A year ago today, October 15th, 2014, we launched City Observatory, a data-driven voice on what makes for successful cities.
The past year has been a whirlwind: We’ve released four major reports—Young and Restless, Lost in Place, Surging City Center Job Growth, and Less in Common—each of which use data to examine some of the most important trends in American cities today: both the remarkable growth and transformation of central cities, as well as the persistent concentration of poverty and decline of “civic commons” spaces that pose some of our greatest challenges.
With each passing day, the evidence that cities are leading our nation’s economy becomes more compelling: City home values are rising much faster than in their surrounding suburbs, an indicator we call the “Dow of Cities.” City center job growth is outpacing that in the suburbs for the first time in decades, and the expansion of large metro economies is driving the national economic expansion.
Young people—especially young people with college degrees—are increasingly moving back to city centers. And the growing pool of talent in cities is drawing jobs and economic growth back to those centers as well.
We believe all of these things should encourage you, even if you don’t consider yourself an urbanist. The return to urban living has the potential to help create a healthier planet, as people drive less and use less energy to maintain relatively smaller urban homes. It can help make people healthier, too, by allowing them to walk more, and reducing their exposure to one of the greatest causes of death and serious injury in the country: car crashes. Finally, overwhelming evidence shows that bringing people with social capital and middle-class incomes back into urban neighborhoods that had lacked those things for years creates more social equity and economic mobility.
But the shift to cities comes with challenges as well as opportunities. The urban renaissance has been so robust that the demand for city living is growing at a much faster pace than the supply of great urban homes and neighborhoods. As a result, we have a “shortage of cities.” Many of our greatest urban challenges—declining housing affordability, traumatic neighborhood change, conflict over growth—trace their roots to this worsening shortage.
We’ve also pushed back on myths and miscalculations. We’ve challenged the still-too-common narrative that cities are dirty, dangerous and congested, and shown that we’ve made progress in making cities, safer, cleaner and more convenient. We helped lead the charge against the incredibly misleading “Urban Mobility Report,” which uses bogus figures about traffic congestion to convince the public and policy makers that our cities need even more highways, instead of investing in more affordable, sustainable, and efficient ways to get people where they need to go. And we’re working to encourage greater honesty and reflection in how we talk about change in cities—acknowledging that the cities we see today are not the product of some process of immaculate conception, but have evolved as a result of market forces and policy, including policies with the inherent contradiction that housing should be both affordable and a reliable source of wealth creation.
In our second year, we’ll turn even more of our attention to analyzing what we’re calling our “shortage of cities.” That’s the gap between the new increased demand for urban neighborhoods and the amount of housing actually available in them, which is held down both by zoning that prevents the construction of more housing in urban areas, and regulations that require newer neighborhoods to be ultra-low-density and car-dependent. We believe that understanding the causes, consequences, and potential cures for our national shortage of cities is key to many of our most important urban challenges, from making housing affordable to maximizing economic opportunity and creating a more sustainable transportation system.
And while we bill City Observatory as a “virtual” think tank, early next year, we’ll be engaging policymakers and thinkers in person, with a live City Observatory salon event to be held in Washington DC. Stay tuned for details.
We also want to thank everyone on our mailing list or Twitter who took the time to fill out our birthday survey, and we’re extremely gratified with the response we’ve received there and elsewhere. Though, as numbers people, we know these are hardly scientific stats, over three-quarters of survey respondents said they had spread the word about City Observatory by recommending our work to friends or colleagues, and many of you had kind words about our commentaries, research, and weekly email roundup, The Week Observed—with one calling it “absolutely my favorite thing I’m subscribing to right now.” (And for those of you who aren’t subscribed, you can do so at the top of the page!) We also heard your concerns about some issues with our website, from the way images load to the color scheme, and want to let you know that we’re working on making improvements.
Finally, we want to acknowledge the generous support of Knight Foundation in starting and sustaining City Observatory. Without Knight’s support and vision, none of the last year would have been possible.