What City Observatory did this week

1. At City Observatory, we’re interested in hard numbers—but we’re also interested in the human community and public spaces that cities can create. As we did in April with “Lost in Place,” on Monday we introduced an easy-to-share infographic of our report “Less in Common.” It summarizes many of the facts found in that report, including that the proportion of Americans interacting with their neighbors has declined by a third since 1970, and recreational activities like swimming have been radically privatized. Take a look—and because all City Observatory work is licensed under Creative Commons, you’re free to reuse the graphic in your own presentations or reports with attribution.

2. We often talk about “economic segregation” as if it were one issue—but in reality, that’s a catch-all term for all sorts of separate but related problems. Going off of work by Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff, we begin breaking down the concept by explaining some measures of segregation at the extremes: the percentage of families living in high-income or low-income neighborhoods. These measures are particularly relevant if you’re concerned about the effects of resource-hoarding wealthy neighborhoods, on the one hand, and opportunity-starved low-income neighborhoods on the other. But by breaking out these as separate ideas, we can see that some cities have issues with wealthy and low-income neighborhoods in roughly equal proportion, while in others, low-income neighborhoods are a much bigger problem.

3. Having introduced ways to understand and measure the segregation of the high- and low-income, we turn to the H index, a way of measuring income segregation along the entire spectrum, and distinguishing between segregation itself and inequality—different but related issues that may call for different policy approaches. While the High + Low scores suggest that New Orleans is much more segregated than Cincinnati, for example, the H index suggests the issue is actually that New Orleans is much more unequal.

4. One of the best parts of our work at City Observatory is seeing how people across the country apply our findings to their own cities and needs. We did a brief overview of the ways that people reacted and responded to our Storefront Index—from questions about whether businesses in skyways can have the same street-livening effects as traditional storefronts, to examining the inequality of retail and amenity density, to musing about how the Storefront Index could be a tool for planners to identify retail districts that need “room to grow” in the form of more commercial zoning. Let us know if you have your own uses, comments, or questions!

The week’s must reads

1. How do we know how to design the streets near your home, job, or school? Traffic studies, of course! But co.exist breaks down how those studies are themselves designed to almost always end up concluding that every street needs to be wider, faster, and less pedestrian-friendly. That, in turn, encourages more people to drive—so that the next traffic study finds roads need to be even more optimized for traffic, at the cost of safe, pleasant places to walk, bike, take transit, or just hang out.

2. NPR’s Planet Money podcast takes a look at Housing Choice Vouchers, one of the main forms of housing assistance to low-income households in the US. They end up asking some questions we’ve raised ourselves: Why do we make housing assistance a lottery, with many more qualifying households than available assistance, when other important kinds of help—like SNAP, or food stamps—are available to anyone with income below a certain level?

3. At Bloomberg, economist Noah Smith says that major American avenues to “extensive” economic growth, like globalization and the internet, have largely played out their potential for increasing productivity. The next round of US economic growth, he argues, will have to be “intensive”: “getting more output for a given unit of input.” And one way to do that is by urbanizing more. Research suggests that more densely settled metropolitan areas, all else equal, are more economically productive.

New knowledge

1. At City Observatory, we’ve been critical of the mortgage interest tax deduction, which effectively creates billions of dollars in subsidies that largely to go upper-income households. A new paper by Hal Martin of the Cleveland Federal Reserve and Andrew Hanson of Marquette University attempts to measure the effect on housing markets of different kinds of reforms to the MID. They find getting rid of the deduction would cause prices to fall as much as 13.5 percent in Washington, DC and as little as 3.5 percent in Miami. In contrast, swapping out the deduction for a 15 percent refundable credit—which could both reduce subsidies to upper-income households and make more assistance available to lower- and middle-income ones—would tend to increase housing prices—up to 12.1 percent in the Miami metropolitan area.

2. At CityLab, Richard Florida reviews two new studies on the growing economic strength of central cities. The first, by Daniel Hartley of the Chicago Federal Reserve, finds that neighborhoods closer to downtown—but not in downtown—saw faster job growth from 2009-11 than from 2002-2009, outpacing neighborhoods farther out on the periphery. (These results echo our findings in “Surging City Center Job Growth.”) Another, from the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, finds that cities with stronger industry clusters saw more rapid job growth in those clusters from 2003-2011, underscoring the advantages of agglomeration.

3. Housing assistance can be a lifeline to low-income families, but does it offer benefits beyond immediate housing relief? A paper from the St. Louis Federal Reserve finds that, at least in some cases, the answer is yes: For every year that girls and women between the ages of 13 and 18 live in public housing, adult earnings increase by 9 percent; for each year that their families received housing vouchers, their adult earnings increase by 6 percent. Boys and men, on the other hand, see no such effects.

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.