promoting the kind of interactions that help us develop an awareness–imperfect and incomplete as it may be–that there are real people who have very different lives and expectations than we do.

Fourth, we know what happens when people don’t have this kind of first hand familiarity with a more diverse population. It shows up plainly in the results of the last election.  People who lived in communities with limited exposure to immigrants, or in neighborhoods that were predominantly white, segregated enclaves were much more likely to vote for Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton, even after controlling for other characteristics (party affiliation, age, and income) than others.  After sifting through national polling and demographic data Gallup’s  Jonathan Rothwell concludes:

“The analysis provides clear evidence that those who view Trump favorably are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones. Holding other factors, constant support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates and in neighborhoods that standout within the larger commuting zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.”

The more separated we are from one another, the more likely we are to not support broad-based policies that promote equality and opportunity.  In the absence of more U Streets, we get policies that produce more and more segregated suburbs and neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  We shouldn’t fixate on the failure of U Street to achieve some imaginary ideal; instead we should recognize that its essential to do many more “U Streets”  just to offset the scale of the segregation everywhere else. Fighting segregation comes first; Kumbaya will come, if it comes at all, later.

If we set impossibly high expectations about the nature of integration, and when we’re provided with anecdotes that recent and long-time residents in a community don’t associate much with one another, it’s tempting–but wrong–to conclude the whole thing was an epic fail.  As with so much in this field, that makes the perfect the enemy of the good, or at least the somewhat better.


The Week Observed, June 15, 2018

What City Observatory did this week

1. Handicapping the city vs. suburb horse race. The latest round of Census population estimates for municipalities has led some observers to claim that city growth has faltered. We take a close look at these claims, and identify the critical weakness of using data for city boundaries to trace the demand for urban living. We also note that the data show that, even with these limitations, city growth continues to be substantially faster now than in the 1990s and the first decade of the millenium, with more than twice as many cities outpacing their suburbs now as compared to these earlier decades. And, as we always note, the key limit on city growth now is not a lack of demand, but a lack of housing supply in the dense, urban neighborhoods that command an increasingly large price premium. It’s not a demand for suburbs, it’s a shortage of cities.

2. Sisyphus meets Bob the builder. There’s irrefutable evidence of “induced demand”–that building more un-priced road capacity in urban settings simply stimulates more travel and ultimately greater traffic congestion. On the surface, you might think that this would be depressing news for the traffic engineering profession, engaged as they are in the labors of Sisyphus, pushing the rock up hill one day, only to have it come rolling down again. In reality, engineers are indifferent to induced demand: it actually turns out to be great job security, and congestion is a perpetually renewing rationale for asking the public for more money to build stuff. What we have is a bunch of childish “Bob the builder” types who really don’t care about reducing congestion, just about getting to operate heavy equipment, pour concrete and spread asphalt.

3.  Why integration matters. In just the past few years, a growing body of research has shown the high stakes associated with continuing racial and economic segregation in American cities. Study after study shows that those who live and grow up in segregated neighborhoods experience higher rates of crime and social disorder, have fewer educational and economic opportunities, and have their life chances permanently dimmed. We offer a review of some of the most salient studies from this literature, which taken together show the substantial advantages to be gained by promoting greater socioeconomic mixing.

Must read

1. Jason Segedy’s review of Allan Mallach’s “Divided Cities.” Akron’s planning director, Jason Segedy has high praise for Mallach’s new book, which looks at the challenges facing the American city through the lens of struggling rust-belt cities. The book (and review) emphasize a fundamental point: urban neighborhoods are always in a state of change, and if they’re not improving, it generally means that they are declining. Yet, especially in the Rust Belt, because urban revitalization is so striking (and rare), concerns about gentrification divert attention from the steady decline that affects most poor neighborhoods. As Segedy points out:

. . . the changes that are occurring in a handful of gentrifying neighborhoods in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, are on balance, good for these places, and also makes the point that these positive changes are dwarfed by the economic and social decline that is happening elsewhere in these cities.

2.  “Walk-Don’t Walk Signals are car infrastructure, not pedestrian infrastructure. Writing at The Conversation, David Levinson makes the case that traffic signals are strongly biased in favor of cars and against pedestrians. The needs of cars automatically prioritized: induction loops detect cars as they approach signals, while pedestrians have to walk up to “beg buttons,” and often wait a full cycle to get a “walk” sign.  As Levinson notes:

Pedestrians once crossed the street whenever and wherever they wanted. The introduction of signals prioritised the movement of motor vehicles at the expense of pedestrians, which slowed effective walking speed through the city. Pedestrians now spend roughly 20% of their time waiting at intersections. The consequences of making it easier to drive and harder to walk are consistent with the rise of vehicle-dominated cities.

3. You can’t fix public transit by destroying it. Jarrett Walker puts paid to the absurd suggestion published in an article in The Atlantic that New York can fix its subway problem by removing trains and tearing out tracks and replacing them with pavement for autonomous vehicles. There’s simply no way the numbers work: no system of small automated vehicles could ever match the capacity of subway trains, even those operated as badly as New York’s. This idea is so bad that it hardly merits the serious (and convincing) de-bunk from Walker, but it captures, in full-flower, the techno-dilettante perspective on disrupting transportation. Much of what’s going on, Walker argues, is “elite projection,” coupled with willful obliviousness to some pretty basic mathematics. 

4. Scooters aren’t a Scourge, so argues the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times. While there’s a wealth of alarmist, hand-wringing stories about scooters cluttering the urban streetscape, the Times editors have a more clear-eyed view: expanding the range of non-automobile travel choices in cities is the key to addressing many urban problems. There are some growing pains, to be sure, but clean, space-efficient and cheap on demand urban transportation options that don’t increase car traffic are worth exploring and refining. They tell city leaders to keep their eyes on the big picture:

More people using bikes and scooters means fewer car trips, less traffic and less pollution. Scooters are not a scourge; they’re a solution.”

New Ideas

Many Americans are rooted in place. A new survey published by the Federal Reserve has a number of interesting insights about American behavior. One finding caught our eye: A majority of Americans live near the place they attended High School. The study asked respondents to share the zip code of their current residence and of the place they completed high school.

According to the Fed study, moving long distances was correlated both with education and income; those who went further geographically, went further economically. As the study concludes:  “A major predictor of whether individuals move away from their hometown is their level of education. Three-fifths of adults with a bachelor’s degree live more than 10 miles away from where they grew up, versus two-fifths of those who have a high school degree or less.”

There are a lot of other survey insights into other issues, including community satisfaction, the reach of the opioid epidemic, whether workers have irregular work schedules, and the extent to which young adults depend on friends and families for financial support.

In the news

CityLab republished Joe Cortright’s analysis of recent city-suburb growth trends as “Are American’s fleeing cities for suburbs:  Not so fast.”



The Week Observed, June 29, 2018

What City Observatory did this week

1. Closing the Kumbaya Gap. As we documented in our recent report, America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods, a growing number of cities boast neighborhoods with relatively high levels of both racial/ethnic and income diversity. But while people from different demographic groups may live in close proximity in these places, the question remains: does this produce meaningful social interactions. While increased integration may not automatically generate a kumbaya outcome, it is essential, in our view, for breaking down the barriers that tend to perpetuate and intensify social divisions.

2. Portland votes to increase housing supply. In March, we took Portland’s City Council to task for its decision to deny approval for a new market-rate apartment project in the city’s booming Pearl District. We argued that using discretionary approval processes to block additional supply ran counter to the city’s stated concerns about housing affordability. Earlier this month, the council reversed its decision, and approved a face-saving compromise that lets the project go forward. That’s a positive outcome, but it’s a reminder that tackling the housing affordability problem requires a sustained commitment to expanding housing supply.

Must read

1. Blocking housing means more traffic, not less. One of the most commonly offered objections to new housing development is that it will add to local traffic. But a new study from the BAy Area turns this argument on its head. Blocking housing in the center of an economically vibrant area actually adds to traffic, as people travel longer distances, and become more dependent on cars for transportation. The report, co-authored by San Mateo’s Housing Leadership Council and the transportation non-profit TransForm, notes that San Mateo County has built only about one new house for every 19 jobs its added in the past five years. Because they can’t find housing in the community, the added job growth encourages more long-distance car commuting, adding to the region’s already clogged roadway system. More housing closer to jobs would likely reduce the volume of traffic, contrary to the views usually expressed by opponents of new housing.

2. More signs that supply is driving down rents in Seattle. The Seattle Times has a story detailing the range of ways that landlords are offering discounts and give-backs to prospective tenants. On offer, if you’re looking for a new apartment in the Emerald City is everything from free parking spaces, and a month or three of free rent, to gym memberships and $1,500 Amazon gift cards. The reason for this sudden outburst of landlord generosity: hundreds of recently completed apartments sit vacant. And the competition for tenants spills over to the existing housing stock: even owners of older buildings have to offer concessions. This is how expanded supply blunts rental inflation and then drives down rents.

In the news

Cleveland Scene summarized the findings of our new CityReport America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods in an article entitled: “Cleveland boasts the least economically and racially diverse neighborhoods among major metropolitan areas, a new study says.”

Are ride-hailing services adding to congestion in the Portland? The Portland Tribune quotes City Observatory’s Joe Cortright in it’s article: “More ride services, more congestion?


The Week Observed, June 22, 2018

What City Observatory did this week

1. City Report: America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods.  Our new City Report digs deep into the patterns of racial/ethnic and income segregation in US metro areas. We’ve used an array of census data to identify the places with the highest levels of integration along two dimensions (race/ethnicity and income). The report shows which metro areas have the most diverse neighborhoods, where those neighborhoods are located, and which metro areas have the greatest degree of mixing, given their demographic composition. We’ve also got detailed maps that let you drill down to the neighborhood level to see which neighborhoods meet our criteria (and which don’t).

2. Profiles of diverse, mixed income neighborhoods. As a follow on to our deeply statistical report identifying and counting diverse, mixed income neighborhoods, we’ve assembled a series of profiles of typical highly diverse neighborhoods in different metropolitan areas. They’re all different–each diverse in its own way–and they illustrate what lived diversity looks like on the ground. You’ll want to have a look at our profiles of Hillcrest, Queens, St. Mary’s Park in San Francisco, and Corktown in Detroit, among others.

Must read

1. Why don’t roads pay rent? We’ve long posited that the simplest summary of US urban economics is that “housing is too expensive and driving is too cheap.” David Levinson, who blogs at The Transportist offers a provocative look at the implicit rental cost of urban streets and roads. Whether parked or moving, cars occupy a huge amount of urban real estate, but don’t pay rent for the privilege. Levinson works out how much urban space they use, particularly when on the move: he calculates, for example, the volume of space a car occupies as it moves, including both its space and leading and following distances:

[On a freeway] Each moment  a car is in use, it is using 200 m², on which it should pay rent. So for an hour a day, this is 720,000 m² s or 72 ha s.  (The meter-squared by second (or hectare second) is a new unit of measurement (a time-volume) that needs a catchier name).

The fact that we don’t charge rent to cars for the space they occupy is a tremendous public subsidy to car ownership and driving. Because we devote this space to cars (and give it away for free) that means the land (and value associated with it) aren’t available for other uses. We need to pay much more attention to this opportunity cost associated with our road system. If we charged road users rent for the space they occupied, they’d undoubtedly shift travel patterns in ways that would make cities both more efficient and more equitable.

2. New York’s latest transportation report card. Congestion is increasing in the Big Apple, with the result that street speeds are dropping.  Streetsblog has a great summary of key findings from the latest NYC Mobility Report. One that caught our eye: street speeds in Manhattan south of 60th Avenue (measured by taxi GPS data) have fallen more than 20 percent, from 9.1 miles per hour in 2010 to 7.1 miles per hour last year.

Slower traffic means longer travel times for all street users, but particularly penalizes bus traffic; not surprisingly bus ridership continues to decline. Congestion has been amplified by the growth of ride-hailed traffic, which has grown more than 60 percent in the last year. As Streetsblog argues, the data make a strong argument for immediately adopting congestion pricing, and moving forward with plans to improve transit.

3. Is sprawl making walkable places less affordable? Writing at CNU’s blog Public Square, Robert Steuteville argues that our decision to shift from the traditional gridded pattern of urban development to the hierarchical and winding street patterns that characterize most suburban development has, in effect, made it impossible to grow more dense.  Gridded streets more easily accomodate density from the get-go, and also make it easier to redevelop over time. Sprawling suburban development patterns are inherently wired for automobile trips and relatively high speeds; a gridded neighborhood can more effortlessly shift to becoming a pedestrian-oriented environment. The difficulty of re-working the suburban pattern means that more of the growing demand for walkable spaces is shifted to city centers, driving up rents.

New Ideas

Does congestion harm economic growth? It’s a widely touted mantra among highway advocates: if we don’t build more roads, congestion will cause our economy to grind to a halt. While its widely asserted, there’s precious little evidence. The opposite case can be made: congestion is the sign of a healthy economy. A recent paper published in the journal Transportation, “Revisiting the relationship between traffic congestion and the economy: A longitudinal examination of U.S. metropolitan areas,” comes down squarely on the side saying that congestion doesn’t harm economic growth. Authored by Wesley Marshall and Eric Dumbaugh look at data on congestion, productivity and job growth for 89 US metro areas. They conclude:

 . . . the results suggest a positive association between traffic congestion and per capita GDP as well as between traffic congestion and job growth at the MSA level. There was a statistically insignificant effect on per capita income.

A positive association means that productivity (GDP per capita) and job growth both were higher in metro areas with higher levels of congestion. That’s the reverse of what one would expect from what we’re told by highway boosters, and implies that congestion not only does no economic harm, but actually is indicative of stronger growth.

In the news

Our analysis of the comparative population growth rates of the nation’s cities and suburbs (and what these numbers mean) was highlighted by Real Clear Markets.



The Week Observed, June 1, 2018

What City Observatory did this week

Caveat Rentor: the problem with flawed rental inflation statistics. We highlight the continuing problem of erratic and unreliable rental price indices. A recent column by a financial journalist reports an apparent bubble in one-bedroom apartment prices based on an index generated by Zumper. Not only are these data implausible, they’re not at all borne out by other data by more credible rental housing sources (which show little fluctuation over the same time period). As we’ve pointed out before, services that simply calculate median values based on their on proprietary listings are subject to composition effects than greatly bias their results. So when looking at rental markets, be sure that your service has a sensible methodology that produces consistent and plausible results.

Must read

1. Devin Bunten explains how we got in this housing mess. Devin is an economist with the Federal Reserve who will soon join the Harvard urban economics faculty. She’s got a longish think piece in Frank News exploring the roots of our housing problems and their connections to policy and inequality. She weaves together a number of familiar themes–a big investment in highways and housing following World War II, imprinted with some strongly segregationist features, and also unearths some little known facts (as it accelerated funding for single family homes, Congress killed the largest federal program to help underwrite apartment construction). Together, these policies fueled white flight, and the disparate trajectories of inner cities and suburbs led directly to wide wealth disparities between blacks and whites. Now much of this divide is perpetuated by zoning. It’s a reminder, though, of the subtle power of national policy to reshape the urban landscape. (Hat tip to Alex Baca).

2. Another billion dollar lesson in induced demand. The Texas Department of Transportation has just wrapped up a $1.6 billion dollar project widening I-35W through Fort Worth, and still its backed up for a mile most days and sometimes as much as four miles, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Not to worry, motorists, yet another project in a few years will add capacity, and alleviate this particular bottleneck.  But as we all know by now, the addition on un-priced highway capacity in urban environments simply generates more traffic, and congestion soon returns to previous levels.

New Ideas

The downside of peer effects. Those who follow City Observatory regularly will know we’re keenly interested in neighborhood effects–how the characteristics of your neighbors influence your life and prospects. In general, we look at the positive aspects of peers–having a strong set of peers helps provide friends, role models, and networks to advance onseself during life. But there are also negative peer effects. A new research paper from Scott E. Carrell (University of California, Davis); Mark Hoekstra (Texas A&M University); Elira Kuka (Southern Methodist University) explores the spillover effects of attending school with children exposed to domestic violence. They find that exposure to a disruptive peer during elementary school reduces earnings at in ones mid-twenties by an average of 3 percent. The overall effects may be substantial; the authors estimate that exposure to children linked to domestic violence explains as much as five percent of the rich-poor earnings gap.

In the news

A video Joe Cortright’s interview on Portland’s housing market is available at Multi-Family Market Watch.

In its monthly newsletter Housing Reads, DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies highlighted our City Observatory commentary pointing out that we have federal preemption of local land use regulations that interfere with our access to television, but not for affordable housing.



The Week Observed, June 8, 2018

What City Observatory did this week

1. Growth in the center. A new report from New York City’s Office of Planning graphically demonstrates the growing centralization of people and economic activity in the nation’s largest metropolitan area. We highlight two sets of dot density maps that show the overall change in population in the New York region, and the shifting location patterns of prime age (25 to 54 year old) adults. The city’s much heralded population growth has powered the overall expansion of the region since 2010; more than 60 percent of population growth has occurred in the five boroughs of New York City, while some suburbs have recorded population declines. The pattern is even more striking for prime-age adults. They’ve increased dramatically in central locations in the city, especially in neighborhoods with strong rail transit. Meanwhile, there’s been widespread decline of prime age workers in the suburbs. What’s happening in New York is indicative of the shift to a city-centered knowledge based economy, and the growing demand for urban amenities, which, as we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, is producing a shortage of cities.

2. The persistence of racial segregation. Rentonomics economist Chris Salviati has an illuminating new report calculating the segregation rates of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Using the latest 2012-2016 American Community Survey data, he computes the dissimilarity index for metro areas. You can see where your metro area ranks compared to others. In addition, this analysis shows a strong correlation between persistent racial segregation and slow or stagnant metropolitan population growth.  Slow-growing, older industrial cities consistently have higher segregation rates than faster growing metros. This finding ties in with recent social science research that shows that African-Americans moving to a different metropolitan area, are much more likely to move to integrated neighborhoods than those who make within-metro area moves.

Must read

1. Driverless buses:  Not so fast? Despite all the hype about autonomous vehicles, and the well-publicized driverless passenger car testing ongoing around the country, Alon Levy, writing at The American Prospect is skeptical that we’ll see driverless transit buses anytime soon.  Levy correctly points out that driverless bus demonstrations are very much in their infancy, restricted to low speed trials in carefully controlled situations. Most of his critique is equally, if not more applicable to autonomous private vehicles, with concerns about their safety and their ability to reliably recognize pedestrians and cyclists and cope with changing road conditions. Still, it’s worth noting that autonomous transit vehicles would basically need “Level 4” automation (the ability to drive autonomously on pre-determined fixed routes) rather than “Level 5” (the ability to drive pretty much anywhere, anytime). Given the high cost of transit vehicle operators, there are strong incentives to figure out how to automate transit vehicles.

2. The limits of LEED buildings. CityLab has a retrospective on the nearly 25-year history of the LEED building standards promoted by the US Green Building Council. They were founded out of a grass roots movement by environmentally concerned architects, and have grown since then to be a widely known and promoted standard for new construction. Despite LEED’s popularity, there are still strong reasons to question its efficacy.  Critics have pointed out flaws the USGBC’s claims that these buildings save energy, and even the Council admits its done a poor job collecting reliable data to illustrate savings. Just as important, as we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, LEED standards mostly turn a blind-eye to locational issues and the transportation costs embedded in a building’s –which is why we can have, with little sense of irony, a LEED-certified parking garage (at a renewable energy research laboratory, no less).  While LEED has no doubt prompted innovation and promoted awareness of building energy use, it falls well short of being policy that’s fully aligned with saving energy and reducing carbon emissions.

3. Unbundling parking prices. Parking is expensive. It only seems to be free because the cost of parking gets bundled with other prices we pay. This is doubly discriminatory:  First, it means that those who don’t use parking (like shoppers who walk, cycle or take transit to a store that maintains an expensive parking lot) end up subsidizing those who drive. Second, it creates more incentives to drive, and disincentives to use cleaner, greener modes of transportation. Little surprise then, than one of the best ways to fix this problem is to un-bundle parking prices. Mobility Lab highlights a new report from Arlington Virginia on the impacts of doing just that. Separating parking charges from apartment rents allows those who don’t own cars to get more affordable housing.

New Ideas

Where murders are solved, and where they’re not. The Washington Post has a terrific piece of data journalism examining the geographic patterns of homicides, with a focus on where police solve crimes and where they don’t.  Nationally, only about half of all homicides are solved, but the geographic pattern of unsolved murders is hardly random. Unsolved crimes tend to be disproportionately clustered in certain neighborhoods, and the Post’s analysis shows that those neighborhoods are disproportionately poor and either African-American or Latino. A key factor in solving crimes is whether there are strong relationships between the community and the police, and in many of these neighborhoods, there aren’t. This effect is amplified where gangs are prevalent, as the threat of retaliation for cooperating with the police makes in less likely witnesses will come forward. The post piece has on-line maps of solved and unsolved crimes in 50 large cities around the country, and also has a downloadable database of more than 50,000 homicides.

In the news

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal recounted our analysis of the perils and pitfalls of city-supported aquariums:  “When it comes to aquarium success, Memphis will need more than public money.”

Archinect–the online magazine of architecture news–drew its reader’s attention to the same subject in “The risky business of city aquariums.”

How smart are “smart” cities, really?

Being a smart city should mean something different than a technology fetish

The growing appreciation of the importance of cities, especially by leaders in business and science, is much appreciated and long overdue. Many have embraced the “smart city” banner. But what does that mean?

People tend to see cities through the lens of their own profession. CEOs of IT firms say that cities are “a system of systems” and visualize the city as a flow of information to be optimized. Physicists have modeled cities and observed relationships between city scale and activity, treating city residents as atoms and describing cities as conforming to natural “laws.”

In part, these metaphors reflect reality. Information flows and physical systems are an important part of what makes cities work. But cities are also something more—and their residents need to be viewed as something other than mindless atoms to be optimized.

The prescriptions that flow from partial and incomplete metaphors for understanding cities can lead us in the wrong direction if we’re not careful. The painful lessons of seven decades of highway building in U.S. cities is a case in point. Led by people like New York’s master builder, Robert Moses, we took an engineering view of cities, one in which we needed to optimize our transportation infrastructure to facilitate the flow of automobiles. The massive investments in freeways (and the rewriting of laws and culture on the use of the right of way) made cities safer for long-distance, high-speed—but at the same time produced massive sprawl, decentralization, and longer journeys, and eviscerated many previously robust city neighborhoods.

Robert Moses, great optimizer. Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Flickr
Robert Moses, the great optimizer. Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Flickr


If we’re really to understand and appreciate cities, especially smart cities, our focus has to be elsewhere: it has to be on people. Cities are about people, and particularly about bringing people together. We are a social species, and cities serve to create the physical venues for interaction that generate innovation, art, culture, and economic activity.

So what does it mean for a city to be smart?

Fundamentally, smart cities have highly skilled, well-educated residents. We know that this matters decisively for city success. We can explain fully 60 percent of the variation in economic performance across large U.S. metropolitan areas by knowing what fraction of the adult population has attained a four-year college degree. There’s strong evidence that the positive effects of greater education are social—it spills over to all residents, regardless of their individual education.

Educational attainment is a powerful proxy measure of city economic success because having a smart population and workforce is essential to generating the new ideas that cause people and businesses to prosper.

So building a smart city isn’t really about using technology to optimize the efficiency of the city’s physical sub-systems. There’s no evidence that the relative efficiency of water delivery, power supply, or transportation across cities has anywhere near as strong an effect on their success over time as does education.

It is in this process of creating new ideas that cities excel. They are R&D facilities and incubators, and not just of new businesses, but of art, music, culture, fashion trends, and all manner of social activity. In the process Jane Jacobs so compelling described, by juxtaposing diverse people in close proximity, cities produce the serendipitous interactions that generate what she called new work.

Downtown Miami. Credit: Phillip Pessar, Flickr
Downtown Miami. Credit: Phillip Pessar, Flickr


We don’t have an exacting recipe for how this happens. But we do know some of the elements that are essential. They include density, diversity, design, discovery and democracy.

Density. The concentration of people in a particular place. Cities, as Ed Glaeser puts it, are the absence of space between people. The less space, the more people, and the greater the opportunities for interaction. Cities are not formless blobs; what happens in the center—the nucleus—matters, because it is the place that provides key elements of identity and structure and connection for the remainder of the metropolitan area it anchors.

Diversity. We have abundant evidence that a more diverse population—by age, race, national origin, political outlook,and other qualities—helps provide a fertile ground for combining and recombining ideas in novel ways.

Design. We are becoming increasingly aware that how we populate and arrange the physical character of cities matters greatly. The arrangement of buildings, public plazas, streetscapes, and neighborhoods matters profoundly for whether people embrace urban spaces or abandon them. We have a growing appreciation for places that provide interesting variety and are oriented to walking and “hanging out.”

Discovery. Cities are not machines; citizens are not atoms. The city is an evolving organism, that is at once host to, and is constantly being reinvented by, its citizen inhabitants. A part of the attraction of cities is their ability to inspire, incubate, and adapt to change. Cities that work well stimulate the creativity of their inhabitants, and also present them all with new opportunities to learn, discover, and improve.

Democracy. The “mayor as CEO” is a tantalizing analogy for both mayors and CEOs: CEOs are used to wielding unitary, executive authority over their organizations, and many mayors wish they could do the same. But cities are ultimately very decentralized, small “d” democratic entities. Decision-making is highly devolved, and the opportunities for top-down implementation are typically limited. Citizens have voice (through voting) and the opportunity to “exit” by moving, appropriately limiting unilateral edicts from City Hall. Cities also give rise to new ideas, and when they work well, city political systems are permeable to the changing needs and values of their citizens—this is when many important changes bubble up.

All of these attributes of cities are susceptible, at least in part, to analysis as “information flows” or “systems of systems.” They may be augmented and improved by better or more widespread information technology. But it would be a mistake to assume that any of them are capable of being fully captured in these terms, no matter how tempting or familiar the analogy.

Ultimately, when we talk about smart cities, we should keep firmly in mind that they are fundamentally about people; they are about smart people, and creating the opportunity for people to interact. If we continuously validate our plans against this key observation, we can do much to make cities smarter, and help them address important national and global challenges.

America’s Most Diverse Mixed Income Neighborhoods

In a nation increasingly divided by race and economic status, where our life prospects are increasingly de ned by the wealth of our zip codes, some American neighborhoods are bucking the trend.

These neighborhoods—which we call America’s most diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods—have high levels of racial, ethnic and income diversity. This report identifies, maps and counts the nation’s most diverse mixed-income neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods, residents are much more likely than the average American to have neighbors from different racial/ethnic groups than themselves, and neighbors with different levels of income. We find that:

  • Nearly 7 million Americans live in neighborhoods with both high levels of racial/ethnic and economic diversity.
  • Roughly half of these neighborhoods are found in three of the nation’s largest, most diverse metropolitan areas: New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
  • Most large metropolitan areas have several neighborhoods that are among the nation’s most diverse and mixed income. Forty-four of the nation’s 52 largest metro areas have at least one diverse, mixed-income neighborhood.
  • The racial and ethnic diversity of a metropolitan area sets the context for having diverse, mixed income neighborhoods. Whether metropolitan diversity is reflected in the lived experience in the typical neighborhood depends on how segregated a metropolitan area is by race, ethnicity and class.
  • Some metropolitan areas come much closer to realizing their potential for neighborhood racial/ethnic diversity, given their metropolitan demographic composition.

We identified the nation’s most diverse, mixed income neighborhoods using Census data on the race, ethnicity and household income of neighborhood residents. For each of more than 31,000 urban neighborhoods, we computed a Racial and Ethnic Diversity Index (REDI), which corresponds to the probability that any two randomly selected individuals in a neighborhood would be from different racial/ethnic categories. (Using Census data, we tabulated the number of white, black, Asian, Latino and all other persons in each neighborhood). We used a similar approach to compute an Income Diversity Index (IDI) which measures the variety of household incomes. Neighborhoods that ranked in the top 20 percent of all urban neighborhoods nationally on both of these measures were classified as diverse mixed income neighborhoods.

Which cities have the highest levels of diversity and mixed income?

Nearly all of the nation’s largest cities have at least one neighborhood that meets our definition as being both racially and ethnically diverse and mixed income. Three large cities–New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco account for nearly half such neighborhoods, but some smaller cities also rank high in the fraction of their population living in these diverse, mixed income neighborhoods.

Which cities are performing up to their potential?

Whether a city has many diverse, mixed income neighborhoods depends directly on the demographics of the metropolitan area in which it is located. There is still a wide range of racial and ethnic diversity among metropolitan areas. The following chart shows the relationship between a metropolitan area’s overall racial and ethnic diversity (shown on the horizontal axis) and the percentage of that region’s population that lives in diverse, mixed income neighborhoods. More diverse metros generally have a larger share of their population living in diverse, mixed income neighborhoods. The regression line shows the typical relationship between metro diversity and the share of population living in diverse, mixed income neighborhoods. Cities above that line are performing better, on average, than one would expect based on their diversity; cities below that line are performing less well.

Some cities do a better job of realizing their diversity at a neighborhood level, than others. For each large metropolitan area we’ve computed the racial and ethnic diversity of the median neighborhood–reflecting lived experience of the typical resident. We’ve then compared that with the racial and ethnic diversity of the metropolitan area to see how closely the experience of the typical neighborhood resident comes to matching the diversity of the metropolitan area in which they live. Cities at the top of the list have neighborhood diversity that closely resembles metro diversity; those at the bottom are much more segregated, and don’t experience at the neighborhood level much of the diversity of their region.

Where are the most diverse, mixed income neighborhoods?

We’ve mapped the locations of the most racially and ethnically diverse and most mixed income neighborhoods in each of the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas. The map for San Francisco–one of the higher ranking metro areas–shows strong concentrations of diverse, mixed income neighborhoods in the City of San Francisco and the East Bay.

Detailed maps of the location of diverse, mixed income neighborhoods for each of the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas are available here. These on-line maps enable you to see the patterns of diversity in each metro area, and drill-down to the census tract level to inspect data for individual neighborhoods.

Why integration matters

A growing body of social science research confirms the importance of diversity to economic success. Greater socioeconomic mixing is facilitated in neighborhoods that re ect America’s racial and ethnic diversity, and which offer housing that is affordable to people with a range of incomes. In a series of studies led by Stanford’s Raj Chetty and his colleagues at the Equality of Opportunity Project, racial and economic segregation have been shown to reduce intergenerational economic mobility (the probability that children of low income families will, as adults, earn higher incomes than their parents). A recent post at City Observatory presents a synopsis of the literature on this subject, with citations to key works.

For a long time, we’ve known that neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are toxic to the life prospects of children who grow up there. Rothwell and Massey have shown that your neighbors’ educational attainment is nearly half as large as your parents’ educational attainment in shaping your life prospects. Living in a neighborhood with greater diversity and a mix of incomes generally means that families enjoy better-resourced public services and civic assets (including schools, parks and libraries) and develop stronger, more diverse social networks. Diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods are a platform for helping kids from lower-income families to escape poverty and realize the American dream.

Want to know more?

We’ve laid out our data, methodology and more detailed findings on our analyses of racial and ethnic diversity, and of income diversity in our technical report “Identifying America’s Most Diverse Inclusive Neighborhoods.”

Why integration matters

Socioeconomic mixing, in neighborhoods that are diverse in race, ethnicity and income, benefits everyone

To some extent, we take for granted that integration and equal opportunity should be valued for their own sake. But its worth noting that achieving greater integration along both racial/ethnic and income dimensions is important to achieving more widespread prosperity and combatting poverty.

A growing body of sociological and economic research have demonstrated the high costs associated with racial and income segregation. While a comprehensive review of this literature is beyond the scope of this paper, we highlight here some of the key research findings that bear on the economic consequences of neighborhood diversity. Neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage are not simply places where many households suffer from their own individual problems. The segregation of poverty (or a marginalized racial group) creates its own additional, collective burden on residents of these communities.

Galster and Sharkey undertake an extensive literature review of data on neighborhood effects of poverty. They find that segregation is associated with lower cognitive development and weaker academic performance, greater likelihood of teen pregnancy and risky behaviors, reduced physical and mental health, lower incomes and lower probability of employment, greater likelihood of being affected by or engaged in crime. Looking at more than 100 studies which they regard as quantitatively rigorous they conclude:

. . . the findings on the number of (methodologically rigorous) studies that have found substantial, statistically significant effects of spatial context (for at least some set of individuals) and those that have not, by outcome domain. The tally makes it clear that the preponderance of evidence in every outcome domain is that multiple aspects of spatial context exert important causal influences over a wide range of outcomes related to socioeconomic opportunity, though which aspects are most powerful depends on the outcome and the gender and ethnicity of the individuals in question.
(Galster & Sharkey, 2017)

Part of this burden is evident in day-to-day quality of life issues, such as greater exposure to crime. Studies of the “Moving to Opportunity” program, in which families were given assistance to move from low-income to middle-income neighborhoods, showed a marked improvement in self-reported well-being. Moving to a neighborhood whose poverty rate was 13 percentage points lower was associated with an increase in self-reported quality of life equivalent to an increase of $13,000 in household income (Ludwig et al., 2012). But perhaps the most serious effects of concentrated disadvantage are the ways in which it acts to reproduce inequality and quash economic opportunity and mobility—the very promise of the American dream.

High-poverty neighborhoods put their residents at a significant and immediate economic disadvantage. They typically have fewer local jobs than other neighborhoods, and often are distant from, or poorly connected to, other major job centers. These communities also often lack social networks that allow residents to find job openings (Bayer, Ross, & Topa, 2004).

For these and other reasons, people who grow up in high-poverty neighborhoods, on average, have worse economic outcomes than people who grow up in other kinds of neighborhoods, even if their family backgrounds are identical. The Equality of Opportunity Project has shown that inter-generational income mobility is significantly higher in metropolitan areas with lower levels of income segregation(Chetty, Hendren, Kline, & Saez, 2014)). The effect is so strong that, for children whose families move from high-segregation to low-segregation metropolitan areas, each additional year spent in the high-segregation region before the move is associated with less income as an adult.

Chetty and Hendren find that across metropolitan areas both income and racial ethnic segregation have a negative effect on children’s income as adults (Chetty & Hendren, 2016) (Chetty & Hendren, 2016)

“. . . our analysis strongly supports the hypothesis that growing up in a more segregated area – that is, in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty – is detrimental for disadvantaged youth. “

But they go on to say that it’s not because of their parents access to jobs, but because of the children’s exposure to a different set of peers.

“Areas with less concentrated poverty, less income inequality, better schools, a larger share of two-parent families, and lower crime rates tend to produce better outcomes for children in poor families. Boys’ outcomes vary more across areas than girls’ outcomes, and boys have especially negative outcomes in highly segregated areas. One-fifth of the black-white income gap can be explained by differences in the counties in which black and white children grow up.”

Other studies have found similar effects. For example, black children who grow up in high-poverty neighborhoods that transition to low levels of poverty have incomes that are 30 to 40 percent higher than black children with similar backgrounds who grow up in neighborhoods that remain at high levels of poverty (Sharkey, 2013) Observing the results of a natural experiment that relocated families from public housing in Chicago, Eric Chyn found that children who moved even relatively short distances to neighborhoods with somewhat lower poverty rates also experienced noticeable gains in earnings (Chyn, 2016)

Another analysis suggests that the educational level of ones neighbors has an effect on a child’s economic future nearly as large as that of the educational level of a child’s own parents. The effect of neighborhood educational level on children’s future earnings have been estimated to be two-thirds as powerful as the influence of the children’s own parental educaton (Rothwell & Massey, 2014).

The effects that are observed at the neighborhood level appear to compound to produce the variations in economic results we observe across metropolitan areas. Quillian shows that increases in segregation at the metropolitan level are associated with lower rates of high school completion for poor and black students. (Quillian, 2014) Quillian uses data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a federal survey program that gathers longitudinal data on a representative group of Americans over several decades. Poor and black students that live in more segregated metropolitan areas are less likely to graduate from high school after controlling for other observable factors that influence individual success, such as the level of their parents’ education. Significantly, higher rates of segregation do not appear to have any statistically significant effects on the high school completion rates of whites or the non-poor. Taken together, these findings suggest that increasing racial and economic integration improves the educational outcomes for black and poor students without any negative effect on the educational outcomes of white and non-poor students.

A recent study prepared by the Urban Institute and the Metropolitan Policy Center estimated the cumulative economic and social costs associated with segregation in that metropolitan area. They found that the annual estimated cost of segregation in Chicago was more than $4 billion annually in lost income, and meant that fewer residents achieved a college education, while more were victims of crime, including homicide. (Acs, Pendall, Treskon, & Khare, 2017)

Taken together, the weight of social science evidence shows that racial/ethnic and economic segregation have profound consequences for individuals, for neighborhoods and entire cities. Much of the persistence and severity of poverty is due to the continued segregation. More integrated neighborhoods and more integrated cities enjoy better economic results, and produce better lifetime opportunities for their children. These findings point up the critical importance of the role of the nation’s racially and ethnically diverse, mixed income neighborhoods.


Acs, G., Pendall, R., Treskon, M., & Khare, A. (2017). The Cost of Segregation: National Trends and the Case of Chicago, 1990–2010. Washington, DC: Urban Institute. Retrieved from http://www. urban. org/research/publication/cost-segregation.

Bayer, P., Ross, S. L., & Topa, G. (2004). Place of Work and Place of Residence: Informal Hiring Networks and Labor Market Outcomes (Working paper No. 2004–07). University of Connecticut, Department of Economics. Retrieved from

Chetty, R., & Hendren, N. (2016). The impacts of neighborhoods on intergenerational mobility ii: County-level estimates. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

Chetty, R., Hendren, N., Kline, P., & Saez, E. (2014). Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

Chyn, E. (2016). Moved to opportunity: The long-run effect of public housing demolition on labor market outcomes of children. Unpublished Paper. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Galster, G., & Sharkey, P. (2017). Spatial Foundations of Inequality: A Conceptual Model and Empirical Overview. RSF, 3(2), 1–33.

Ludwig, J., Duncan, G. J., Gennetian, L. A., Katz, L. F., Kessler, R. C., Kling, J. R., & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2012). Neighborhood effects on the long-term well-being of low-income adults. Science, 337(6101), 1505–1510.

Quillian, L. (2014). Does Segregation Create Winners and Losers? Residential Segregation and Inequality in Educational Attainment. Social Problems, 61(3), 402–426.

Rothwell, J. T., & Massey, D. S. (2014). Geographic Effects on Intergenerational Income Mobility. Economic Geography, n/a-n/a.

Sharkey, P. (2013). Stuck in place: Urban neighborhoods and the end of progress toward racial equality. University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from


City Report: America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods

Today we’re releasing our latest CityReport: America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods.

In this report, we use Census data to identify those neighborhoods that have the highest levels of both racial/ethnic and income diversity among all urban neighborhoods in the US.

We were motivated to take on this analysis, in part, because so much attention is focused on the cleavages and segregation of American cities. There’s little question that we’ve become increasingly divided by income, and that racial and ethnic segregation still underpin the persistence of poverty and the lack of opportunity for too many Americans.  And while our country is divided in many ways, we thought it would be helpful to look at those places where our growing diversity was reflected in a neighborhood that was occupied by households of every economic strata.

That’s what this report does:  we look at the places that have the highest levels of racial/ethnic diversity, measured by the likelihood that any two randomly selected neighborhood residents would be from two different racial/ethnic groups (white, black, Latino, Asian or other).  We constructed a parallel measure of income diversity based on the representation of five different household income groups in a neighborhood.  In both cases, we identified the neighborhoods that are in the top twenty percent of all urban US neighborhoods based on each of our measures of diversity.

Our core finding is that there are more than 1,300 such neighborhoods in the US that are home to nearly 7 million Americans.  While about half of these neighborhoods are in just three large metro areas (New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles), nearly every large US metropolitan area has at least one neighborhood that is among the nation’s most diverse, mixed income neighborhoods.

One challenge we face in reporting our results is that the word diversity has become a colloquial euphemism for “people of color.” This report uses the word diversity in a more precise, mathematical context:  diverse means people of different racial and ethnic groups, not simply people of color.  A neighborhood that is 100% Asian or 100% Latino or 100% white or 100% black is not diverse.

Our interest in identifying diverse, mixed income neighborhoods is heightened by the growing body of social science research that shows the widespread negative effects of segregation for cities, for neighborhoods, for families and especially for children. The American Dream, that any child can grow up to achieve success, has been effectively denied to many of those who grow up in neighborhoods that are segregated, where children are cut off from resources and networks that lead to opportunity.

In a sense, these diverse mixed income neighborhoods may provide examples and insights about how we can fashion our cities to be more inclusive.

At least some of the neighborhoods we’ve identified as the most diverse, mixed income are those that are also frequently described as gentrifying. Gentrification is a hot topic in all three of the metro areas we count has having the most diverse, mixed income neighborhoods (New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco). Places like Bedford-Stuyvestant, San Francisco’s Mission District, and downtown Los Angeles all show up as being among the most racially and ethnically diverse, and mixed income of any metropolitan neighborhoods.

The big question, going forward, is whether rapidly changing gentrifying neighborhoods can maintain thise income and ethnic diversity, or whether they will inexorably transition to being all upper income and predominantly white. The available evidence suggests that there’s little likelihood of that happening. Of the neighborhoods that transitioned to multi-ethnic status between 1970 and 1990, fully 90 percent were still multi-ethnic in 2010.  In addition, what happens in these gentrifying neighborhoods is subject to public policy. Cities that use the increase in property values and attendant tax revenues from revitalization to help support affordable housing construction can help assure that gentrifying neighborhoods remain accessible to a wide range of income groups. In addition, how we invest in public space can create opportunities to build bridging social capital between new arrivals and long time residents.

For the full report, including metro level data and maps, visit our CityReport page here.