What City Observatory did this week

1. Last month, we released the Storefront Index, a report that catalogued the nation’s retail clusters and provided a window into the spatial organization of an important part of Jane Jacobs’ famous “sidewalk ballet.” This week, we lifted the curtain a bit to explain how we built the index, hoping to give others who might wish to repeat or modify our methodology for their own research purposes a head start.

2. The growing economic strength of city centers is one of the most important facts of life in American urban policy today. This week, we updated our previous report, “Surging City Center Job Growth,” with three years of additional data that was unavailable when it was written. Our findings: although outlying areas have improved their standing since the depths of the recession, the pace of job sprawl has declined considerably in this economic expansion compared to the previous one.

3. We’re not the only ones finding strength in urban cores. Two other recent studies, in addition to our own, point to the same conclusion. The Washington think tank the Economic Innovation Group found that just 20 counties—all large urban counties—accounted for fully half of the country’s new business formationbetween 2010 and 2014. They also accounted for a disproportionate share of all new jobs. That’s a reversal from previous decades, when relatively smaller counties grew faster than larger ones. In addition, the Brookings Institution finds that urban core cities have continued to close the gap in their population growth rates with outlying parts of metropolitan areas.

4. A new affordable housing proposal in California is shedding light on some of the dynamics of housing politics in that state. Governor Jerry Brown has floated allowing developments that contain at least 20 percent below-market units and meet existing local zoning requirements to bypass an additional, only-in-California level of local discretion, called CEQA. But local governments and even some affordable housing advocates have come out against this fast-tracking of affordable units, because it reduces the bargaining power of local interests. That lines up with previous research that we’ve highlighted showing that regions where states exert more control of the development process are less segregated than places with more local control.

The week’s must reads

1. The share of new people in the rapidly growing Houston metropolitan area in the city proper has increased from just 12 percent from 2000 to 2010 to 28 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to Rice University’s Urban Edge blog. Of course, the city of Houston includes everything from burgeoning 21st century urban townhouse and apartment flat neighborhoods to classic late 20th century suburbia, so it won’t be clear exactly where these new residents are going until we have better tract-level data. But as Houston Tomorrow points out, there are payoffs even just to more centrally-located sprawl: the average person in the Houston metro area drives nearly 23,000 miles per year, as opposed to just over 19,000 in the city proper. In denser inner neighborhoods, that drops to 14,000 miles.

2. More from Texas: At D Magazine, Patrick Kennedy uses our Storefront Index to correlate downtown destination density with parking prices. Not surprisingly, the more downtown storefronts, the higher parking prices are. Kennedy finds similar patterns for job and residential density. Does that mean places with lots of people, jobs, and stores need more parking? Kennedy says no—it means that their land is valuable, and reserving lots of it for car storage doesn’t make sense.

3. A while ago, we highlighted an Orlando suburb that became the first municipality in the country to subsidize ride-hailing apps, like Uber, as a kind of transit service. Now, a much larger city, Philadelphia, has announced a limited-time partnership with Uber to solve the “first and last mile problem,” with discounts of 40 percent for trips to and from several regional rail stations. If the pilot is successful, it could be extended and expanded. This may be another sign that predictions from Yale Law professor David Schleicher about the inherent incentives of local governments to promote ride-hailing services as a public good were prescient.

New knowledge

1. The Seattle-based Frontier Group released a report this week, “A New Way Forward,” on the possibilities of a zero-carbon transportation system. It would rely on electric vehicles powered by renewable energy; more urban patterns of growth that allow for more trips to be taken without powered vehicles; more reliance on public transit; better pricing of transportation options to reflect their real social costs; and a suite of other measures.

2. School test scores in Washington, DC are up. Kristin Blagg and Matthew Chingos at the Urban Institute ask whether that’s just a consequence of changing demographics, or if there seems to have been genuine improvement. The answer: demographics can’t explain all of the test score improvements. Because their analysis only looks at district-wide changes, it’s less clear if the improvements might be tied to the benefits of integrated schools, or whether even schools that have remained racially and economically segregated have seen gains as well.

3. A new paper from Karen Chapple and Miriam Zuk at UC–Berkeley looks at the relationship between housing production—both market-rate and below-market—and low-income displacement in the Bay Area. They find that both types of housing are associated with reduced displacement, with below-market housing having roughly twice the per-unit effect as market housing. They also find that both kinds of housing appear only to work as anti-displacement measures at relatively larger geographies, which they suggest is a result of the incredibly intense housing pressures at smaller, block-group-sized neighborhood levels. While the authors position the paper as a counterpoint to an earlier report from the CA Legislative Analyst’s Office that emphasized the importance of market construction, Zuk and Chapple do reaffirm the importance of more market housing as part of the solution to the Bay Area’s housing problems. One issue: their models only manage to explain less than 20 percent of all the variation in displacement, suggesting other major unobserved factors that need to be sought out in future research.

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.

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