What City Observatory did this week

1. Engaged communities, civic participation, and democracy. A guest post from the Knight Foundation’s Carol Coletta begins by noting some dismal numbers on voting in American cities—especially by younger people. But civic engagement can’t just be about once-in-a-while actions; it has to be a daily practice. Carol gives an example of a intervention into public space in Philadelphia, funded by the Knight Cities Challenge, that created a place for people from different backgrounds to “live life in public,” creating the foundation for a healthy civic society.

2. Is foreign capital destroying American cities? In the Guardian Cities, Columbia University professor Saskia Sassen expressed some alarm about the number of real estate purchases by large multinational corporations in cities around the world—creating a “de-urbanizing dynamic” and reducing diversity. But while there’s good reason to question some high-profile, large-scale corporate development deals, the larger question of the role of big corporations in our cities is less clear. Most corporate purchases are from other corporations, and Brooklyn—which Sassen singles out in her piece—has seen a dramatic rise in small businesses as well as large-firm employment.

3. You need more than one number to understand housing affordability. In October, we wrote a post called “Housing affordability beyond the median,” pointing out that the usual metric we use to gauge housing prices—the median—actually hides a huge amount of important information. Since then, two other researchers have jumped into the effort at creating more complex measures of affordability. Redfin, the online real estate company, created maps showing “affordable,” high-end,” and “mixed” neighborhoods, based on the distribution of costs within neighborhoods; and John Ricco of Greater Greater Washington created graphs showing how median prices are distributed by neighborhood across cities. Both are important moves to give our understanding of housing prices—and what counts as “affordable”—more nuance.

The week’s must reads

1. How common is gentrification? At Planetizen, Michael Lewyn makes the seemingly obvious, but little-acknowledged, point that it all depends on what you mean by “gentrification.” Many of the studies suggesting that gentrification is very widespread count any poor neighborhood that sees a notable decrease in poverty—even if it remains well above its region’s average poverty levels. Other researchers (including us, in our “Lost in Place” report) define gentrification as a more substantial transformation: moving from double the national poverty rate to at or below the national poverty rate, or (in the case of another study) from majority-non-white to majority-white. Using those definitions, gentrification is extremely rare. Lewyn also notes, citing “Lost in Place,” that “de-gentrification”—low-income or middle-class neighborhoods becoming poorer—appears to be much more common than the reverse.

2. Grab your headphones and take a listen to this talk by Harvard’s Raj Chetty at Equity Summit 2015, where he talks about his ground-breaking research on segregation and economic mobility—the heart of the American Dream. What correlates with upward mobility? What kinds of places foster it? Chetty’s research gets to the heart of City Observatory’s mission: creating the kind of cities that allow the American Dream, and it’s worth listening to Chetty himself explain what that means.

3. Sometimes pictures tell the story as well as words can. That’s the case withCleveland.com‘s historic photos of central Akron, tracing its history from a compact city with continuous urban fabric and high-quality public spaces to one methodically ripping apart that very fabric and destroying public spaces with highways, parking lots, and other interventions meant to appeal to private cars. (There’s a frame-by-frame description of what you’re seeing at the link, but if you need even more words about highways and cities, try this piece by Alana Semuels at The Atlantic.) Below, Akron in 1938 and the same shot in 2010.

New knowledge

1. If you’re getting this email, you’ve probably already decided that racial segregation is bad. But just in case, here’s another angle on the issue from researcher Jessica Trounstine at the University of California, Merced. She finds that more segregated cities spend less money on public services, all things being equal, than more integrated ones. And the difference is large: moving from the 25th percentile of segregation to the 75th percentile means about $100 less per person on all public services. By way of comparison, the average expenditure on police is just $180 per person. Why is that? Trounstine writes: “When a city is residentially segregated by race, issues cleave along racial and not just spatial lines and groups are more likely to be intolerant, resentful, and competitive with each other…. Less able to build consensus, [these cities] also have lower levels of spending on a wide range of public goods—from streets, to sewers, to assistance for the poor.”

2. And even more evidence that desegregation leads to more equitable economic outcomes. Eric Chyn at the University of Michigan revisits data from the Moving to Opportunity program, in which families in public housing were given vouchers to move to higher-income communities, and finds that the long-run effects are even larger than previous studies had indicated. Children in families given these vouchers were nine percent more likely to be employed as adults, and earned wages that were 16 percent higher. Importantly, Chyn also finds evidence that the people who choose to take vouchers actually benefit less from relocation than those who don’t choose to take them, suggesting further underestimates of the benefits from previous studies.

3. The “great inversion”—the return of demand for dense, inner-city neighborhoods—is well-established now. But what’s driving it? New research from researchers at UC-Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania suggests that access to amenities like restaurants, retail, and entertainment is driving much of the demand from young, college-educated people. In contrast, other hypotheses, including shorter trips and slowing household formation, provide much less explanatory power. The authors argue that this means the revival of American downtowns has more staying power than believed by those who argue that urban living is a temporary trend.

The Week Observed is City Observatory’s weekly newsletter. Every Friday, we give you a quick review of the most important articles, blog posts, and scholarly research on American cities.

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

If you have ideas for making The Week Observed better, we’d love to hear them! Let us know at jcortright@cityobservatory.org, dkhertz@cityobservatory.org, or on Twitter at @cityobs.