Cities, Population Density and White Flight


Recently I happened across this series of maps that accompanied a book on urban decline. The maps tell four different stories of St. Louis’ history: typical urban “white flight”; formalized segregation; municipal zoning patterns; and “urban renewal” projects. I want to focus on the story of white flight, which is particularly enhanced by the dramatic maps.

White flight is many things, and it is an inherently simplistic term. But white flight is also a real phenomenon and it contributed to the decline of urban cores in most cities in America during the second half of the twentieth century. Spurred by black immigration, increased population, and the desire for space and aided by interstates and exclusionary housing practices, white Americans moved en masse from cities to suburbs or suburbs to exurbs. As a result, cities lost tax bases, blacks were literally confined to live in decaying urban cores and population density plummeted.

What we see in 1950 is a somewhat-integrated city center (adjoining neighborhoods of white and black, in reality) and a relatively tight, almost entirely white, ring of inner suburbs. Ten years later and you can clearly see the explosion of white flight with the entire city losing white populations and second- and third-tier suburbs filling out with those migrants. For twenty more years the trend continues, while black populations also spread north and west into county suburbs. By 1980 the urban center is hemorrhaging both whites and blacks and white migration continues well into exurban areas.

A tempting hypothesis when looking at the changes from 1970 to 1980 is that whites were continually motivated to depart the northwest county as black populations also abandoned the city center for these municipalities. Again, this story of depopulation and racial segregation is a complex sociological event. So, trying to pin it down to racial fears wouldn’t be informative, appropriate, or useful. However, where black populations increase the most, white populations decrease in kind.

A separate, but equally fascinating, story is hinted at here. Look at 1970, then again at 1980. In 1970, even as white flight kept ramping up, municipalities were actually constrained by land features. Namely, the Missouri River to the north and Meramec River to the south formed natural barriers to expansion. By 1980, this constraint has been done away with. White dots crop up arbitrarily where nothing existed before. Up to 70 miles outside downtown along Cuivre River to the northwest, for example.

The westward explosion of out-migration from the city continues through the 2010 census. People, especially whites, appear to continue to seek lower density areas and settle in previously unpopulated towns. The black population continues a predominantly northwestern track out of the city, which lost an additional 8% of its population from 2000 to 2010.

Why does this all matter? How does white flight, and out-migration in general, contribute to the decline of cities? Well, remember that cities thrive off of population density. It’s what provides those weaklinks, those chance encounters, that get ideas rolling and get stuff done. Population density supports businesses which support jobs and it fills and funds schools. The pattern seen in STL and in basically every other city in the second half of the twentieth century was one of excessive suburbanization. This not only decimated the tax base of the urban core (which, after all, is the very reason the surrounding municipalities exist in the first place) but also took away the greatest resource any city has: its people.

Many cities have seen their urban cores rejuvenated after this same period of suburbanization. Jobs come back to downtown, people follow, and businesses follow them. You could look at this as a rubber-banding, snapping back to the center. Not unlike the “Big Crunch” theory of the universe: gravity may pull us all back together in due time.

But St. Louis has not stopped this trend yet. People keep leaving the city and populating farther and farther reaches of exurbia. I look at this and I hope—and I think—that this city is just a little slower with the rubber-banding snap back to the urban core. But what happens if the gravitational energy of the city center isn’t enough to pull this crazy suburban flight back? Will we keep expanding forever into nothingness, increasing the entropy of the metropolitan area until the city dies the same heat death the universe will?

Okay, so the cosmology is hyperbolic here, but do we need to concern ourselves with the possibility of a permanently inverted city with a hollow core and continued suburban exodus? Maybe. Hopefully not. The downtown population was the fastest growing in the city in the last census. Tech firms are actively moving into the city. Wonks like to talk about how millenials are permanently urban-focused. Maybe that will be the starting point of a new focus on the urban core.