What City Observatory did this week

1. How diverse are the neighborhoods white people live in? Data from the newly released 5-year American Community Survey tabulations give us an updated picture of the demographics of urban neighborhoods. A new report from the Brookings Insitutiton’s Bill Frey shows that the typical US metropolitan area is continually becoming more diverse. But it’s still the case that the typical white resident of a large metropolitan area lives in a much less diverse neighborhood. We take a close look at Frey’s data and plot the relationship between metro level diversity and the experienced neighborhood level diversity of the typical white resident. There are surprisingly wide variations among metropolitan areas; in some very diverse metropolitan areas, the typical white resident lives in a neighborhood with a relatively low level of diversity. These results reflect the continuing importance of localized patterns of segregation.

2. Tying it all together. As we look forward to 2017, we reflect on some of the key lessons that we think we’ve learned at City Observatory.  Here we’ve highlighted some of the principal insights in four broad areas: the growing importance of city centers, the shortage of cities, the need to re-think transportation policy and the challenge of segregation, integration and neighborhood change. We have links to some of our most useful commentaries in each of these areas.

3. Housing supply is catching up to demand. We know that ordinary humans find little solace in the economist’s admonition that rising rents will ultimately be counteracted by an increase in housing supply. The big problem is timing: demand can change quickly, and supply only slowly, so rents can go up until supply catches up. In some particularly hot markets, there’s growing evidence that this is just what is happening. In one of the hottest markets–Seattle–the city is on track to build as many apartments this year as in the preceding half century. And rent increases there and in some other large cities have slowed and in a few neighborhoods, actually declined. As more supply is added in the months and years ahead, its likely to have a further effect on rents.

Rising rents have begun to generate a response..

4. Who pays the price of inclusionary zoning? One of the political attractions of inclusionary zoning is that it seems to be a way to force developers to pay for affordable housing without requiring scarce public funds. Portland’s newly adopted inclusionary zoning requirements include the kinds of density bonuses and other concessions that are common in inclusionary housing programs, but also include a tax break for developers. Plans to give developers a tax exemption for all of the units (not just affordable ones) in high rise apartments could push the subsidy per unit over $200,000, according to city estimates. And property tax exemptions don’t just cost the city forgone revenue: three-quarters of the revenue loss will be felt by schools and other local governments.

Must read

1. Making America great again isn’t about money and power, says Robert Shiller in the New York Times. Many urbanists are leery of the implications of the incoming administration’s promise to “Make America Great Again.” Nostalgia for a poorly remembered bygone era is unlikely to be a good guide to policy in the 21st Century. Economist Robert Shiller, (recipient of the 2013 Nobel in his field), has some potent observations on what leads to greatness: and in his view, its has a lot to do with the kind of communities we build. He specifically invokes Jane Jacobs, and her view of how cities generate the kind of innovation and prosperity that drive our economy: “Cities grow organically, she said, capturing a certain dynamic, a virtuous circle, a specialized culture of expertise, with one industry leading to another, and with a reputation that attracts motivated and capable immigrants.” Shiller warns that the Trump Administration needs to avoid undercutting the conditions that have enabled cities to grow, thrive and create opportunity.

2. Silicon Valley’s self-serving vision for self driving cars. Writing in the Fiscal Times, David Dayen takes a critical view of the hype about the disruptive potential of self-driving cars. Many of the imagined futures assume that the public sector will make massive investments in new infrastructure–like dedicated lanes for high-speed autonomous vehicles. If the utopian vision of fleets of self-driving cars hinges on a massive public subsidy, that transforms this new technology into a kind of scam, according to Dayen: “I think normal people would call what we have here a grift. The car companies want to commandeer public infrastructure as a massive subsidy for their business model. And in the zero-sum world of government spending, such a scheme necessarily crowds out transportation that everyone can afford to use. ” The point is strongly made, but its helpful to remember that plain-old human driven cars also depended for their success on massive public investment, plus a fundamental re-writing of the rules of the road in a way that literally gave the right of way to vehicles over humans. It’s probably worth thinking about that as we move forward.

3. The devilish details of implementing an inclusionary zoning process. The Sightline Insitute’s Dan Bertolet sifts through the byzantine details of Seattle’s proposed mandatory inclusionary housing requirements. In its much ballyhooed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) civic leaders in Seattle reached a handshake deal to implement mandatory inclusion for new development in the city–but left the details to be hammered out by the city’s planning department. Bertolet looks at the complex system they’ve drafted, which divides the city into three broad areas (based on rents), requires three different levels of inclusion (ranging from 5 percent to 11 percent in each), and which offers varying density bonuses in different zones. There’s a lot to digest here in terms of the practical, real-world difficulties of implementing such a program. One such insight: density bonuses may be useless to developers in situations where adding another story would require them to shift from relatively cheap wood construction to all-concrete and steel. Ultimately, he argues, the success of the program will depend on striking a delicate balance between inclusionary requirements and regulatory relief. Just how delicate a balance? Bertolet writes: “Just two 200-unit apartment buildings rendered infeasible by MHA per year would effectively negate the benefits of all of the subsidized units produced by the program.”

New Research

1. Where walking is hazardous to your health. For several years, Smart Growth America has annually produced “Dangerous by Design,” a report taking on the grim but necessary task of detailing the number of pedestrians killed by cars in the US.  Over the past decade, the toll is 46,149 deaths. As is now well understood using the word “accident” to describe these pedestrian deaths amounts to Orwellian blame-shifting. It turns out there’s little random about the pattern of deaths, either in their locations or demographics. A series of metropolitan areas in the US South–especially in Florida–again top the charts in pedestrian fatality rates. These are the same places that have arterial street networks that were mostly designed and built in the automobile era, and which consign pedestrians to second-class status. Not owning a car is clearly a serious risk factor. As the report points out, the elderly, the poor and people of color–who are less likely to own cars and drive–are disproportionately the victims of vehicular death. Designing cities to move cars quickly kills people who walk.

2. How cities promote social interaction. Economist Ed Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City famously described cities as “the absence of space between people.” A key aspect of the urban experience is facilitating interaction between different people. Konstantin Buchel and Maximilian von Ehrlich of the University of Bern undertook an analysis of  anonymized phone records from Switzerland looks into the ways that urban density influences the range and nature of networks of social contacts among residents. Not surprisingly, their study finds that the likelihood of contacts between any two people decreases with distance. But the authors find that density doesn’t so much increase the number of contacts, but the diversity and richness of those contacts. They confirm the idea that denser locations promote the strength of so-called weak ties (that people have networks with less overlap from their friends and colleagues and thereby have greater reach).