Covid-19: Surging in Sunbelt cities

The pandemic is exploding in Sunbelt Cities, from the Carolinas to California

Covid-19 is subdued in the North and surging in the South

Hotter southern temperatures and a move indoors, coupled with looser reopening regulations, may explain the Southern surge

In June, there’s been a dramatic change in the geography of the Covid-19 pandemic. For a long time, as we’ve noted at City Observatory, the Covid-19 pandemic has been centered in the Northeast Corridor.  New York City is the nation’s hardest hit metro area, and metros from Washington to Boston have had the highest rates of prevalence of Covid-19 cases per capita.

But as the pandemic has surged in the past month, its been in an entirely different geography.  There’s an unmistakeable regional pattern: Covid-19 cases are exploding in metro areas in the most southerly parts of the United States from coast-to-coast.  Meanwhile the pandemic’s growth is either slowing or subdued in the nation’s northerly metro areas.

A map showing the the number of new cases per day, per 100,000 population for the nation’s 53 largest metropolitan areas clearly illustrates this North/South divide.  Here’s the data for the week ending June 28.

Metros colored red have the highest rates of new Covid-19 cases per capita in the past week; those colored green have the lowest rates.  There’s an unmistakeable regional pattern.  Every metro but one (Oklahoma City) below the 36th parallel (roughly the southern boundaries of Virginia, Kentucky, Kansas, Colorado and Utah), has a rate higher than the median for large metro areas; every metro but one above that line (Salt Lake City) has a rate of new cases per capita that is higher than the national median.

This is a dramatic reversal of the pattern of the pandemic from just six weeks ago.  In Mid-May, virtually every large Southern metro had a prevalence of the disease that was below the median for all metro areas. Only New Orleans was a true hotspot, and only Miami had a slightly higher than average rate of cases per capita.  Other southern metros (Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Phoenix, Tucson) had among the lowest prevalence of Covid-19 per cases of any metros in the nation.

Could hot weather and air conditioning be making this worse?

There are many possible theories for the recent surge in Covid-19 in some states.  Many states in the South, notably Florida and Texas,  have been among those who were earliest to loosen their Stay-at-Home orders.  That’s likely a major contributor to the surge in many of these cities.

But climatic differences may figure in the variance as well.  The available scientific data on the spread of Covid-19 suggests that prolonged exposure to infected persons in enclosed environments is the principal means of viral transmission. In the South, as the weather gets progressively hotter in May and June, its likely that, especially relative to other people in the United States, Southerners spend relatively more time indoors.

The prevalence of air conditioning in US homes is a good marker of the places where people spend a good deal of their time in the summer indoors. The geographic pattern of accelerating Covid-19 infections matches almost exactly the prevalence of air conditioning in the US.  This theory also matches with a couple of other observations:  that the disease has accelerated sharply in Phoenix and Tucson (two places with below average rates of incidence in April), and in California, the disease has spread more rapidly in Southern California than in Northern California.



The point here isn’t that air conditioning causes the spread of the virus, but rather that hot temperatures lead people to spend more time in enclosed spaces when they socialize with others.

Metro Areas ranked by growth in Covid-19 cases per capita

Here we’ve ranked the 53 largest US metro areas according to their increase in cases per 100,000 population in the week ending June 28.  Data are from The New York Times.


City Beat: When workers can live anywhere

Another anecdote-fueled tale predicting of urban decline

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Rachel Feintzeig and Ben Eisen add another story, this one headlined “When workers can live anywhere” to the growing pile of claims that fear of Covid-19 and the possibility for remote work are likely to lead to the demise of cities.

“Still, coronavirus-spurred moving could accelerate a shift already under way from dense, expensive cities to more affordable areas, including small cities and suburbs.”

The story begins with the usual anecdote of a professional couple that’s now moving away from New York City. Caught in the lockdown in California in March, these New Yorkers—a tech professional and a restauranteur—decided not to go back, and instead will relocate to Sonoma (median home price $807,000).

As we’ve reported at City Observatory, despite such anecdotes, the data clearly show well-educated adults moving to close-in urban neighborhoods at an even faster rate than in the previous decade.  Every large metro in the US recorded an increase in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a four-year degree living in its densest, most central neighborhoods since 2010, and the rate of growth has accelerated in four-fifths of these metro areas during that time.  Moreover, the latest data on search activity on real estate websites like Zillow and shows no decrease—and in fact, an increase—in the searches in cities compared to their suburbs.

You can always dredge up an anecdote or two to show someone moving from a large city to a smaller one. But the narrow slice of folks who decamp from New York City to say, Sonoma—in the heart of California’s tony wine country and proximate to San Francisco—is not any kind of indicator of an exodus from cities to rural areas, especially an exodus supposedly driven a thirst for cheap real estate.

The Journal article is better than most in acknowledging that there are actual limits to the feasibility of remote working for most workers.  They relate the example of one tech company:

Already some companies are rethinking their work-from-home experiments. Executives at Twilio Inc., a San Francisco-based tech company, in early May were leaning toward giving employees a one-time offer to move where they wanted and work remotely permanently, according to chief people officer Christy Lake. By the end of the month, the company had scaled back its approach, instead telling employees they could work from another city or state domestically through the end of the year, if they got approval from a manager.

So the much ballyhooed “anyone can work anywhere” policy lasted for a couple of weeks. And apparently has touched only a few employees. The Journal story goes on to disclose that just 15 of the firm’s 3,000 employees have actually relocated to remote locations.  And even these new  “remote” locations are . . . other big cites.  Their single anecdote about software engineer Ly Nguyen says she’s moving to Seattle (yet another large metro area, with a burgeoning tech sector and high rents). Even the anecdotes don’t support the headline.

People choose cities to be close to other people and amenities, not just jobs

Why do these stories get it so wrong? The implicit assumption is that people really don’t want to live in cities, except possibly as a way to earn money: The notion is that, freed from the “need” to live close to the office, people will decamp to suburban and rural areas, which they somehow prefer.  What that misses is that cities offer huge opportunities for art, culture, socialization, friendships and consumption.  People live in cities to be close to jobs, but also for a range of other reasons.

What a lot of this reporting misses is that the reason that most people choose to live in a particular city is not nearly so dominated by job availability as in the past.  We’ve surveyed well-educated young adults about their location preference, and by more than a two-to-one margin, they told us that they would choose the place they wanted to live, and look for a job there, rather than choose a place with the greatest number of job opportunities.

But even the narrative about jobs and remote work is wrong: Just because you might be able to do your current job by working remotely, what does this say about how where you live affects your ability to build a personal and professional network that helps you find your next job, a better job, or perhaps your dream job?  We know that a chief advantage of cities is that they offer thick labor markets and that a strong web of social and personal connections plays a key role in people finding better jobs, and developing their skills.

The other thing these sweeping claims about remote work miss is the competitive nature of career opportunities in many professional jobs.  Sure, you can work remotely; but as anyone who’s ever worked in an office knows, being there matters.  Being in the office means you are much more likely to be in-the-know, be perceived to be available and interested, and simply be harder to overlook. A remote worker may be cut off from the information and opportunities that enable them to proceed further; and when a boss is looking for someone to promote—or someone to lay-off— the remote worker is almost certainly at a disadvantage, compared to someone who’s always or regularly present in person. And if everyone has to work remotely for a short time—say, at the height of a pandemic—there’s no competitive disadvantage to working remotely; but once the office opens up again, it will be better for your career prospects if you’re in the office.

There will always be examples of mid- to late-career professionals, who, having honed their craft, built their reputations and established a strong network, will decamp from an expensive urban location to a bucolic country retreat. (Bend, Oregon is full of Californians who’ve turned their annual vacation destination into a permanent home).  But here’s the point:  the only way you get to have the skills, reputation and networks is to forge them by being in the thick of things in the city.  Especially for young adults, for people starting out, looking to learn a career, to find out what they’re good at and passionate about, and to find others who share their interests, there’s no place to be like a city. Which is exactly why our new report, Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance, shows that well-educated young adults are settling in the close-in neighborhoods of America’s largest metro areas in increasing numbers.

Cities have dealt with these challenges—and overblown prognostications of their demise—many times before. As the Journal writers concede (well down in the body of their story):

But Manhattan always seems to rise again, and urban centers like New York and San Francisco have continued to be gathering places for young talent to congregate and companies to find it.

In our view, that’s the real story, and its an understatement:  We see robust data underpinning an established and accelerating generational trend toward urban living. There’s one other trend we’re confident of as well:  the media will never tire of publishing anecdote-fueled anti-urban prognostications like this one.



COVID Lessons for Portland (and others)

COVID Lessons for Portland (and others)

by Ethan Seltzer (. . . with profound thanks to anonymous reviewers)

Editor’s Note:  We’re pleased to publish this essay by City Observatory friend Ethan Seltzer, reflecting on our experience with the Covid-19 pandemic, with widespread civic unrest over police violence and racism, and what the experience of the past few weeks and months means for the future of Portland. While his thoughts are directed at Portlanders, we think his essay raises questions that merit discussion in other cities as well.  This is an evolving document, and Ethan would like readers to know that it is draft number four, and that it will be revised.

This is a provocation, not a finished product. Just as our current experience with COVID-19 seems to take on new dimensions and complexity by the day, so, too, what we’re learning about our City and region during this unusual time. The murder of George Floyd, and the events associated with the remarkable outpouring of grief, anger, and desire for change have created new expectations that “business as usual”, a return to the world as it was “before” is simply not tenable.

What we’ve experienced for the last three months with the COVID pandemic and the more recent civil unrest are connected. As others have noted, the COVID pandemic is not the first one we’re currently dealing with: the crisis of racism has been with us for over 400 years, and there is no vaccine for it on the horizon. Yes, we have to respond to the COVID crisis, and yes, we have to respond to the racist legacy and underpinnings of our society. Both threaten our very existence, and both challenge us to break out of long-established patterns and practices. COVID has taught us that we’re all profoundly connected, and share the same fate. Similarly, the murder of George Floyd shows us that racism, unattended, does the same thing.

If, as Lewis Mumford said, “Each generation writes its biography in the buildings it creates,” then we are called, now, to reassess the “biography” we’re writing for ourselves in the buildings and districts and cities and regions we’re leaving behind. What would our cities and regions look like, and be and feel like, if the notion that “we’re all in this together” and “we share a common future” were truly organizing our thinking and actions?

What this moment calls for is paying attention, and learning from what we’re experiencing personally and together about our assumptions about the way that things have to be. And we shouldn’t stop there: we should be translating these new lessons into actions aimed at locking in what we’ve learned before a return to a more “normal” state of affairs makes it seem less imperative to pay attention.

We see this again and again. Something happens. We respond. The page turns, and we forget. When we quickly forget, we risk entering what Jane Jacobs called a “dark age,” a time when memory is lost. We simply can’t afford to be forgetful in these times of climate change, pandemic, and rampant inequality. Quite the contrary, this is a time for radical remembering at a societal scale.

Morally and ethically, we simply can’t squander this moment, one that involves everyone in what may be the greatest opportunity for a societal “reset” that we’ll see for generations. We’re all paying dearly for this pandemic, and we’re quickly indebting our descendants. We haven’t taken the fight against racism seriously, and it has caught up with us.

What have we learned and what needs to happen? What follows are some “lessons” born from observations of how the pandemic has affected our communities. Whether these are lessons in the long run remains to be seen. However, they are things that, as of this writing, seem important and significant, and therefore worthy of further thought and action. The suggested “actions” are provided not as a limit on what could be done, but as a place to start the discussion. And as with all discussions, after a good long talk we might find ourselves building some of these up and eliminating others from further consideration.

Consider this a working list, and in no particular order:

— Lesson: Racism in this society cannot be ignored. The unequal impact of the COVID pandemic on communities of color is indisputable and stark. It is not a reminder, but a wake-up call: our society has put people at risk based on their race. We’ve known for too long that zip codes have become destiny, that black and brown children face a less shining future, and that communities of color generally face less prospects than their white counterparts. None of this is new. COVID is the latest evidence that this can’t continue. The murder of George Floyd is proof, not that the loss of his life was ever necessary, that systems have to change. Action: Prioritize investment in schools, communities of color, and human capital generally before investing in infrastructure, police, or national defense. Ensure that public policy and public investment starts with the expectation that everyone should have a stake in a shared future, and policy and investment that don’t actively transmit that promise, particularly to communities of color, should not be pursued. Every unit of government can do this now. Every community organization can act on behalf of a shared future today. We must demand that actions taken on behalf of the community are taken on behalf of the whole community.

— Lesson: We need public budgets to serve our hopes and dreams, not our fears. We’re simply spending too much on what we’re afraid of and too little on what makes livability better and communities stronger for all. For example, instead of funding an incarceration system in the name of public safety, we need to start funding a real public safety system based on the premise that public safety is a collective, social achievement, not a product to be delivered by the policy, technology, or private security systems. Instead of funding a transportation system to move goods, we need to create a transportation system that makes communities better for everyone. Instead of funding a health care system directed at illness, create a real health care system directed at preserving and enhancing community and individual health, and providing real, accessible care. Action: Redefine public budget objectives. Require that any public funding measures put before voters are done so in the context of all other public funding objectives, and with a clear explanation of why the proposed call on tax capacity, for the life of the measure, is the highest priority before the public. In all cases, any call on the public purse needs to explain what positive community serving public good it produces, not what problem it solves or avoids.

— Lesson: The status quo is a choice, not an inevitability. So much changed so fast, and in ways that no one thought would be possible. Race, class, education and who has power matter even more than we expected, and at the outset we expected that they would play a sobering role. We still don’t know how to effectively engage a broader cross-section of the community in solutions to our common challenges. We seem to have lost the capacity to surprise ourselves. Action: Invest in community organizing for ALL communities, and create a 21st Century, post-COVID vision of engagement for all of us, and for all communities. Reinvigorate civic discussions about the city that best meets the needs of the present, creates more opportunities for those with the fewest choices, and that anticipates the need for resilience in the face of circumstances we really didn’t expect. Right-size the match between the challenges we face and the problems we’re trying to solve with the geography and mission of the institutions we’ve created to respond. Commit to acting on the products of those discussions and create local employment projects modeled after the 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to move these initiatives forward.

— Lesson: The digital divide is real and stands in the way of both our goals for equity and the ability of every Portlander to rejoin the economy and civic life. Simply put, everyone needs reliable and affordable access to the electronic networks that create a foundation for learning, innovation, employment, and engagement. Action: Make broadband a public utility. Make it available to everyone. No one should have to do homework in the parking lot of a library. Lease space on the system to cable companies and others that want to sell other services like cable TV and landlines to consumers. Dramatically re-work any infrastructure construction proposals from the Federal government, the State, Metro, or others to redefine infrastructure to focus on this issue….first.

— Lesson: We don’t have enough of our rights-of-way set aside for walking and biking. Whether for business, or pleasure, or exercise, Portlanders are out walking and biking, alone and with others, in numbers that reveal how unprepared the city is for its right-of-way to be used by the public for other than the storage and movement of automobiles. Action: combine neighborhood greenways, local traffic zones, and other designations into Portland Plaza Streets, essentially a citywide Woonerf system. Make the rights-of-way we already have do more for people, less for cars. Create safe places for people to move, talk, be, and, simply, breathe. If the streets work well for children and the less-able, they’ll work well for all of us.

— Lesson: Nature is our salvation. We find that our parks and open spaces have become social destinations and provide community connections. We recharge our souls in parks, and in and with nature more generally. We notice the activities of wildlife and gaze at stars through clean air. Action: Regreen the city, with a massive focus on interconnected habitats and the roles for the pieces. (Re)focus on the ecology of this urban landscape, enabling people throughout the city, whether in parks, natural areas, or simply moving around on the streets, to have daily, remarkable green “epiphanies”, experiences of nature that remind us of the larger and magical context we’re a part of. Build on the experiences that people are having in their neighborhoods with nature, and that pepper their conversations in ways that only the weather used to. Complete the job that was started by the Olmsted’s and advanced by the tireless efforts of folks like Mike Houck and the Urban Greenspaces Institute Council. Partner with schools, public agencies and organizations such as churches to de-pave the city and establish more opportunities for nature to become part of our daily lives. Demonstrate ways to teach and further the ethics of environmental stewardship.

— Lesson: Our senses, all of them, can still be alive in the city. The taste and smell of clean air, deep sounds of silence, birds and footfalls, the smells of spring and rain, and more can be part of what it means to live in a city, and still be in a city. Action: Develop a comprehensive approach for understanding how current urban conditions affect all of our senses, and with them our mental and physical health. Take action based on that to restore the sensory experience of the region in all neighborhoods. Recognize and manage the urban soundscape for the unique, scarce and rare resource that it truly is.

— Lesson: We don’t need more lane miles of pavement, we need much better management of the lane miles and bridges we have. Everyone trying to go everywhere at the same time is unsustainable and unaffordable. The future needs to be different than the past, not a bigger version of a failed or failing model. Action: Develop and implement roadway pricing, bridge tolling, and other strategies for using the transportation facilities we already have more efficiently before we invest in more lanes. Make investment in both maintenance and new facilities a strategic choice. We need to know that we’re investing in the future we want, not the past we inherited. Use the proceeds from pricing to, at least in part, ensure that the benefits and burdens of management strategies are shared equitably.

— Lesson: We desperately need a 21st century vision for transit and mobility and the institutions needed to manage them. What should “transit” mean and look like in a post-COVID world? Is transit merely a similar form of mobility as with the use of automobiles, or is it something with much more profound characteristics and implications for our society? Action: Rescue TriMet from itself. Use the existing provisions in state law to place TriMet under the direction of the Metro Council and instruct the Metro Council to re-envision what our regional transit system should accomplish as a tool for mobility, accessibility, sustainability, and resilience. Use any new transportation funding for transit to fully convert the TriMet bus fleet to electric propulsion and install anti-pathogen air/UV-C systems on all TriMet vehicles.

— Lesson: Economic inequality is the tip of the inequality “iceberg”. The impacts of COVID on communities of color and, in particular, low income communities dramatically illustrates the massive extent to which market failure pervades and characterizes our economy. The stress placed on low-income communities has been inescapable, and the fragility of household economies in the region needs immediate attention. Livability, long a hallmark of this region, has been revealed by the pandemic to be a public, societal project, and cannot be left simply to the narrow perspectives of a market economy. Action: End all direct subsidies for investors and corporations, and reinvest all funds committed to economic development in efforts to support small entrepreneurs and to increase human and social capital in our region.

— Lesson: We need to live close to what we need, who we need, and what we do. We can no longer afford or support the creation of a region that requires traveling long distances by car to work, shop, and recreate. Action: Revisit our understanding of and commitment to “complete, walkable communities” in the post-COVID world. Redouble efforts to ensure that every neighborhood has a mix of housing types suitable and affordable for all the region’s households.

— Lesson: For some occupations and households there are real benefits for both those households and our region from working at home. Further, more folks at home means more eyes on the street, more opportunities for chance encounters and meeting neighbors, and less time spent on the road. It also means fewer people trying to get to work during rush hour, and less congestion overall. Action: get together with major employers to try to lock in as much home-based work as makes sense. What makes it work best? What can the public do to help ensure that home-based work does not exacerbate the social and economic gulf between knowledge workers and workers who keep the city running? Encourage employers to develop staggered work hours, when possible, and to lock in home-based work as part of how we do business.

— Lesson: It’s tough to shelter in place if you don’t have a place. Homelessness has become a growing condition of epic proportions in our city and the west coast as a whole. More and more people are unemployed and families and especially the senior population are either homeless or on the verge of homelessness. Action: Build more housing within the existing UGB. Make a range of housing types legal and encouraged in every neighborhood. Enhance the capacity of the public agencies and nonprofits that are addressing the basic needs of homeless persons, providing services, temporary shelters and hygiene stations.

— Lesson: Government matters. When the chips are down, we depend on the public sector to pull us through. Private enterprises are wonderful things, but exist in partnership with the public and nonprofit sectors. In this pandemic we’ve learned that the public sector is hugely important, is really the only “safety net”, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Acton: It’s time to recognize that public and private do not exist in opposition, but in fact are complementary. Both need to be efficient, but neither can be “just like” the other. The sectors are different, and we need to support the public sector as if we believed it were so. We need to immediately reassess both how we prepare to support our entire community in times like these, and how the public is necessary in times not like these. We need to find new and more stable ways to pay for what only the public sector will provide, and to ensure that public goods are available in needed quantities and accessible by all.

— Lesson: We’re not ready for the big one. All of us live with the expectation that the next big earthquake to hit our region is just around the corner. If our response to the COVID pandemic is any indication, our capacity socially, politically, and economically to respond to life-changing events is clearly lacking. Action: Begin now not to merely envision survival in the face of the big one or other disruptions, but what it will take for our communities to continue to be healthy productive places when those things happen. Act to (re)build our region with resilience as an organizing principle. Invest in preparations for the disruptions likely to come, and for those we can barely imagine.

— Lesson: COVID-19 is a compressed, accelerated sample that foreshadows the unfolding climate crisis. How can we harness the collective energy and willingness to make big changes (personally and socially) to bend the carbon curve for the benefit of future generations? How can we use the insights gained during this pandemic to intentionally tackle the slower acting but even more devastating threat of climate change? Action: At a minimum, use any new infrastructure money to invest first in those things that reduce our regional carbon footprint and dramatically increase the share of our electricity derived from solar and wind. Establish new goals for carbon reduction that seek to minimize the use of fossil fuels in our region, reserving their use for only those purposes that cannot be met any other way.

— Lesson: We miss each other. Some of the most important aspects of being human fully, together, are, as of now, no match for the pandemic. Art, music, and literature have long served to bring us together. They must similarly do so in the future. Action: We must re-embrace the role for cultural institutions and performance venues in our communities, and re-envision what they need to be to be just as resilient as the seismic reinforcement we add to our oldest buildings. We need to consider public investment in the arts and in education as basic community infrastructure, and we need to address it before we commit all of our investment capacity to old notions of infrastructure and resilience. We need to recommit to the time and space needed for active and regular neighboring in every neighborhood.

— Lesson: Credible, fact and science-based information is needed more than ever. With the demise of local newspapers, and local news gathering generally, we find ourselves trying to reconcile, on our own, multiple narratives about the state of our city and region. As the song goes, just waking “up to see what condition our condition is in” has become a challenge to our ability to respond to new conditions efficiently and with a sense of shared purpose. Action: Create new support for publicly owned community media organizations able to apply strict journalistic standards to the gathering and presentation of news. Look to models like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the BBC for ideas and inspiration.

Of course, making change is not easy. It takes political will, and political will stems from the interest and support of constituents. As someone once said, “We get the government we deserve.” Nothing has changed that. We need, among other things, a heightened sense that we’re all in this together, and that what matters will, in fact, entail shifting priorities. Perhaps our experience with the pandemic is already helping to make this clear.

Making change also requires resources. No decision, no choice is without cost. At the same time that we work to build an economy with a place for everyone, we need to build an economy capable of creating the revenues needed for the reinvestment implicated in the preceding pages. On one hand, we already have resources being allocated to similar purposes, and what this calls for is allocating them strategically towards new ends. But on the other, in all likelihood, we will still need new revenues to take the action envisioned here, and that requires, overall, a robust economy.

We often use time in the absence of money. We do half the job when all we can afford is half the investment. However, the issues laid bare by COVID-19 in our communities cannot wait. We need to invest commensurate with the challenge, and the challenge is great and immediate.

Now it’s your turn. What would you add to or subtract from this list? What needs to happen first? Who should take the lead, and for what? Are the actions proposed here all complementary, or do some conflict with others? If the latter, how can we resolve the conflicts? If the former, how can we make them not just complementary but mutually amplifying and synergistic? If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 experience, maybe it’s that we, as citizens and community members, should expect more from what urban life should offer. And with that maybe we should be expecting much more from those we’ve asked to lead us. With so much to be learned, and acted on, we desperately need leaders able to leverage what we’re all experiencing into real change. Tough work certainly but this is the moment. In any case, have fun with this . . . before the moment passes!

Other Efforts/Food for Thought:

From Crosscut:

From the Coalition of Communities of Color:

From Medium:
View story at

From Strongtowns:

From The New York Times:

From The Guardian:

From The Atlantic:

From The Seattle Times:

From City Lab:

From The LA Times:

From Medium:
View story at

From The Conversation:

From Alan Durning at the Sightline Institute:

The Plague Brought the Renaissance. What Could COVID-19 Bring?

From A.O.C. on Defunding the Police:

Youth movement: A generational shift in preference for urbanism

Well-educated young adults are increasingly moving to city centers

Real estate search activity shows no decline in interest in city living due to the pandemic

Our new report—Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance—confirms a powerful and still growing generational shift toward urban living. Increasing numbers of well-educated young adults are living in close-in urban neighborhoods in and near the downtowns of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Since 2010, the number of college-educated young adults living in dense, urban neighborhoods has increased by nearly one-third.

That trend is both pervasive and accelerating.  The number of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds living within three miles of the center of the central business district increased in every one of the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas since 2010.  And the rate of growth of this demographic in these dense, central neighborhoods was faster since 2010 than in the previous decade in four out of five metropolitan areas.

The increased number of these well-educated young adults living in these neighborhoods is the principal reason for the increase in population in these areas in the past decade.  The increase in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a four-year degree accounts for a majority of the increase in population in these neighborhoods since 2010.

Our CityReport details our methodology and findings.  In addition, you can look up data for your city’s performance on our dashboard.

Fleeing the city?  Your internet search history says otherwise

The popular press, and even some urbanist media, is awash at the moment with tales that everyone will abandon cities to avoid Covid-19. It’s easy to make the claim that the Coronavirus changes everything, as in any time of crisis people chuck data out the window and trade heavily on fear and anecdotes. An urban exodus makes a great eye-catching, click-grabbing headline, combining a pandemic prediction with a long American tradition of anti-urbanism, the “teeming tenements” view of cities as overcrowded and unhealthy.  Never mind that study after careful study has shown no connection between urban density and Coronvirus infection rates (indeed some of the densest cities—Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, Vancouver and San Francisco, have had among the lowest rates of reported cases), “fleeing the city,” is a journalistic favorite right now.

Generally these stories are based on anecdotes some individual or couple saying they’re planning to leave a big city for its suburbs, with the decision prompted by virus fears. Because people are always moving into and away from cities, individual anecdotes tell us nothing. A far better and more broadly grounded source of information comes from real estate searches. In the past decade, real estate has moved increasingly on-line, and searching for new apartments and houses leaves a data trail that tells us just where people are looking.

Data gathered at the height of the pandemic shows—contrary to the popular stories—that interest in city housing not only hasn’t waned, if anything it has accelerated.  Zillow reports that the market share of real estate searches in cities increased in 29 of 35 markets in April 2020, compared with pre-pandemic conditions. Similarly, found no decline in search activity for New York City, headlining its analysis, “The pandemic is not scaring renters away from New York.”  Zillow economist Skylar Olsen concluded:

While many have predicted “urban flight” we see no such evidence in search activity on Zillow, where the suburbs are actually experiencing a falling share of national search traffic even on homes for rent. Our past research and that of other economists on natural disasters and other traumatic events, really don’t support the idea that our preferences change that fast or that we hold onto the anxiety after the risk has passed.

A panicked prediction that the pandemic will produce urban flight makes for great headlines, but it doesn’t square with the data on what people are actually doing.  If our collective interest in city housing hasn’t diminished at all, even in the worst days of the pandemic, there’s every reason to believe that the accelerating trend of movement to cities by well-educated young adults is still very much in place.

Still:  A shortage of cities

In some cities, the rate of growth in the young adult population has slowed in the past decade. That’s led some observers to conclude—erroneously in our view—that this signals disenchantment with cities. The cities that have experienced slower growth—such as New York and San Diego—are the ones that have done the least to build new housing, and which consequently have experienced rising rents. When someone claims that a migration of people away from cities because of high rents signals a disenchantment with urban living, they’re getting the story backwards.  As Governing’s Alan Ehrenhalt (author of The Great Inversion) writes:

Cities become expensive because people do want to live there. They get even more expensive when there’s not enough good living space to meet the demand. That’s pretty much the whole story. Virtually every attempt to make it more complicated is, well, an unnecessary complication. Why the demand exists, especially among millennials, is a legitimate question. But it doesn’t change the fundamentals.

The fact that young adults are moving to cities even in the face of housing shortages and rising rents is both a signal of the underlying strength of this trend and a reminder that we need to do much more to expand housing in these high demand locations. If we want cities to be equitable and inclusive, expanding housing supply well help keep housing affordable and minimize displacement.

Optimism for the future of cities

Asking people to imagine the future of cities in the midst of a pandemic is like asking people their opinions of swimming in the ocean as they’re exiting the premiere of Jaws. In times of crisis and with overwhelmed by a traumatic event, we tend to deeply discount well understood facts and long-established trends.

It’s worth noting that cities have, throughout history, encountered and overcome challenges like the Coronavirus. The decade of the 1920s, which immediately followed the nation’s last pandemic (the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, was one of the greatest eras for American urban expansion. In the 19th century, clean water, improved sanitation and urban parks, all made cities healthier places to live.

More recently, cities have flourished in the face of trends that soothsayers said would lead to their demise. We were told in the 1990s that the advent of the Internet meant the “Death of Distance” and that everyone would decamp to cheaper bucolic locations, and that after 9/11, no one would want to live in dense cities like New York for fear of terrorist attacks.  Instead, the decades since 2000 have witnessed a burgeoning and increasingly widespread move back to the city, led by well-educated young adults.  We have every reason to believe that this trend will continue in the years ahead.

Far from being the places we run from, in times of pandemic and in soul-searching over how we treat Blacks and people of color, cities are the places where we will craft the solutions to these and other challenges. As Carol Coletta notes:

“What feels remarkable to those of us who lived through the devastating effects civil unrest had on cities in the Sixties, recent protests seem only to have solidified the feelings of community and the embrace of diversity that come so much more naturally from city living.  Clearly, many Americans want to be part of that.  It points to a desire to lean in to city living rather than turn away from it.”

Youth Movement

The movement of talented young adults to dense urban neighborhoods isn’t waning, it is widespread and accelerating, and it is powering urban revival.

Cities continue to be magnets for talented young adults The number of well-educated young adults living in close-in urban neighborhoods is increasing in every large US metropolitan area, and this trend has accelerated in recent years.

City Observatory’s new report—Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance—shows that the growth of close-in urban neighborhoods in the US since 2010 has been propelled by the accelerating movement of well-educated young adults back to the city.

Close-in urban neighborhoods are increasingly attractive to the “young and restless” 25- to 34 year-olds who’ve completed at least a four-year college degree. These well-educated young adults have accounted for more than half of the increase in population in close-in urban neighborhoods in the nation’s large metro areas since 2010.

There’s no evidence that this powerful momentum has been blunted by Coronavirus concerns. In April, the market share of search activity for urban locations increased in 29 of the 35 largest US metro areas, while search activity for suburban locations decreased in all 35 of the largest metro areas, according to data gathered by Zillow. Independently, ApartmentList.Com reported an actual increase in searches for apartments in New York City, in April, concluding: “The pandemic is not scaring renters away from New York.” Despite pronouncements to the contrary, there’s no sign people are looking away from cities.

Smart young adults concentrating in cities: Well-educated young adults are three-and-half times more likely to live in close-in urban neighborhoods, which the report defines as census tracts within 3 miles of the center of a region’s principal central business district. The trend is remarkably widespread: The number of well-educated adults living in close-in urban neighborhoods increased in every one of the nation’s 52 most populated metropolitan areas since 2010.

In addition, the rate of growth of this key demographic in city centers has accelerated to a pace faster than the previous decade in four-fifths of these large metro areas. Slower growth in recent years is due to supply constraints.

While some analysts have noted a slowdown in central city growth, there’s little evidence that the “young and restless” are disenchanted with cities. If anything, its likely that population growth in these neighborhoods is constrained not by a lack of demand, but by a lack of supply: it’s been difficult to build enough housing to accommodate all those who’d like to live in these neighborhoods, with the result that rents have gone up. Some of the most popular cities for well-educated young adults—like New York and San Diego—have experienced slower rates of growth in the young and restless compared to the 2000-2010 period, most likely reflecting limited housing supply and rising rents.

The movement of young people to cities has been the foundation of urban economic vitality. Former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn attributes his city’s robust growth to its attractiveness to young adults:

“The return to cities after the decades long destruction wrought by freeways, urban planning and redlining is testament to their enduring qualities over the centuries. Seattle didn’t add population because Amazon chose to expand here. Amazon (and many others) chose to expand here because that is how they competed for talented young people who want to live in diverse, progressive and vital places.”

Despite panicky predictions of an urban exodus, real-time real estate search data show no decline in interest in cities. Zillow’s Skylar Olsen explains:

“While many have predicted “urban flight” we see no such evidence in search activity on Zillow, where the suburbs are actually experiencing a falling share of national search traffic even on homes for rent. Our past research and that of other economists on natural disasters and other traumatic events, really don’t support the idea that our preferences change that fast or that we hold onto the anxiety after the risk has passed.”

If anything, the heightened awareness of the need for more public space, for walking, cycling and to allow social distancing, is making the case for more investment in our cities, especially as we look to the future. Carol Coletta, President of the, Memphis River Parks Partnership points out:

“What feels remarkable to those of us who lived through the devastating effects civil unrest had on cities in the Sixties, recent protests seem only to have solidified the feelings of community and the embrace of diversity that come so much more naturally from city living. Clearly, many Americans want to be part of that. It points to a desire to lean in to city living rather than turn away from it.”

Meanwhile, even the hardest hit center cities, places like Detroit and Cleveland, have recorded noticeable increases in well-educated young adults living in close-in urban neighborhoods since 2010.

Detailed data for each the 52 largest US metropolitan areas is available in an interactive dashboard:

The dashboard reports the number of well-educated young adults in close-in neighborhoods in each city in 2000, 2010 and 2016, the growth rates between those years and the relative preference of young adults for close-in neighborhoods.

Youth Movement Dashboard

See how your city’s close-in neighborhoods did in attracting well-educated young adults

Our CityReport, Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance, charts the growing concentration of well-educated young adults in the most central neighborhoods in the nation’s large metro areas. The trend is universal and accelerating. Every one of the 52 largest metro areas recorded an increase in 25 to 34 year-olds with a four-year degree living within 3 miles of the central business district, and the rate of growth accelerated in four-fifths of these metro areas compared to the previous decade.

Those are the aggregate figures for all 52 metro areas; here, we’ve created a dashboard that let’s you review the underlying data for each of these metropolitan areas.

You can select the name of any of the 52 largest metropolitan areas in the title dropdown box. The dashboard displays data on the number of 25 to 34 year-olds with a 4-year degree living within 3 miles of the center of the central business district in 2000, 2010 and 2016, the average annual percentage growth rate in this population between 2000 and 2010, and between 2010 and 2016, and the relative preference of well-educated young adults to live in these neighborhoods compared to all other metropolitan area residents. Data are from Census 2000 and the American Community Survey; details are in our full report.

Covid-19 accelerating in five cities

New Covid-19 cases are increasing in five metro areas: Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio, Tampa and Raleigh

These are the places to watch to see how well re-opening plans manage to avoid re-igniting the pandemic.

Metro areas, not states, are a better lens for monitoring Covid-19.

We’ve been tracking the spread of the Coronavirus for the past three months. The good news is that the spread of the disease has slowed sharply almost everywhere since cities started implementing stay-at-home orders in mid-March. In the past several weeks, a number of states and cities have started the process of re-opening, and naturally everyone is apprehensive about the prospects of reigniting the pandemic if we haven’t taken sufficient steps to continue social distancing, and effectively implement test, trace and isolate programs.

While the overall trend in growth of new cases is still slowing across metropolitan areas, several cities are seeing noticeable spikes in new cases. We measure new cases growth as the daily average percentage increase in the number of reported cases over the past seven days. Our data are from the New York Times database and cover the period through Monday, June 8.

Five metropolitan areas show an unmistakeable acceleration in the spread of the virus in the past several weeks. Since Memorial Day, Phoenix and Tucson have both seen their rates of growth more than double from less than a 2 percent daily increase in the number of cases to increases of 4-5 percent per day. Raleigh’s rate of increase has been trending upward since Mid-May, and has doubled to more than 4 percent now. Tampa and San Antonio have also seen an acceleration in the spread of the virus.

All of these cities bear close watching in the next few weeks. Will the rate of new cases continue to increase, or will the test-trace-isolate efforts be sufficient to check a rebound in the pandemic? Will hospital resources be over-taxed by the scale of the rebound?

The patterns of these data are a reminder that metro areas, rather than states are likely to be a better unit of analysis for detecting trends in the spread of the virus. While all of Arizona seems to be seeing a surge in cases, there are definite variations among metro areas in states like Texas, Florida and North Carolina. North Carolina’s statewide growth rate in new cases actually decelerated between late May and early June (from 3.4% daily to 3.0% daily), and the statewide increases in Florida and Texas were much more muted (0.4 percentage points increase), than in Tampa and San Antonio, respectively. (State data from 91-Divoc). Metro areas correspond more closely than states to the geographies where people live, shop, recreate and socialize, and therefore are a better lens for tracking Covid-19.

Covid-19 and segregation

Segregated cities seem to be harder hit by the pandemic

Covid-19 prevalence is more strongly correlated with metropolitan racial and economic segregation than with urban density

The New York City metro area has been the epicenter of the nation’s Covid-19 pandemic and because it is the nation’s most densely settled area, it is easy to understand why some people have automatically assumed that density is a cause or contributor of the virus’s spread. A closer inspection of the data for New York and other cities shows that there’s little connection locally between urban density and the number of cases; the problem is actually worse in suburban counties than in New York City itself; and within the city, it is poor neighborhoods with overcrowded housing, not the densest places, that have the highest prevalence of the disease.

But density is only one aspect of urban spatial form.  Another important feature is segregation, the extent to which people in different racial, ethnic and economic groups are separated from one another in the city. We’ve know for a long time that segregation is detrimental, especially to low income communities and people of color.  For example, segregated communities have lower rates of intergenerational economic mobility. And metro areas with high rates of racial segregation tend to have larger black-white wage gaps than more integrated areas.

The effect of segregation on disease spread might be ambiguous:  on the one hand, if people are effectively separated from one another, they it might be the case that disease would spread more slowly  because of diminished contact between different groups. On the other hand, more segregated communities may be more vulnerable to the disease for the same reasons that segregation is associated with other negative outcomes.

Racial segregation and Covid-19 prevalence

How do levels of racial segregation across metropolitan areas correlate with the prevalence of Covid-19 cases.  The following scatter chart shows Covid-19 cases on the vertical axis and the black-white segregation index on the horizontal axis. Black-white segregation is measured using the dissimilarity index, which runs from 0 to 1, where 0 indicates perfect integration (each census tract in a metropolitan area has the same racial composition as the metro area), and 1 indicates perfect segregation (each census tract is occupied by only a single racial group).  Most US metro areas have a black-white segregation index between xx and yy.

There’s a positive correlation: metro areas with higher levels of racial segregation tend to have higher levels of Covid-19.  Statistically, the coefficient of determination (R²) for the relationship is .34, which is statistically significant at the 1 percent level.

Income segregation and Covid-19 prevalence

We can also look at the relationship between income segregation and Covid-19.  Income segregation measures the extent to which households with different incomes live in different parts of a metropolitan area.  Here we use the information theory index, which measures the overlap between different groups in each part of a metropolitan area.  The index runs from 0 to 1, with zero indicating low segregation, and 1 indicating complete segregation.  The typical US metro area has an income segregation level of about .15 to .20 on this index.

The following chart shows the income segregation index on the horizontal axis and the prevalence rate of Covid-19 on the vertical axis.  Each marker represents the value for one of the nation’s 53 largest metro areas.

As before, there is a positive correlation between income segregation and the prevalence of Covid-19. Metro areas with higher levels of income segregation tend to have elevated levels of Covid-19 cases per capita. But the relationship is considerably weaker than for racial segregation (R² = .18)

Density and Covid-19 prevalence

Let’s now compare these estimates the the correlation between density and Covid-19 at the metropolitan level. To measure metro area density, we use the Census Bureau’s estimates of population-weighted density, which represent the density of the Census tract occupied by the median resident of a metropolitan area.  The following chart shows density and Covid-19 rates.

At first glance, their appears to be a strong relationship: the coefficient of correlation, R², is .38.  But upon closer inspection, its apparent that the strength of this relationship is driven almost entirely by the high value for the New York metro area. If one excludes New York from the computation (as done in the right hand panel of this chart), the R² falls to .07, and is only borderline significant. (Excluding New York has no material effect on the correlation between either racial or economic segregation and the prevalence of the Coronavirus).

While density has gotten considerable media attention, these data suggest that segregation, especially racial segregation, may be a more salient feature of metropolitan form contributing to vulnerability to the pandemic. If so, that would suggest that building more inclusive cities is one key to lowering our collective susceptibility to future diseases.

Data notes. Our data on Covid-19 cases are drawn from the New York Times database and are aggregated by metropolitan area.  Data are for the cumulative rate of reported cases per 100,000 population as of May 29, 2020. Black-white segregation indices are taken from the Brown University’s American Communities Project.  Income segregation estimates for metropolitan area are from Bischoff and Reardon. Density data are from the Census Bureau.


Covid-19: A catalyst for more inclusive cities

Will the Covid-19 pandemic be a catalyst for better, more inclusive cities?

The media fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has been a series of largely baseless stories predicting a panicky flight from cities to avoid the virus. As we’ve pointed out the correlation between urban density and the prevalence of disease is spurious; some of the world’s densest cities have largely avoided the pandemic.

In a historical context, its worth noting that previous health challenges have led to changes that enabled cities not just to thrive, but to become better and more robust. In the 19th Century, a better understanding of communicable diseases led to dramatically improved sanitation, and was a major impetus to the City Beautiful movement, which emphasized parks and public spaces to provide breathing room for city residents. As a result, city living, which had historically been associated with lower life expectancy, actually increased life expectancy. As Ed Glaeser explained, city living promotes more active lifestyles, which are a key to health now:

Our cities have become healthier. In 1900, a boy born in New York City could expect to live seven years less than a boy born in rural America. Today—at least until Covid-19—the life expectancy gap went the other way, and New York, because of more people walking to work, because of more social connection, because of lower levels of motor vehicle deaths, because of lower levels of suicide, life expectancy was actually longer in New York than it was outside.

The travel limitations and Stay-at-home orders that have been in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic have heightened popular awareness of the need to allocate more of the public realm to people walking and cycling.

More broadly, might we use the insights gained from the time of the pandemic to make our cities even better–as well as healthier–places to live.  The World Bank’s Sameh Wahba is optimistic that the lessons of the pandemic will lead us to stronger and healthier cities in the future.

He was interviewed last month by the bank’s Srimathi Sridhar.  Here is what Dr. Wahba told me:

 COVID-19 will not cause  the demise of cities. On the contrary, I believe cities  will emerge from this crisis better, more resilient and more equitable than before. That’s because this pandemic is showing us that cities are only as strong as their weakest link.

Unlike access to affordable housing or crime rates, which can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, a contagion like COVID-19 makes no distinction between rich or poor, young or old. We are all at risk of contracting the illness (although policies such as lockdowns affect poor and vulnerable more disproportionately). Mayors cannot afford to leave any part of their city exposed, particularly where contagion risk is known to be highest, for example, in slums and informal settlements. When city leaders act accordingly, and improve underresourced, underdeveloped neighborhoods, they do more than benefit residents of these zones. They also help build citywide resilience to pandemics present and future, and create more inclusive cities for all.

There is another way cities will change for the better. While it’s true that as a result of COVID19 some trends are likely to accelerate with more people working remotely and shopping online, cities will continue to attract such footloose population through what they have to offer in terms of livability including quality amenities and services, public spaces and cultural facilities. At the same time, cities will still need an in-person workforce to tackle crime, collect waste, care for the sick, and fulfill other essential needs. Many of these sectors employ low-to-middle-income people who will benefit from municipal programs that help them find affordable housing, access public transportation, earn a quality education, seek adequate healthcare, and more. These actions will do two things: they will better ensure that no one is left behind as cities develop inclusively and resiliently, and they will make cities more livable for all. Livable and inclusive cities have parks, open spaces, diverse populations, educational and cultural institutions, high-quality amenities, and affordable housing, only to name a few. Livability for all citizens will become even more critical as more people work remotely—and cities will deliver.

Cities represent the best of human ingenuity and well-being. That is true today, will be true tomorrow, and well after the pandemic has subsided.

He expands on these remarks in a recent interview with the World Bank’s Srimathi Sridhar, which you can view here in its entirety.

It’s easy, in the midst of a crisis, particularly one where close physical contact with other people amplifies our risks, to imagine that we will seek to be further from one another indefinitely, and that this will undermine our cities.  But time and again, cities have faced these crises and emerged stronger. Rather than treating the Covid-19 pandemic as a reason to flee cities, this should be another call to adapt and innovate, making our cities more livable, healthier, and more inclusive.

Whitewashing the freeway widening

A so-called “peer review” panel was kept in the dark about critiques of the highway department’s flawed projections

This is a thinly veiled attempt These are the products of a hand-picked, spoon-fed group, asked by ODOT to address only a narrow and largely subsidiary set of questions and told to ignore fundamental issues. 

As we’ve noted at City Observatory, the proposal to spend upwards of $800 million to widen a little over a mile and half of urban freeway in Portland Oregon is based on sketchy and misleading traffic projections, and related air pollution and greenhouse gas analyses. The I-5 Rose Quarter project has been subject to a withering barrage of technical criticism, which the state transportation department has simply ignored.

In an attempt to buttress its environmental claims, the Oregon Department of Transportation hired six out of state consultants to form a “peer review” panel (PRP).  The panel was asked a very narrow set of questions, was guided in its work by a former Director of ODOT, and predictably produced a whitewash of the project’s environmental analysis.

ODOT’s “peer review” panel, hard at work.

In theory, the PRP undertook an environmental review, looking at air pollution, greenhouse gases and noise pollution. But because all these impacts depend on the volume of traffic and whether the project increases or decreases traffic, they are all subsidiary to the accuracy of the traffic modeling. And the panel apparently did absolutely nothing to validate the accuracy of these traffic projections.

What No More Freeways and other critics have shown is that ODOT’s traffic modeling was deeply flawed, and biased in favor of dramatically understating traffic impacts, and therefore understating environmental impacts. The conclusions in the project Environmental Assessment (EA) that the project will not increase pollution are the direct output of these flawed traffic projections.  For example, the EA traffic projections compare the build project to a fictitious No-Build scenario in which the 12-lane Columbia River Crossing was built in 2015 (it wasn’t).  Because  the EA overstates level of traffic in the baseline, it understates the increase in traffic and pollution due to the construction of the project.  The PRP wasn’t aware of and didn’t address this key issue.

Overlooking the project’s failure to model induced demand

In addition, the project’s increase in freeway capacity will result in induced demand.  In passing the panel confirms the reality of induced demand, but then allows itself to be persuaded to ignore the issue by an undocumented assertion that this was somehow addressed in the traffic modeling.

One panelist suggested that reduced congestion could lead to shorter commute times, thereby encouraging people to move further from the city. An indirect effect could be induced growth. ODOT responded that the traffic analysis did look at the larger transportation network and found that these vehicle trips were redistributed across the Portland Metro area since there were similar volumes in the network, and therefore, analysts concluded that no substantive change in the volume of vehicles entering the network from outside the region would result from the Project. (PRP, Meeting Notes, p. 10-11)

The panel’s meetings were never opened to the public, nor did critics or the public have a chance to testify, or even present written materials to the peer reviewers.  It’s also apparent from reading the panel’s report that the scope of their analysis was so constrained as to prevent them from asking fundamental questions about the traffic modelling that directly drives estimates of  air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts estimates of noise pollution.

Question 2:  To what extent are the correct baseline conditions, model assumptions, input data, analysis, and conclusions reasonable and adequately documented?

Without a careful review and analysis of the comments made by No More Freeways, the peer review panel could not accurately answer this question. In its comments on the project’s Environmental Assessment, No More Freeways identified several flaws and in the project’s assumptions and data.For example, the baseline conditions (2015 traffic modeling) assumed that the Columbia River Crossing had already been built. In fact, the CRC was never built,so that “baseline condition” is incorrect. As a result, on a fundamental issue of fact, the panel failed to identify or address a deficiency.
NMF also pointed out that the baseline projections for the I-5 Rose Quarter were inconsistent with other ODOT prepared I-5 traffic projections for the same area, including the projections prepared as a part of the agency’s value pricing work, and also the Columbia River Crossing.

A failure to consider tolling as NEPA requires

Another key issue is how tolling will affect travel. Oregon law mandates tolls, and ODOT claims it will implement them on this stretch of freeway in the time period modeled in the EA. The panel acknowledges in its report that it failed to address the potential impacts of tolling on traffic.

While the Panel understands that tolling/congestion pricing would affect the traffic, it is not within the purview of the Panel to question alternate traffic scenarios that were not included in the EA. This discussion should instead be brought directly to the OTC.

Nothing in the panel’s charge or written materials, or meeting summary explains why “it is not within the panel’s purview.” In fact, because tolling is already mandated by state law, it constitutes a “reasonably foreseeable future condition” which NEPA mandates be addressed in the environmental assessment.  ODOT’s own technical work shows that tolling would virtually eliminate congestion in the Rose Quarter without building additional capacity. The omission of this alternate scenario, as well as the fictitious baseline that assumed 2015 construction of the CRC, constitute material errors that directly bias the computation of air pollution, greenhouse gases and noise pollution.

No More Freeways assembled its own independent panel of transportation modelers and experts to review the traffic projections developed for the Environmental Assessment in 2019. There’s no evidence that the panel members received copies of the technical critique of the EA provided by No More Freeways or similar analyses provided by other commenters. (The group prepared an 12-page technical memorandum, with extensive references and supporting materials, which was submitted to ODOT on 1 April 2019—a PDF copy of the report is presented below.)
In fact, the peer review report is deficient for failing to provide any bibliography listing the materials that were provided to or reviewed by the panel in its report.  Without knowing what information it reviewed its impossible to rely on the panel’s findings.

The panel’s report includes only conclusory statements which are not supported by facts.  For example, the panel chooses to laud ODOT for exceeding federal requirements by addressing greenhouse gases but fails to acknowledge that NEPA and US DOT NEPA guidance require that the EA show compliance with state and local regulations. NEPA requires that the environmental review demonstrate consistency with adopted State and local statues and plans (40 C.F.R. § 1506.2(d)). Oregon Revised Statutes 468A.205(1) sets goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2010, and by 75 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Since Oregon’s legally adopted greenhouse gas emissions reductions are such a state regulation, the EA must address this issue. Nothing in the PRP report indicates any awareness by the panel of either the NEPA requirement or Oregon state law.

A sham process that buries the facts

The so-called peer review is simply a cynical effort to whitewash a deeply flawed environmental analysis. The panel’s meeting’s were behind closed doors. The critics of the Rose Quarter project were not notified of the meetings of the peer review panel or provided any opportunity to brief the panel or present materials. (ODOT chose to invite people from one community group and from Multnomah County, but pointedly did not invite No More Freeways, which actually submitted detailed testimony, exhibits and data germane to the panel’s deliberations).

The process by which this process was conducted by ODOT shows that the agency is dismissive of public comment on the project, a violation of the spirit, and perhaps the legal requirements of NEPA.  It invited the public to offer comments on the project, which were offered in considerable technical detail, but they chose not to allow critics to attend or present information to the panel; The panel’s report was also not written by panel members, but by ODOT’s paid consultant–a former director of the ODOT. And ODOT has, by its own admission, lied about the carbon impact of its projects in the past.

One can only surmise that ODOT realized that if the panel were provided these facts, it would reach a different conclusion.

An open, honest review process would have chosen experts who included those who could look in detail at the reasonableness of the project’s traffic modeling and core assumptions, and would have allowed project critics to present their technical reports –just as the panel was briefed by ODOT staff paid to support the project.

No one should have any illusions on how this report will be used.  ODOT will claim that its project has been independently reviewed and approved by these “experts.”  But the process is a sham.  The panel was asked the wrong questions, presented a with a one-sided case, denied the opportunity to hear from independent critics, and had its report written by someone else.

No More Freeways, Technical Traffic Report, April 1, 2019


The convention business is cratering, and cities are getting stuck with the bill

By Mike McGinn and Joe Cortright

Editor’s Note:  We’re pleased to publish this commentary jointly authored by former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and City Observatory’s Joe Cortright.  Mike McGinn served as Mayor of Seattle from 2010 to 2013. He is also a former lawyer, Sierra Club state chair, neighborhood activist, and founder of sustainability non-profit Great City. You can follow him on Twitter @mayormcginn.

Seattle’s epic $1.8 billion convention center black hole reveals what’s wrong with city subsidies for conventions

Room taxes seldom get the scrutiny they deserve and have been captured by the convention industry to subsidize a narrow and declining segment of the tourism industry

A city’s real tourism assets are its urbanity and quality of life, not lifeless and interchangeable meeting rooms

The economics of the convention business have always been shaky, but in the wake of the pandemic, they’ve simply imploded. According to STR, an industry analytics firm, occupancy is down 50 percent and revenue per room is down by 70 percent compared to a year ago. Of course, this is a tough economic time for everyone, but unlike a lot of other sectors of the economy, this is one where local governments around the country have been conned into putting the public’s resources and credit on the line.  And in this case, the decline in conventions is likely to hurt local governments.

Today’s object lesson in convention business risk comes from Seattle, where the local convention agency is in the midst of a $1.8 billion  expansion of the Washington State Convention Center (WSCC). “Midst” is a good way of describing the project–they’ve broken ground and started construction, but even so, haven’t pulled together all the needed funding.  The WSCC was essentially betting on its ability to sell bonds (themselves to be secured by future increases in room tax revenue) at just exactly the time that the Covid Recession came crashing down.

A hole in downtown Seattle, an even bigger hole in its financial plan

It’s a bit like signing a contract to build a home before the banker has given you a mortgage or jumping in a cab with no wallet and hoping your roommate is at home when you arrive.  How could that happen.  Well, in Seattle, like a lot of cities, the decision to move ahead with the project isn’t made directly by any elected, general purpose unit of government, but is instead governed by “public facilities district” which is a special purpose entity, whose only job is running the convention center. 

The decision-making and financing on the convention center expansion project (remember:  price tag:  $1.8 billion), stands in stark contrast to other fiscal debates in Seattle in recent memory.  In 2018 the city adopted—and then under pressure from local businesses repealed—a $50 million per year business tax that would have funded homeless housing and services.  That proposal had to run a gauntlet of public process, and was stillborn precisely because it put elected city council members on a political hot seat.

Meanwhile, the plans to expand the convention center, which will be paid for by taxes, essentially escaped that kind of public scrutiny, both because the public facilities district isn’t an elected political body, and because it neatly decided to launch project construction before securing all the financing.

The Covid pandemic has blown a hole in the PFD’s finances:  In a disclosure to bond holders on May 15, the district estimated its Apri-December revenues would decline by 60 to 75 percent, costing it between $49 and 70 million in just this year.

It would be tempting–as the convention center and tourism boosters–no doubt want to do, to blame this all on the Coronavirus pandemic, and the agency is angling for a tranche of federal bailout money as Congress contemplates further trillions in outlays. Consider that they are asking the Washington state congressional delegation to spend political capital to bail out a failed megaproject, while front-line hospitals lay off workers, and millions are a rent check away from homelessness. And if that fails, their next stop is probably state, county or city budgets, all deeply cratered by falling revenues.

It would be one thing if the convention center was a good investment felled by a poorly executed deal and bad timing.  But that’s not the case. Convention Centers are a stagnant and dying industry that require endless taxes—the pandemic exposed its fragility.

Tourism boosters maintain that the convention center is vital to Seattle’s economy, noting all the people who stay at hotels and spend money in downtown Seattle.  While it is true the visitor spending has stimulated the local economy, very little of that has anything to do with the convention center.

The problem is that the convention business has been struggling for more than a decade.  In the wake of the Great Recession, convention business nationally never fully recovered.  University of Texas San Antonio Professor Heywood Sanders, author of a definitive book on the industry, reports that the situation is now going from bad to much worse

The convention business has been on the decline for years, even as convention centers continue to expand to compete for a dwindling number of events — and it’s expected to take years to recover from the current bans on large in-person public gatherings, especially if organizers start experimenting with online meetings in the interim.

In Seattle, according to Sanders’ estimates–drawn from the convention center’s own data–the market has been just as weak for the past decade.

From 182,000 out of state attendees in 2007, the center’s business dropped to 85,450 in 2010.  The first time it got back to the 2007 level was in 2018.

The outlook going forward is even worse.  In the short run, Stay-at-Home orders have wiped out convention bookings into the summer, and will likely chill business for a good time longer.  The very last public gatherings that are likely to be revived as we re-open are large events like conventions that bring hundreds or thousands of people, many by air, from around the country to spend days in crowded surroundings.

There are good reasons to believe that the widespread adoption of teleconferencing, like Zoom, will also put a permanent dent in business travel.  Now that firms and their customers have become much more accustomed and adept to using electronic communication, the volume of business travel may come back much more slowly than it left.  That matters for the convention center, not so much because perhaps of direct bookings (although many organizations are doing large scale webinars in place of meetings), but also because business travel is the cash cow that generates the room taxes that underwrite the convention center.

While boosters like to claim that the convention center is critical for the local visitor economy; its actually the case that the reverse is true: the convention center depends on room taxes—which are assessed on all overnight visitors, not just those attending conventions.  According to data compiled by Sanders, convention visitors accounted for just 7 percent (350,000 of 4.8 million) of Seattle room nights in 2018. And because the room tax is an “ad valorem” tax—based on the amount spent, high spending business travelers are much more lucrative not just for hotels, but also for the public facilities district, which gets the room revenue.  

Tourism boosters like to trade on the belief that room taxes are unlike any other tax revenue, and that they’re uniquely entitled to use them to subsidize selected parts of the travel business.

That will be put to the test when taxpayers are asked to bail out the convention center.  Room taxes are taxes on economic activity, just like sales taxes–and earmarking them for big projects like this comes at the expense of every other tax-funded activity in the city.  In effect, all Seattle is doing is taxing the much larger, and more lucrative stream of business and personal travel to the city to subsidize one shrinking and money-losing business (conventions and trade shows).  

People come to cities for this, not windowless conference rooms.

If Seattle–or any city–wants to capitalize on the tourism business, it’s not going to succeed by throwing money at the ever larger non-descript barns that are convention centers.  One windowless basement conference room or banquet hall is indistinguishable from every other.  The city’s real asset is its unique urban quality, its public spaces, art, culture, nightlife and its distinctive small businesses, like the restaurants, boutiques and vendors that dot downtown Seattle and Pike Place Market.  In the wake of a pandemic recession, the City should be paying vastly more attention to these assets than the stranded asset and money pit that is the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center.

Covid-19 and Cities: A very uneven pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has played out very differently in different metro areas; some have been devastated, others only lightly touched and these patterns have shifted over time.

Among US metro areas with a million or more population there is a more than 20-fold difference in cases per capita between the hardest hit and the least hard-hit

The Northeast metros from Washington to Boston have been the “Covid-Corridor”

Some cities that avoided the pandemic early, were hard hit later; others who were hit early, managed to contain the spread of the pandemic. Minneapolis & Seattle represent cities on different trajectories. 

Wide variation in prevalence across metropolitan areas

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely uneven across the nation’s large metropolitan areas.  The typical large metropolitan area had about 340 reported cases per 100,000 population through May 29. But that median masks wide variation among cities. The hardest hit areas, like the New York City metro area, have an incidence of Covid-19 cases (more than 2,400 per 100,000 population) that is about 20 time higher per capita than it is in the least affected large metros (Portland and Sacramento, 112 and 80 cases per 100,000, respectively).  Put another way, if New York had experienced the pandemic the way these cities did, it would have had 95 percent fewer cases and deaths.  In the case of metro New York, that would work out to more than 30,000 fewer lives lost—so far.

As we look across the country, there’s are a combination of clear patterns of more severe infection, as well as some isolated hotspots.  The entire Northeast Corridor stands out as having the largest concentration of cases.  Other cities have had severe outbreaks, with rates very different than the rest of their region. New Orleans with 1,400 cases per 100,000 residents has the second highest prevalence of the virus of any large metro area, but other metro areas in the South generally have rates that are below the national average.  Nearby Houston, for example, has a rate of just 240 per 100,000.

The Covid-Corridor

While the New York City metropolitan area has been the epicenter of the pandemic, it is clear that the entire Northeast Corridor, from Washington to Boston, has borne the brunt of the disease.  Six of the eight large metropolitan areas with the highest prevalence of reported cases are in the Corridor.

As Jed Kolko illustrated statistically, proximity to the New York metropolitan area is strongly correlated with the prevalence of Covid-19 cases in the local population.  The closer you are to the New York City area, the higher your metro area’s rate of cases per capita.  Whether this is as a result of common factors influencing the spread of the pandemic in these metro areas, or whether the disease literally spread outward through human contact from people traveling to and from New York to nearby metros is unclear.  The data do show that the diaspora from New York in the wake of the pandemic flowed mostly to nearby areas.

Which cities did best in fighting the pandemic?

As we’ve traced the progress of the pandemic over the past three months, we’ve focused on two key metrics of the severity of the outbreak in a given metropolitan area:  the total prevalence of the disease (the number of reported cases per 100,000 population, cumulative), and the number of new cases reported in recent days, again adjusted to population.  Our preferred method of displaying these data are in the form of a scatter-plot showing the cumulative prevalence of cases on the horizontal axis, and growth rate of new cases in the past week  on the vertical axis.  Data through May 29 is shown in the chart below.

A city’s position on this chart clearly illustrates the overall spread and current growth of the virus.  Cities in the upper right hand corner of the chart have high rates of cases and are experiencing larger daily increases in new cases.  Cities in the lower left hand corner of the chart, have both lower rates of cases and are seeing fewer new cases per day.  In general, cities in the lower lower left hand corner have done the best job of avoiding or minimizing the pandemic; those in the upper right hand corner have been the most severely affected, and been least able to contain the pandemic.

The data also illustrates the progression of the pandemic.  Some cities like New York, that were hit hard early on, and consequently have high rates of prevalence, have managed to lower the number of new cases, and have moved into the lower right hand quadrant.

At the end of May, Washington and Baltimore were in the upper right hand quadrant, with rates of growth of new cases and prevalence both above the average for all large metro areas.  This suggests these metro areas are where the pandemic is bad, and continuing (relative to the rest of the nation) to worsen.

The cities that have done the best—relatively speaking—are in the lower left hand corner and include Sacramento, Portland, Tampa, San Antonio, Orlando and San Jose.  These cities have low rates of growth of new cases, and have much lower prevalence than the typical US cities.

This chart is a snapshot of the pandemic at a particular time; cities can and do change positions as the pandemic waxes and wanes in different places. Some of the shifts can be dramatic.

Seattle and Minneapolis:  A tale of two cities

Two months ago, in the early days of the pandemic, we looked at these same data to characterize the spread of the virus.  On April 4, the picture was very different.  Seattle had the highest rate of reported cases per capita and a very fast rate of growth of new cases. Meanwhile the city with the best record (lowest incidence and slowest growth) was Minneapolis. We didn’t know why one city performed well and the other so poorly, but we speculated: “maybe its just that reserved Minnesotans have been perfecting the art of social distancing for decades.” That speculation was either premature, or simply wrong.

Data from the end of May show that Seattle and Minneapolis have been on very different trajectories over the past two months.  Seattle’s successfully driven down the rate of new cases, to point where it now has 337 cases per 100,000, exactly equal to the median value for all large metro areas.  Meanwhile, the pandemic has grown aggressively in the Twin Cities:  it now has 427 cases per 100,000–more than the median and more than Seattle. On May 29, Minneapolis-St. Paul had the fastest rate of growth of new cases of any large US metro area, up 3.6 percent daily, more than double the large metro median of 1.7 percent daily.

As in April, we don’t know the reasons for one city’s relatively good performance and another city’s much greater vulnerability to the virus. But what is clear is that the virus is playing out very differently over time in different places. At this point, we can only speculate, and hope that we’ve gathered enough data to be able, after the fact, to deduce what factors led the disease to spread in some places (Minneapolis) while it was being brought under control in others (Seattle).

Fifty different metropolitan pandemics?

While we often tend, as we should, to focus on the growing national toll of the pandemic (more than 1.x million cases and more than 100,000 dead) its important to note that the virus has spread very unevenly over time and space. Different metropolitan areas have had very different experiences of the pandemic. In some respects, it may be better to think of the pandemic as fifty (or more) different regional pandemics, and to use the tremendous geographic variation in the virus across these geographies to understand the nature of the disease, and how best to craft policies to fight it, and future contagions.

Memo to the Governor: Recovering from Covid-19

Some advice on economic policy for states looking to rebound from the pandemic

City Observatory’s Joe Cortright has served as Chair of the Oregon Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers under three Governors.  The Council met (virtually) with Oregon Governor Kate Brown on May 29, to discuss how the state’s economy could recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Governor Kate Brown (Center) and legislative leaders meet with Oregon Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers, 29 May 2020.

While Oregon’s situation likely differs from that of other states in some details, the same issues are likely to arise elsewhere. Here’s a synopsis of his advice to the Governor:

  • The state has a limited ability to influence the overall trajectory of the Oregon economy.  The most decisive policies will be those of the federal government, through fiscal and monetary policy; The state’s limited borrowing ability means that it can’t spend to enough to offset an inadequate federal response, and much of any state-funded stimulus would flow out of Oregon. Oregon will mostly have to roll with the punches, but can help soften the blow on the hardest hit and most vulnerable.
  • The state’s focus should be initially on the public services that support managing the pandemic.  The state’s most important role for the next six to twelve  months is making sure that Covid-19 rates continue to decline, and that any flare-ups are dealt with aggressively.  The economic damage from too fast a re-opening is a greater risk than the economic damage from a somewhat too cautious re-opening.
  • Opening schools and daycare may be important to allowing all sectors of Oregon’s economy to reopen; these are within state control. Nationally, data suggest that pandemic related restrictions have disproportionately affected women’s employment; because the burden of household childcare falls more on women, opening schools and daycare is both an equity and an efficiency issue.
  • The recovery will be uneven across industries.  Some industries will rebound and may require little assistance or intervention; others will not recover completely, and we will lose some businesses permanently.  For example, we can expect health care to recover as we re-open.
  • Other industries face long-term or permanent structural changes.  For example, entertainment, travel, tourism and restaurants are likely to be smaller for some time.  We will likely see lots of business closures in restaurants in particular.  It may be impossible for the state to forestall these closures, but it can help the industry adapt (for example by allowing the use of sidewalks, parking spaces and parking lots for outdoor dining) and mitigating the effects on workers with unemployment insurance.
  • Unlike past recessions, I don’t think this event calls for a classic pump-priming public works response.  There will be lots of consumer demand as we re-open the state economy  and capital construction projects have such long lead times that they are unlikely to provide a boost anytime soon.  I would prioritize keeping public services (and associated payrolls) rather than going for one-off capital construction.  I would also argue that some of our old-school public works projects (wider freeways, a bigger airport terminal) may no longer make any sense in a post-Covid world.  To the extent we have the flexibility to do so, it may make sense to postpone big capital expenditures, use the funds to keep services and operations intact, and wait until we see how the post-Covid world is different before moving ahead  with big projects that might no longer be needed or useful.
  • If we are thinking about investments, I would recommend things that reflect the learning of the pandemic:  for example, equipping and training schools to provide distance learning, making sure all kids have access to high speed internet.  Also:  We should do a retrospective with OHA to figure out what we should invest in in order to be better prepared to recognize and act quickly at the time of the next pandemic; codify the lessons learned.

The full video of the meeting is available here.

The Week Observed, June 12, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1. Covid-19 rates are spiking in five cities. Stay-at-home policies and social distancing have dramatically slowed the spread of the pandemic in the US, but as many state’s begin re-opening, there’s a concern that the virus could rebound. Looking at the data for the 50 largest US metro areas shows that there’s been a noticeable reversal in the general slowing of the virus in five cities: Phoenix, Tucson, Raleigh, Tampa and San Antonio.

While Arizona’s increase is apparent in statewide statistics, the other three cities have accelerating rates of growth that far outpace the statewide average.  We’ll want to pay close attention to what happens in these cities in the next few weeks as a sign of how well we can cope with a second wave of the pandemic.

2. The World Bank’s Sameh Wahba on building inclusive cities after Covid-19. There’s a lot of speculation that the Covid-19 pandemic will undercut the rationale for urban living. But the World Bank’s expert on urban disaster risk management is extremely optimistic that the pandemic will not dim city prospects, and that in fact, the pandemic will be an impetus to building more just places, partly as a way to improve health for all residents, and reduce vulnerability to future viruses.

Cities will continue to attract such footloose population through what they have to offer in terms of livability including quality amenities and services, public spaces and cultural facilities. . . . Cities represent the best of human ingenuity and well-being. That is true today, will be true tomorrow, and well after the pandemic has subsided.

3. Cratering convention centers stick cityies with the bill. We’re pleased to publish a commentary co-authored by former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. For the past couple of decades, cities around the country have been competing against one another for slivers of the convention business, subsidizing convention centers, underwriting huge “headquarters” hotels, and even paying conventions to come to town. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the convention business has seized up entirely, slashing room rates and occupancy in hotels, and wiping out much of the room tax revenue cities depend on to pay subsidies.

Among the worst hit places is Seattle, which is the midst of a $1.8 billion expansion of its convention center; unwisely the city put starting construction ahead of nailing down the financing, and now has a huge hole in the center of town, and very little likelihood of being able to sell bonds when room tax revenues have evaporated. It’s a real pickle, but conceals an even deeper problem: the convention center business has been lagging well behind the economy for most of the past two decades.

4. Covid-19 in cities: Segregation, not density. There’s been a knee-jerk tendency since the first outbreak of Covid-19 to blame urban density for the spread of the virus. The density theory has been largely debunked, but there’s another aspect of urban form that’s worth considering.  We look at the connection between racial/ethnic and income segregation and the prevalence of Covid-19.  We’ve known for some time that communities with higher levels of segregation suffer many adverse economic and health effects.  The data also show that metropolitan areas with higher levels of black/white segregation and higher levels of income segregation tend to have higher prevalence of Covid-19 on a per capita basis.

Must read

1. The differential impact of the Covid-19 recession on people of color. PolicyLink has a new report looking in detail at the labor market impacts of the pandemic by race and ethnicity.  Titled “Race, Risk and Workforce Equity in the Coronavirus Economy,” the report uses a combination of Internet job posting data and Census occupational data to look at the extent of job loss in during the pandemic.  Job losses among workers in occupations classified as “non-essential” have disproportionately fallen on low income workers.

The report also finds that in a series of occupations, people of color are more likely to be exposed to the virus.  It also finds that job losses in non-essential occupations have been concentrated among people of color.

2. How to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.  The Center for Community Progress has a new report laying out some clear strategic advice for how cities ought to respond to the pandemic. Written by Alan Mallach (author of one of our favorite books, The Divided City), the report begins by sketching out some educated guesses about key aspects of the Post-Covid world: a prolonged recession, many households behind on rent, much tighter markets for housing finance, and badly strapped state and local governments. Mallach estimates that the shortfall in rent payments could be in the range of $29 to $118 billion this year, with effects cascading from families to landlords to the housing market and wider economy.

Some form of rent relief may be a key to reducing pain and staving off further economic decline. Ultimately, only the federal government has the resources necessary to make a material difference. Assuming we can generate an effective response, Mallach challenges all of us to think more expansively about how we might use this crisis as an opportunity to build better, stronger communities:

Can we see the challenge of recovering after the pandemic as an opportunity to rebuild not the same, but better than we were?

3. Don’t write off downtowns. Seattle Times business columnist Jon Talton is still very bullish about downtowns–at least his downtown, even in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Cities just have too many economic advantages not to bounce back.  He writes:

Today, downtowns continue to offer unique advantages in efficiency, productivity and innovation. They are the places where “creative friction” happens as ideas are easily shared and serendipitous encounters happen.  They offer public spaces and cultural amenities for all. In Seattle, large numbers of low-income housing units are sustained here, too.  In an era where the greatest challenge is climate change, downtowns served by abundant, frequent and convenient transit are essential to reducing greenhouse gases.

New Knowledge

Generational shifts in homeownership rates. ApartmentList’s Rob Warnnock carefully dissects the homeownership statistics by age, generation, income, education and race and ethnicity, to trace out the shifting patterns of homeownership in the US. The core finding, as we’ve seen before, is that homeownership rates are declining with each successive generation:

Homeownership in general has been on the decline for at least the last three generations. After adjusting for age, millennials, gen Xers, and baby boomers have all purchased homes at a slower rate than the generation that preceded them.

While that’s been established for some time, this report sheds light on the interesting sub-trends among different demographic groups.  Perhaps not surprisingly, homeownership rates for whites have not declined nearly as much as for other racial and ethnic groups, after controlling for age and generation.

Overall homeownership rates are down far more for the entire population than any individual racial/ethnic group.  What’s driving the decline then, is the increasing diversity of the US population, and in particular the fact that much of the growth is in among groups (Hispanic and Black) who have lower homeownership rates. This suggests that raising homeownership rates (to the extent that is a worthy policy objective) depends on reducing this persistent racial gap.

Rob Warnock.  “Homeownership rates by generation:  How do Millennials stack up?’, March 17, 2020.

In the News

City I/O published its summary of our report, America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods.

The Week Observed, June 19, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1. Youth Movement: Our latest CityReport. America’s urban revival is being powered by the widespread and accelerating movement of well-educated young adults to the densest, most central neighborhoods in large metro areas. Our new report looks at the latest census data and finds that the number of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds increased in neighborhoods within three miles of the center of the central business district in every one of the nation’s 52 largest metro areas. Not only that, but in four-fifths of these cities, the rate of increase of this key demographic accelerated after 2010, compared to the prior decade. Despite concerns that the pandemic may be dimming urban prospects, real-time data on real estate searches from Zillow and confirm that cities are expanding their market share as suburban shares fall.  Our full report has detailed data for each of the nation’s metro areas with 1 million or more population.

2. Covid-19’s Lessons for Portland—and other cities. We’ve witnessed rapid and traumatic change in the past few months, from the Coronavirus pandemic to an outpouring of outrage over police violence. In a guest commentary, our friend Ethan Seltzer begins listing the lessons that these twin crises pose for our urban future.  While his comments are aimed at Portland, we suspect the issue he is touching on will be of interest to urban leaders throughout the nation.

3. CityBeat: Pushing back on the Wall Street Journal. There have been a surge of stories predicting that pandemic fears will provoke an urban exodus. This week, the Wall Street Journal weighed in with its entry, asking whether once worker’s could work anywhere whether they’d choose to say in big cities. Like so many such stories, the argument pivots on anecdotes of a New York couple moving to a smaller town in a different state. It’s a fair point that mid-career workers with demonstrated expertise might have that option, but it still turns out, especially for young workers, that there’s no place like a city to find your way to a career, develop your skills and build a personal and professional network. And work isn’t the only reason people choose cities: living in a dense urban environment provides access to more diversity and greater opportunity in the form of social contacts, cultural opportunities and personal interaction.

Must read

1. Tear gas takes aim at dissent:  A new video “Choking Dissent:  The Truth About Tear Gas” sponsored by Amnesty International and produced by Brooklyn design firm SITU documents the global use of tear gas as an instrument of repression. The video illustrates the chemical and ballistic properties of these munitions, and shows that far from being non-lethal or less-lethal, the projectiles are routinely used to inflict pain and injure protestors; and the gas has a range of adverse health effects, and can even cause death. The documentary combines cell-phone taken at protests–like this one in Philadelphia–with a computer generated image of the surrounding landscape, to illustrate how police deployed gas to trap protestors in a particularly vulnerable location.

2. A Bigger City is a Better City.  Alon Levy, transit-expert extraordinaire at Pedestrian Observations has a new essay that unapologetically endorses urban growth and development. Too often, Levy argues, urbanists advance density and development in cities as a necessary evil. That misses the critical point that cities make us better off, making us smarter and more productive, and providing us with opportunities to acquire skills, build networks and enjoy a better life. Levy writes:

Urban development is good

The ability to access more stuff easily is a good thing and there’s a reason both employers and residents pay extra to have it. More and bigger buildings stimulate this kind of access. On the production side, this means thicker social networks for people who work in related industries and can come up with new innovations – this is why the tech industry sticks in San Francisco and environs, and not the bay view or the state of California’s public services. This, in turn, raises wages. On the consumption side, this means more variety in what to buy.  Moreover, this is true down to the neighborhood level. A denser neighborhood has more amenities, because more people is a good thing, because new people stimulate new social events, new consumption, and new opportunities for job access.

It’s a clarion call to champion cities, not shrink from them.

3. Corona Virus won’t kill cities.  Centre for London’s Ben Rogers weighs in with a warning, but also a call for optimism.  The warning is that our initial response to the virus has triggered some anti-urban thinking:

With governments forbidding people from mixing, mayors warning us to avoid public transport and commuters learning they can work from home, you can see why urbanists, city leaders and businesses are worried. It seems all too possible that those who live and work in these cities will vote with their feet – or more likely, their cars. There will be powerful anti-city forces – out-of-town developers, car makers, road builders, oil companies and the champions of conservative, small town, small state values – cheering them on.

But ultimately, Rogers argues, this is exactly the kind of problem that cities have faced in decades and centuries past, and can, given good management, tackle again. Indeed, Rogers thinks that the resilience of cities in the face of this kind of challenge will further accelerate their growth:

The demographic and economic makeup of these cities might change, but people and business will still be jostling for space near the centre.  Cities have always worked particularly well for young people. They flock to them to build up vital social and professional networks, meet their mates and learn how the world works. They are also the ones who will find it easiest to adapt to new ways of moving around and contribute most to online innovation.

New Knowledge

Integration and political affiliation. Attending integrated schools means that white kids are less likely to register as Republicans as adults. Political attitudes are shaped by our families and and environments. A new study looks at how differences in school integration shape partisan political identification.

The study, “The Long-run effects of school racial diversity on political identity” by Stephen Billings, Eric Chyn and Kareem Haggag, takes advantage of the implementation of a new school integration plan in Charlotte, North Carolina in the early 2000’s.  In place of busing, a federal court ordered a re-drawing of school attendance areas, which meant that kids in some neighborhoods who had been attending segregated schools ended up attending integrated schools.  The authors tracked individual students and observed their pattern of voter registration as adults.  The key finding:  white students who attended integrated schools were significantly less likely to register to vote as Republicans than white students who attended segregated schools.

We find that a 10-percentage point increase in the share of minorities in a white student’s assigned school decreased their likelihood of being a registered as a Republican by 12 percent (2 percentage points), and that this impact was not driven by detectable changes in voting registration.

Factors like parental political affiliation also influence a student’s later political affiliation, but attending an integrated school had about one-sixth as much influence on partisan identification as did parental factors.

Stephen B. Billings, Eric Chyn, and  Kareem Haggag, The Long-run effects of school racial diversity on political identity, NBER Working Paper 27302

In the News

CityLab’s Marie Patino reported on the findings of our new report, Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance.

The Week Observed, June 26, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

When NIMBYs win, everyone loses. Two land use cases from different sides of the country are in the news this week. In both cases, local opponents of new housing development have succeeded in blocking the construction of new apartments in high demand neighborhoods. The high profile case is in Palo Alto, California, near Silicon Valley, where local homeowners managed to subject a 60 unit senior affordable housing project to a local referendum, and killed it.  Now the site is home to newly built $5 million mini-mansions. With fewer and more expensive homes, the area will continue to be an enclave for the wealthy.

Meanwhile in working class Inwood, in Northern Manhattan, local residents have one a first-round court victory challenging the upzoning that would have allowed more market rate apartments, as well as set aside of affordable units. The court found that the city had failed to contemplate the impacts on the neighborhood’s racial makeup. What that misses, in our view, is that not approving upzoning in Inwood will also have a significant impact on the neighborhood’s affordability, and thereby, its demographic composition. Blocking new housing doesn’t keep a neighborhood affordable; actually its just the opposite:  the more constrained the housing supply, the worse the affordability problems, the greater likely displacement and the more sweeping the demographic changes. That happens whether the NIMBYs at work are wealthy homeowners or struggling renters.

Must read

1. Whose streets? Cars’ streets.  In the wake of the growing public debate on the structural racism embedded in so many of our institutions, it seems like a good time to revisit this excellent analysis of our transportation system written by Ben Ross in 2014.  The way we’ve built our roads, particularly in suburbs, where a growing number of low income families and people of color are living, creates an environment that is deadly or dangerous to those who can’t drive or don’t own cars. Suburban roads incentivize and privilege high speed car travel, with few cross walks and sparse transit service, and when they are killed in collisions, pedestrians are often blamed.

The full weight of ninety years of car-first engineering bears down [on the suburban poor] as they make their way to and from decaying apartment complexes and aging tract houses. Long walks to the main road, unprotected dashes across wide highways, and perilous waits at bus stops on unpaved shoulders are a daily routine. A landscape created for affluent motorists becomes an oppressive burden in its decline.

The problem is compounded by car-oriented laws that are routinely used to harass and intimidate people of color. “Jay-walking” becomes a code-word for blaming pedestrians hit and killed by cars, and a reason police can use to detain or arrest citizens: Michael Brown was gunned down by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri after being stopped for allegedly jay-walking. As Ross relates, the pedestrian hostile suburban environment is no accident: it’s literally mandated by a host of engineering rules and standards. If we’re going to overcome racism, we’ll need to change these rules of the road.

2. Cities will survive. Richard Florida weighs in on the long-run implications of the pandemic for cities.  There’s lots of hyperventilating and pessimism about urbanism, but Florida isn’t having any of it.  Cities have weathered similar challenges in the past and emerged even stronger; the decisive agglomeration advantages of being in cities overwhelms the perceived disadvantages of density. Florida is also quick to note that today’s unrest over racial injustice is very different than in the 1960s; its a racially and economically diverse group of protestors fighting for more just cities, and amounts to a powerful reason for hope, and not the polarizing paroxysm of fear.

New Knowledge

More evidence that density has little to do with Covid-19 prevalence. New York City tested all women who delivered children in NYC hospital, providing a comprehensive sample of women from different parts of the city.  Researchers looked at the correlation between the likelihood of testing postive for Covid-19 and various neighborhood socioeconomic characteristics.  They found positive links between housing over-crowding and the odds of being infected, but a negative relationship between the number of units in a building and offs of being infected.  People who lived in buildings with more units were less likely to have Covid-19.

The study found no statistically significant relationship between population density and the probability of having a Covid-19 infection (i.e. women who lived in higher density neighborhoods were no more or less likely than women from lower density neighborhoods to test positive for the virus.

There was no statistically significant association between SARS-CoV-2 infection and population density (interdecile OR, 0.70 [95% CI, 0.32-1.51]) or poverty rate (interdecile OR, 2.03 [95% CI, 0.97-4.25]).

Ukachi N. Emeruwa, Samsiya Ona,Jeffrey L. Shaman, et al, Associations Between Built Environment, Neighborhood Socioeconomic Status, and SARS-CoV-2 Infection Among Pregnant Women in New York City, JAMA. Published online June 18, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.11370, June 18, 2020

In the News

The Pittsburgh Business Times wrote about our report Youth Movement, and its relationship to the market for new apartments in that city.

Greater Greater Washington pointed its readers to the Youth Movement report.

The Week Observed, June 5, 2020

What City Observatory did this week

1. Covid-19 and Cities:  An uneven pandemic. We’ve been following the progress of the Covid-19 virus in the nation’s metropolitan areas for the past three months, and with the benefit of hindsight we can now trace out some key facts and trends. Overall, its apparent that the pandemic has been far worse in some cities than others. Across the 50 largest metro areas, the prevalence of Covid-19 cases varies by a factor of 20 between the hardest hit and least affected large metro areas. There have been both geographic patterns of infection (the Northeast Corridor has suffered from Washington to Boston), as well as isolated and severe outbreaks in metro areas that run counter to larger regional trends (New Orleans).  Most strikingly, some cities that largely avoided the virus early on have seen substantial increases in cases, while initially hard hit cities have damped down the spread of the virus.

Two months ago, Seattle was the hardest hit metro, and Minneapolis the least affected; today Minneapolis has a higher rate of prevalence than Seattle, and is experiencing the highest growth in cases of any large metro area.  So much for our speculation that Minnesota nice would translate into more effective social distancing.

2. Whitewash for Oregon DOT’s Freeway Widening project. For several years, Oregon’s highway builders have been pushing an $800 million freeway widening project near downtown Portland with the incredible claim that it will–unlike every other freeway ever built–lead to less air pollution and greenhouse gases. The agency’s claim has been subject to withering public criticism, which it has largely ignored. Last month, the agency convened a six-person “peer review” panel to look at its environmental work. But the panel held all of its meetings behind closed doors, didn’t hear from project critics, or apparently even review the lengthy and detailed technical critique of the project’s key traffic projections–which largely determine the pollution estimates. It’s a cynical ploy to create yet another false talking point in favor of the freeway widening project.

3. Advice to the Governor on recovering from the pandemic.  City Observatory’s Joe Cortright has served as Chair of the Oregon Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors.  On May 29, the Council met with Governor Kate Brown to discuss how the state should prepare to rebound from the pandemic and its associated recession.  We have a short policy memo outlining the major points presented in this briefing, which are likely applicable to other states as well.

Must read

1. Police Killings by Metropolitan Area.  There’s little or nothing we can add to the anguish, anger and outrage over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.  We’ll simply note that police killings are a regular occurrence, and that their victims are disproportionately Black Americans and other people of color. The research collaborative Mapping Police Violence” has assembled a wide array of data from across the nation showing the extent and frequency of police killings.  Solving any problem begins with understanding its scope and severity—and this is a good place to start.

2. Streetsblog NY weighs in on the CDC’s anti-urban advice for fighting Covid. The Centers for Disease Control appeared to be having its very own “Marie Antoinette” moment last week, in the form of a recommendation that everyone drive alone to work, and that employers ought to subsidize parking.  It’s a plainly impossible “solution” both for those who don’t own, or can’t drive cars, and also for cities, who have no room on their streets or parking space to accomodate everyone driving.In response to powerful and immediate reactions from the likes of Streetsblog, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and Smart Growth America, CDC backpedaled. As Streetsblog relates:

“This was an important recognition by CDC of the ways that their previous guidance actually contradicts decades-long work within their own organization to help address health by encouraging more walking, more biking, and more transit use in metro areas across the country,” said Steve Davis of Smart Growth America

3. Ed Glaeser on the Pandemic and the Future of Cities.  (Actually a “must-listen”). Harvard Economist Ed Glaeser, author of “The Triumph of the City” is interviewed on LA public radio station KCRW about how the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to affect urban living. One bit of history:  this is not the first health challenge cities have faced. Glaeser notes that that the plague even affected classic Athens. But in almost every instance, cities have rebounded. The 19th century parks and open space movement was one example of how cities changed to become healthier. But success is not foreordained. Glaeser:

History teaches us that this can go two ways:  urban areas managed to rebound wonderfully from the influenza epidemic of 1919; the twenties one was of the great city-building decades in American history, where we built things like Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building.  But the plague of Justinian that struck Constantinople in 542 AD led to 800 years of de-urbanization in Europe.

Ultimately, though, Glaeser is optimistic about cities:  The fact that we are social beings, and that we grow smarter by being close to other smart people creates a powerful city-centered dynamic in a knowledge-driven economy. Cities will be the crucibles that overcome the pandemic.

In the News

The Salem Statesman-Journal quoted City Observatory director Joe Cortright’s comments to the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reported on Cortright’s analysis of the Oregon Department of Transportation Peer Review report on the Rose Quarter I-5 freeway widening project.

Triumph of the NIMBY’s: Less affordable, more displacement

When NIMBYs win, everybody loses

Constricting housing supply drives up the price of housing further, and accelerates displacement, in rich neighborhoods and in poor ones.

Two recent cases from different sides of the country illustrate the perverse effects of NIMBY fights against the construction of new housing.  One from California, was a community effort to block 60 units of moderately priced senior housing in a high income suburb. The second, from New York, was a successful lawsuit to oppose building additional housing–including a number of “inclusionary” affordable units in a working class neighborhood.  .

While the motivations of the NIMBY opponents may have been radically different between the two communities—the California case pits wealthy homeowners against the senior housing complex developers), while the New York case turns on claims that the city failed to assess how building more housing might change the racial and ethnic makeup of the neighborhood—the results are the same in both cases:  fewer units of new housing will get built, housing prices will rise further, and low income households will find it increasingly difficult to find housing in these desirable neighborhoods.

Inwood, New York City

The centerpiece of New York’s affordable housing strategy has been inclusionary housing requirements, essentially requiring developers to build additional below-market units in areas that get upzoning. But even though the process will increase the stock of affordable units, local NIMBY opponents object to the added market-rate units (which in effect pay for the affordable housing).

In Inwood, in Northern Manhattan, local residents have banded together to fight the city’s proposed upzoning that would trigger the construction of inclusionary housing. Recently, according to CurbedNY, they prevailed in a court fight, arguing that the city was obligated to undertake racial impact analysis of the project.

The opponents allegation is that constructing new market rate units will change the racial and ethnic composition of the neighborhood, because market rate apartments won’t be as affordable to people of color, who tend to have lower incomes. A trial court has invalidated the city’s upzoning for lack of a racial/ethnic impact analysis and that decision is being appealed to a higher court.

Implicit in the “impact analysis” approach is an assumption that if the upzoning isn’t approved that the race, ethnicity (and for that matter, income levels) of the neighborhood somehow won’t change.  That implicit assumption is wrong because  if the housing stock in this neighborhood doesn’t increase, the growing demand for urban living will push up rents even further, likely hastening demographic change. That’s what we’ve called the “missing counterfactual” in this kind of analysis. Neighborhoods that don’t add housing don’t necessarily stay the same, and in the face of growing demand, don’t stay affordable (or even unchanged demographically).

The CurbedNY article, in fact, documents that this is already happening in Inwood. Rents have been going up due to the shortage of housing, and the people who are displaced as a result are those like the story’s Othanya Garcia, who can no longer afford the neighborhood. In fact, the increase in rents preceded, by years, the change in zoning in Inwood.  According to CurbedNY, Garcia moved out of her apartment due to higher rents in 2016, two years before the City rezoned the neighborhood in 2018. The point here is that it is the increase in demand for urban living, and not the rezoning or the construction of new apartments, that is the cause of higher rents, lower affordability and displacement. Ironically, blocking the construction of new apartments, both market rate and affordable, will accelerate the pace of rent increases and worsen the affordability and displacement problems facing this neighborhood.

One of the embedded conceits of NIMBYism is a kind of mystic nostalgia about housing markets, the idea that the existing housing stock was always there, and will always be as affordable as it once was. As our colleague Daniel Hertz pointed out in his essay, “The immaculate conception myth” the housing we now inhabit was the product of developers and market forces back in the day, and our failure to allow those same things to happen today is only worsening affordability now—and into the future.

Palo Alto, California

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the outcome of another NIMBY-led anti-housing battle is becoming apparent.  In this wealthy Silicon Valley town, a local non-profit had proposed building 60 units of senior housing on a 2.5 acre parcel it owned. Opponents managed to subject the project’s approval to a city-wide referendum, where it lost. Now, the site is being developed for housing of a very different character, as the San Jose Mercury-News relates:

Now, the long-awaited aftermath of that referendum has emerged: the first batch of 16 new single-family homes are on sale, starting at around $5 million, each with about 4,000 square feet of space for home gyms, theaters, offices, pergola-covered patios and multi-car garages with electric vehicle charging ports. Even this upscale development, called Orchard Park, was cut in half after challenges and criticism from staff and residents.

While the contrast between $5 million mini-mansions and senior apartments couldn’t be more stark, the failure to build the senior housing means fewer units, but more limited opportunities for existing residents to downsize and age-in-place.  As a result, the downzoning of this project has both direct and in-direct negative effects on the housing market, by reducing the number of people who can live in the area, and probably also slowing the turnover of housing by older residents of Palo Alto, who have no choice but to stay in their homes rather than moving to a smaller apartment in their same neighborhood.

Tales of Two Cities

The media often tend to treat housing debates as a kind of morality play: it is easier to condemn the motivations of wealthy suburbanites blocking affordable housing in Palo Alto (especially when it results in $5 million mini-mansions) than it is to call out the negative effects of low income community activists fighting new housing. But ultimately, the effects are very much the same:  by blocking the construction of new housing, these successful NIMBY campaigns only aggravate the housing supply problem, and worsen affordability. The key difference may be that existing homeowners win (their home values rise due to supply constraints), while renters lose (supply constraints drive up rents). A world where we empower everyone to be NIMBYs seems only to reinforce all of the inequalities of the housing market.