What City Observatory did this week

1. Let’s talk about neighborhood stigma. Daniel Kay Hertz reviews some of the literature on the interplay between a neighborhood’s reputation and its disadvantage—and finds a surprising reversal in the conventional understanding of the issue. Rather than problems like greater crime or vandalism leading to bad reputations, researchers like Harvard’s Robert Sampson have found that communities acquire reputations in large part because of factors like racial makeup. Those reputations, in turn, create stigma that actually create many of the disadvantages that they supposedly reflect.

2. Urban buses are slowing down. A look at the data shows that since 2000, the average bus speed in urban areas of at least a million people has slowed by close to 7%, from 13.6 to 12.7 mph. Daniel Kay Hertz goes through why that matters, and a few of the possible culprits.

3. Revisiting Marietta. Joe Cortright returns to the subject of the Atlanta suburb that’s tearing down “naturally occurring” affordable housing for a private commercial development. Joe argues that it’s wrong to single out Marietta—many other cities have simply been more successful in keeping out low-income housing, and low-income people, to begin with. Those municipalities, and the laws that enable them, also ought to come under criticism.

4. The McMansion mirage reappears. Joe Cortright returns to the question of what it means for McMansions to be “back.” Several media outlets have made that claim, following reports that the median square footage of newly-built single family homes is climbing. But actual levels of McMansion construction are down over 40% since before the housing bust.

5. We got an assist this week from Justin Palmer, who used data from our report “Lost in Place” to visualize income trends in major metropolitan areas across the country. Check it out! This is just a taste:

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The week’s must reads

1. It’s not a read, but The Problem We All Live With, New York Timesreporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’ hourlong documentary for This American Life, is a must-listen. Hannah-Jones covers the problem of school segregation through the story of a school district outside St. Louis that did something very unusual—it accidentally desegregated. What happened afterwards is both a reason for hope and a damning account of the racial hurdles many Americans still aren’t ready to overcome.

2. In Where Should a Poor Family Live?”, Thomas Edsall criticizes some affordable housing advocates and developers for building housing mostly in low-income neighborhoods, rather than higher-income areas that might lead to greater economic and racial integration. He even notes that several affordable housing organizations wrote an amicus brief to the Supreme Court asking it to strike down the stronger “disparate impact” interpretation of the Fair Housing Act. (For an opposing view, professor Edward Goetz has some critiques of the move to disperse affordable housing.)

3. We don’t generally cover city finances at City Observatory, but thisGoverning piece on how many public pension funds are struggling should alarm anyone who’s committed to using local resources for maintaining important social services, including housing support, transit, and other community development. Philadelphia, for example, saw a return of just 0.5 percent in Fiscal Year 2015, and in New York City, four of five public pension plans saw returns of under 5 percent—but most pension plans are funded under the assumption they will see an average return of 8 percent.

New knowledge

1. At the Urban Institute, three writers argue that existing data on local businesses, while able to shed some light on neighborhood change, is inadequate to the needs of planners and researchers. Christina Plerhoples Stacy, Brett Theodos, and Carl Hedman write that two rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in Washington, DC, have seen faster growth in total businesses compared to a non-gentrifying district—but, somewhat counter-intuitively, have actually seen a decline in the number of full-service restaurants, while limited-service restaurants spiked. Existing data, however, can’t distinguish between a fast-food McDonald’s or high-priced cafe, and so make it hard to interpret these numbers in a shifting social and economic context.

2. A new paper from Robert Noland and Stephanie DiPetrillo in the Journal of Transport and Land Use provides even more evidence for the impact of transit-oriented development on the choice of transportation. Shockingly enough, even with a bevy of controls, those who lived in housing close to train stations in New Jersey were much more likely to use transit that those who lived further away.

3. Conventional wisdom is that racial segregation in America, though still unacceptably high, has been declining since about 1970. But a new paper from Daniel Lichter, Domenico Parisi, and Michael Taquino in the American Sociological Review challenges that view. While acknowledging that neighborhood-level segregation has declined, the study suggests that municipality-level segregation has actually increased since 1990. Moreover, because municipalities are the level of both social service delivery and exclusionary policies, the authors argue that this may be a more meaningful geography of analysis, casting doubt on progress many believe American cities have made.

The Week Observed is City Observatory’s weekly newsletter. Every Friday, we give you a quick review of the most important articles, blog posts, and scholarly research on American cities. You can sign up to get it in your inbox by clicking “Subscribe” at the top of the page!

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

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