What City Observatory did this week

1.  The myth of a revealed preference for suburban living. It’s often argued that most Americans must prefer to live in suburbs because so many persons do so. We take a close look at this thesis, and summarize some key research findings from work of Jonathan Levine, which explore the gap between the neighborhoods Americans prefer and what’s actually on offer in most metro areas.  The results suggest that a lot more Americans would live in cities, if they weren’t in such short supply.

2.  Let’s stop scaremongering about cities.  There’s been precious little talk about cities in the presidential campaign, which may be a good thing. Donald Trump has famously called inner cities ““a disaster education-wise, job-wise, safety-wise, in every way possible.” Not only is this objectively not true—America’s cities have experienced substantial drops in crime, gains in population and jobs, and improvements in environmental quality—but talking down cities misses real opportunities to think about how they can play a key role in helping tackle major national problems. Describing cities in “crisis” terms is a poor way to formulate strategy.
3.  Housing for the favored few.  Some recent housing affordability programs have aimed to address the needs of specific deserving groups.  California’s legislature has just enacted a new policy that allows the use of low income tax credits to provide subsidized housing for teachers. A similar provision nationally, allows these same tax credits (and other affordable housing resources) to be used for housing for artists. Meritorious as these groups are, it’s not clear that the affordability issues they face are worse than other Americans. Carving off a portion of the limited resources available for affordability for a favored few does little to solve the broader affordability problem.

4.  Homeownership and racial wealth disparities.  Over the past decade, the big wealth disparities between whites and people of color have widened. Because much of this disparity is attributable to differences in housing wealth, and because for most families home equity is their largest asset, its long been assumed that promoting home ownership will reduce disparities. A major problem with this assumption is that credit tends to be most easily available to African-American and Latino buyers at or near the peak of the housing cycle, meaning that they’re put in a position of “buying high and selling low.” The cyclical nature of credit availability makes it hard to reduce wealth disparities through homeownership.

This week’s must reads

1.  Reimagining the American Civic Commons.  In an essay published at Real Clear Policy, our colleague Carol Coletta describes the growing evidence of our nation’s increasing fragmentation along economic, ethnic, and political lines. That problem has manifested itself prominently in the persistence and growth of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. She describes how we might address this growing challenge by working to reinvigorate the civic commons—the places in our communities where diverse groups come together. Her essay introduces a new effort led by the Kregse Foundation and a group of philanthropic partners to reimagine how our civic commons can help bridge these divides.

2. Americans value diversity.  One encouraging sign, despite the many divisions that separate us, is the fact that a wide majority of Americans still attach a positive value to living in a diverse nation.  That puts us in a very different class than other economically advanced nations, including most of Europe, according to data from the Pew Research Center. They found that 58 percent of Americans agreed that having an increasingly diverse population makes our country a better place to live; only 7 percent said that growing diversity made it worse.  In a handful of European countries a narrow plurality of respondents thought diversity made their country stronger, and in several the predominant opinion was that diversity made the country weaker.



New knowledge


1.  Do people shape cities, or do cities shape people? This is the provocative question posed by a team of researchers from Harvard and MIT.  The study analyzes Google streetview images of 5 cities (Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and New York) from 2007 and 2014. Each paired set of images is evaluated using computer vision technology and a crowd-sourced scoring system for assessing the appearance of safety in each image.  The results show which neighborhoods appear to have gotten safer over time. The good news is the average neighborhood appearance of safety  increased significantly over just this seven-year period (by about one half of a standard deviation).  But the real story is the authors’ examination of which neighborhoods showed the greatest improvements.  Here, for example, is a map indicating the New York City neighborhoods with the greatest improvement in appearance over the seven-year period.

They then analyze the relationship between changes in neighborhood appearance and pre-existing neighborhood conditions.  They find the biggest factors leading to visible changes in neighborhood appearance are a high level of educational attainment, population density and proximity to the central business district.  They find that some factors that are often treated as predictors of change—like vacancy rates, rent levels and average incomes are not correlated with subsequent changes in a neighborhood’s physical appearance. The study is a tantalizing look at how we might use automation and “big” data to craft entirely new types of urban indicators.

2.  Bikes and Health.  A new study published in Injury Prevention aims to compute the value of the public health  return on investment on from building bike lanes. In an article entitled “The cost effectiveness of bike lanes in New York City.” Jing Gu and her co authors compile data on the growth of bike infrastructure in the city, and trends in bicycle ridership, and correlate this with estimates of the economic gains associated with better health from greater cycling. They estimate that the 45 miles of bike lanes built by the city at a cost of about $8 million increased the probability of bike riding by 9 percent, and that the net health effects of this ridership measured in “quality adjusted life years” were far more economical than many standard public health strategies.