Visualizing Our Changing Cities

Photos by Brian Villa for St. Louis Public Radio and Richard
Moore via the Missouri History Museum
In 1950, St. Louis was the eight-largest city in America at a bulging 850,000 residents. It was a twentieth-century city, buoyed by diverse manufacturing and a busy port. It was also a highly-segregated city, split strikingly into a largely-black north city and whiter, richer south citybut the entire urban core suffered from flight to the suburbs and industrial Midwest decline.

Six decades later, the city is drastically different. The County bests the City's 300,000 population by three-to-one after sixty years of uninterrupted population loss.

Understanding the causes and consequences of urban decline and evolving city life is difficult. It requires ten-, fifty-, and hundred-year perspectives and a close knowledge of economic and political contexts. One way we can better appreciate how our cities have changed is to visualize the effects of time, in maps and data.

I was drawn to the hypnotizing displays of changing Midwest cities put together by the University of Oklahoma's Institute for Quality Communities. Simple sliders reveal cities universally carved up by the Interstate Highway System and uniquely altered by the effects of and responses to urban decline, such as the Arch grounds and Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis. In each case we can directly observe how dense, residential neighborhoods were transformed into offices, or simply wiped clean by population loss and decay.

One of my first exposures to the stark changes that St. Louis has undergone since its mid-century heyday was the simple and excellent Mapping Decline website to accompany Colin Gordon's book of the same name. Four maps show the great exodus from the city center and the racial covenants that forced black residents to remain in decaying neighborhoods, patterns that resulted in an intentionally divided region. The consequences of these policies and demographic shifts are felt now, decades later. Ferguson became a household name this past August in part because of unaddressed divides, seen clearly in Gordon's work.

Visualizing how my city has changed is simply fascinating as well, not always so serious. I stumbled upon Elizabeth McNulty's St. Louis Then and Now at Dunaway Books on South Grand, just the kind of architectural coffee table book I was keeping an eye out for. In almost 70 paired photographs, McNulty shows us a St. Louis rising at the end of 19th century, barreling into the 20th, and the state of its urban neighborhoods today. The dramatic shift from bustling port to sleepy, abandoned riverfront is especially striking to see. Similar sets of photos were assembled as part of St. Louis' 250th anniversary celebration, where streetcars make way for regular ones, and grand boulevards were once populated by throngs of downtown residents that have since left.

Cities are as dynamic as the people who inhabit them and bring them to life. Many Midwestern cities have struggled for several decades, while coastal cities have largely prospered. The pendulum may be swinging back now as peopleespecially the youngincreasingly seek out cities for their liveliness and density. These once-grand cities have serious problems to contend with, from racial divides to ailing school systems, but perhaps the twenty-first century will again see a rise of the cities that seemed to peak in the middle of the twentieth.

Having an Impact: The Appeal of Mid-sized Cities to Millennials

“There is a vibrant bar and restaurant scene, social sports leagues through which hundreds of young people get together to play kickball and other games, even a monthly bike ride – sponsored by a group working to make [the city] less car dependent – in which participants dress up in costume and ride through the city.”

I thought I was reading about St. Louis and wanted to look up this monthly cycling event that sounded like the Naked Bike Ride but more frequent. The city in question is not Portland, either, but rather Baltimore. In a profile of “The New ‘Cool’ Cities for Millennials,” The Christian Science Monitor uses Baltimore as the example of a series of infamously rundown, increasingly vibrant and even hip urban centers that increasingly draw the urban Millennial generation. Cleveland. Detroit. Nashville. St. Louis. Mid-sized cities with cheap rent, storied histories, and surprising economic opportunities for a generation pummeled by the Great Recession but still searching for places to make their mark.

And although New York, San Francisco, and other metropolises draw the lion’s share of young, educated adults, these other, often overlooked cities are beginning to see rapid increases in these populations. Even as St. Louis has continued a six-decade population death spiral, the number of 25-to-34-year-olds with a college degree near the urban core has more than doubled, rising 138% from 2000 to 2010, the largest such surge in the country. Although this relative increase obscures absolute changes, St. Louis attracted more than half the demographic increase Seattle did over this same period (4,227 versus 8,209). St. Louis and other struggling cities have far to go, but they are going, and changing faster than many would have anticipated just a few years ago.

In St. Louis, Downtown, Midtown and other central corridor neighborhoods were the only ones to gain residents from 2000 to 2010, when the city overall saw an 8% drop in population, perhaps a bellwether of a turning tide in the exodus from the city center. These neighborhoods include startup incubators like T-REX and Cortex, revitalized loft apartments, and convenient public transit.

And St. Louis is the fastest-growing city for new technology jobs. ArchGrants, founded in 2011, provides non-equity funding to tech startups—as long as they remain in or move to St. Louis. LaunchCode, which rapidly trains new programmers and places them at area businesses, was recently lauded by President Obama for its successes and is expanding nationally. Tech may not be sufficient to power the city’s economy, but St. Louis’ low cost of living and access to capital make it a top place for starting other businesses as well. 

Although demographers cannot untangle the economic causes from the cultural behind the Millennial move toward cities, The Christian Science Monitor and other sources have identified a self-reported interest in dense, walkable, community-oriented neighborhoods over suburban sprawl among the young. The people profiled in the CSM piece—employees at tech startups and nonprofits—claimed Baltimore as a city where they could have an impact, where a vibrant urban lifestyle coincided with a small enough community to feel absorbed, not “carried along”.

St. Louis offers the same opportunities to contribute to a quirky, very much in progress revitalization of the city. Upstart politicians can win by a mere 90 votes against an entrenched incumbent; individuals can ensure that local representatives listen to their constituents about critical bike infrastructure projects; shuttered corner businesses can be reopened to create a new community space; a brand new brewery can be self-funded.

As a full-time graduate student, I can still find a way to contribute to outreach to the community gardening scene in St. Louis where other cities, San Francisco for example, might have those kinds of niches saturated by individuals who can commit more fully to single projects. In many areas of this city, there is both a need and room for interested individuals and small groups to get their hands dirty in making their communities better—the results are obvious, the actions of individuals visible.


Demographers quibble over whether the Millennial move toward cities is stable, or whether family life, schools, and age will push us back out to the suburbs in the next decade or two. Time will tell. But it may be that the economic forces that favor urban centers only reinforce an intentional return to lively, dense cities. And that St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland or Detroit offer the more civic-minded—and more financially constrained—of our generation an opportunity to help forge the cities we will inhabit for decades to come. 

The Limits of the DOJ Ferguson Report in a Fractured Region

The Department of Justice released the findings of its investigation into civil rights abuses in Ferguson this week. The report is unsparing in its indictment of intentional racial bias within the police department and city government, and the unequal application of the law on black residents without cause. Analysis by people familiar with the DOJ’s involvement with other police forces suggests that the DOJ will forcefully compel their suggested changes, or dissolve the police department entirely.

As striking as this report is—and as clear as it is to dispel the myth that race is not a factor—its effects are inherently limited. Ferguson is home to only 21,000 people, one of 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, which has a total population greater than one million. The independent City of St. Louis houses another 320,000 residents, more than half of whom are non-white. The DOJ may reform the Ferguson police department into an exemplary force, or dissolve it altogether and allow the St. Louis County police to patrol the town. Neither will sufficiently address the widespread problems facing the St. Louis region or the country as a whole.

St. Louis is fragmented, divided intentionally over decades into white and black, rich and poor. Many other cities are similarly fractured. Forceful reform of a single police department, representing barely one percent of the region’s population, is nearly meaningless. The divisions that have contributed to St. Louis’ problems must be addressed alongside raking the Ferguson police department over the coals. Unnecessary police forces should be dissolved, and many of their cities absorbed into larger municipalities. The City of St. Louis and the County should be reunited in order to work together, not compete. 

Only a region so strengthened will be poised to lead the nation in meaningful reforms. Only if we heal these longstanding divisions can we turn a conversation into action. Bust open Ferguson, break it down and build it up into a city and a police force that serves its residents proudly and well. But to stop at Ferguson would fail St. Louis to an extent we cannot afford. 

Audio File #1: Urban Cultures

Audio stories captivate me. I know I am not alone, but radio is something I can totally geek out about. Hell, it's a cliché now to be obsessed with NPR. It is an old adage that while TV speaks to an audience, radio speaks to an individual. There is something innately personal about hearing another human speak in their voice into your ear, tellng you news from around the world, or stories from their experience in the world.

To honor the power of audio, I am beginning a series of short posts on favorite shows of mine. Up first for the holiday weekend: Urban Cultures, from To the Best of Our Knowledge.

To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK, as they abbreviate it) comes from Anne Strainchamps at Minnesota Public Radio. At first I was slow to warm to the sometimes-flowery take on different subjects; interviews seemed to lack a hard-hitting truth-seeking approach. But what I came to appreciae was the sheer sense of wonder that seems to drive the production staff of this show, and the breadth of topics they take on. It is not a news magazine show that seeks to tell all sides of a story evenly. Rather, the staff curates interviews with individuals really invested in their take on a subject. (Side note: Strainchamps is apparently the cousin of my boss, and not-infrequently covers plants; both of these things are awesome.)

Naturally I was drawn to the show because of its focus on cities and the human experience of urban life. An ongoing topic in the twenty-first century is the increasing urbanization of our world--the majority of humans live in cities now for the first time in history--and how that impacts our society. I, of course, feel that cities can augment our humanity and bring diverse groups closer together. But it is really in the developing world that the problems of urbanizing hundreds of millions of people over the coming decades will be decided.

The show starts with a melancholy look at Istanbul, once the seat of the Ottoman empire, now an enigmatic bridge between East and West. We move on to the power of cities and their progressive ideals, such as individual property rights, free enterprise, and representation, to reshape the world. Curiously, Russell Shorto proposes that the immigrant experience of New York as the entrance to America helped define American culture as those immigrants then moved inward and continued to take New York ideals with them.

Next we get a chance to consider how places can shape our experiences and memories, and the danger of building or inhabitating "blandscapes", generic stand-ins for authentic locales. Fittingly, the urban section ends with a focus on the cities of China, specifically Shanghai, and how the migrant experience there continues to shape Chinese culture.

One nice thing about TTBOOK is that the final minutes are reserved for different topics. A "dangerous idea" offered is to split America into several smaller countries to make government more nimble. I already worry about the cultural fragmentation enabled by the segregation of liberals and conservatives geographically, so I am left unconvinced. Our government seems to lumber in paralysis today, but I sincerely feel that our progress is strengthened through debate. To live in a homogeneous society driven by groupthink would be a sad state for our society indeed.

The show ends with NPR's Michele Noris recounting her own father's interaction with a police officer, and how the stories brought up by the events in Ferguson, Missouri over the last several weeks go back decades. Unfortunately, the circumstances in our society that lead to ongoing racial segregation and inequity will likely take decades more to address. The solace I find there is that I may be able to contribute to addressing them.

A nice hour of audio coming out of Minnesota this week. Savor it!

Urban Part 2: Walkable Communities

Urban humanism suggests that when cities bring diverse groups together, communities thrive. We understand one another, even if we are different, because we live and work and play side-by-side. Our ideas bounce off one another more quickly and effectively than if we had to shout into a suburban abyss. Just as universities bring together great minds to do great works, cities pack together the raw resource of humanity, people, into bustling, jostling, fun, joyful, scary, wonderful urban cores and we are better for it.

How do we make sure that cities thrive? How can urban areas serve their residents and be served by them? By putting the policies and infrastructure in place to make strong local communities that have the right amount of autonomy over their neighborhoods. Strong local communities, connected by smart infrastructure, make strong cities.

And strong local communities are, among other things, walkable.

Walkability is a hot topic right now. Millenials (all those young people writing blogs about made up terms like urban humanism) drive less and want to live in dense urban cores. Walkability is a catch-all term for the qualities that attract anyone to an urban area: close-by necessities and luxuries; green spaces; neighbors and visitors mingling. (Obviously this all includes bikability too; alternative transit options promote the walkable mindset).

Hartford Coffee Company
How does walkability promote strong communities? By turning residents into neighbors. Walking induces those chance encounters that make cities so powerful, while driving actively prevents them. These interactions with people on the street introduce us to the people we live by, giving us a chance to realize what we have in common. Hell, just looking one another in the eye—you know, acknowledging the existence of another human being—makes both parties happier. Strong communities are strong because they are communities of individuals who know one another, help one another, and work to achieve common goals.

Blackthorn Pizza Pub
So what does a real walkable neighborhood look like? Well, this is just one example: I was spending time in the Tower Grove area and although the South Grand district is certainly walkable and bustling, I am always captivated by the corner business. South St. Louis City has a lot of existing and defunct businesses built right smack dab in the middle of neighborhoods, providing a great example of mixed-use residential/commercial areas that encourage walking. Hartford Coffee Company and Blackthorn Pizza Pub are both great examples in the Tower Grove South neighborhood.

Converted to Residential Use
Unfortunately, a lot of these have been converted to residential use, perhaps because a drop in population meant fewer businesses could be supported in the neighborhood. Population density, once again, comes up as a key resource for developing thriving urban areas. You’ll almost never see this trend of corner businesses in suburban development, but it encourages neighbors to mingle and be, well, neighborly. There is also a tremendous urban park, ample biking areas, and a busy commercial district nearby plus mixed single- and multiple-family housing. All of these amenities promote ambling about and the mingling of diverse people.

(Arsenal also recently repainted their bike lanes to the gold standard: incorporating a buffer for the door zone.)

And walkability is promoted by a few pretty simple concepts that have been set aside for several decades but are apparent in some of the most thriving communities. Designing streets (not stroads—yes that’s a term now) that provide for pedestrians over cars. Street level housing that doesn’t retreat from the sidewalk. Mixed-use residential/commercial districts that promote integrated businesses over strip malls. Public transit and bike lanes. Deceptively simple things that can all add up to a friendlier, stronger community.

The ideas behind urban humanism can be read in a city’s street grids. Walkable areas are urban, in that they rely on densely-packed areas that reduce sprawl and can support local businesses; and humanistic, encouraging us to look one another in the eye, smile, say hello and share a thought, a small piece of our time and consciousness to tap into that most important resource: other people.




Cities, Population Density and White Flight

1940-1950

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.
1950-1960

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.
1960-1970

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.

1970-1980
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.

1980-1990
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.
1990-2000

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.

2000-2010
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.




Gentrification: Always a Dirty Word?

Is gentrification the same everywhere?

Gentrification refers to the economic revitalization of urban neighborhoods. More affluent residents move in and more up-scale businesses follow. In the 21st century, gentrification is often a dirty word: code for classism, economic discrimination, racism. Just look at the growing tensions over gentrification in San Francisco, particularly the Mission District, where technology giants and their extraordinarily well-off employees can swing the entire economic fate of a neighborhood in a flash.

But should gentrification be equally vilified, no matter the situation? No matter the city?

First of all, let us not forget that gentrification is not all bad. Using existing--often historic--housing stock to its fullest extent. Crime reductions. School improvements. Economic development. Improvement of community resources like shared spaces and parks. Gentrification is also part of the process of reversing the hollowing out of urban America. White flight and excessive suburbanization ravaged city communities and left abandoned once-bustling urban cores. Bringing reformed suburbanites back into the urban fold is good for the future of a city.

So can we take the good--the revitalization--and skip the evils of neighborhood dissolution and economic force-outs of long-time residents?

What is generally given as the prime evil of gentrification is the elevated rents that push out poorer residents. But what if you had a city whose peak population in 1950 was 860,000+ and now houses just 319,000? What if housing stock was abundant and provided a buffer against rent spikes?

A new report has asserted that gentrifying neighborhoods buck this trend in STL. (The authors call such neighborhoods "rebound districts". They are defined by a large improvement in economic and vacancy trends over the last twenty years after spending time in the bottom half of neighborhoods for at least some time after 1950). These areas maintain minority and poor populations because of "loose" housing markets, i.e. plenty of housing stock. Although demand surges, landlords and developers can tap into previously unused or under-used housing and provide for the new tenants without displacing the old.

Do things stay the same? Well, no. Minority populations still shift. Rents may still rise. If done poorly, gentrification can obscure the neighborhood culture that the affluent pioneers considered so chic. But if done right, perhaps gentrification does not need to be spoken of in hushed tones. Especially in rust belt cities like St. Louis (an aside: apparently "legacy cities" is the new term for formerly-industrial cities on the mend. In other news, I apparently have an entire new website to read dedicated to legacy cities.) the excess housing stock may lead to a different fate for gentrifying neighborhoods than in cities already bursting at the seams like San Francisco or New York.

Look around this city and you'll find scores of boarded up houses. Beautiful brick that has withstood time, but cannot forever. Many buildings are well over a hundred years old and retain a timeless aesthetic and a connection to the city's roots. You'd have a hard time convincing me that we should fight economic and social trends that would fill those houses and bring renewed life to sputtering neighborhoods.


Urban Media

Public radio is like a city.

The pledge drive for St. Louis Public Radio ended yesterday. (And it's not too late to pledge!) And I just spent the last two days, as I often do on weekends, listening to roughly eight hours of programming. Actually, that might be a conservative estimate. So I have public radio on my mind, you could say.

I listen to public radio not only to get my news--although it is my primary news source. I listen to get different perspectives, to expand my horizons and to see the world from a new point of view. I listen to On the Media so I understand the broader implications of mainstream and alternative media portrayals of events. I tune in to This American Life to hear how other people live and connect to one another.

Public radio provides something that few other media outlets can, or do anyway. It gives perspective. A local newspaper or broadcast may focus narrowly on nearby events. A lot of times these are sensational stories like murders that absolutely deserve to be covered but are teased out like twisted candy to attract visitors. A national paper or broadcast casts a wider net and tells you what is happening to people around the world and about the political machine marching toward new legislation that will affect you. And the network alternative, cable news, caters itself to self-selecting political ideologies or, like CNN, simply stoops to reach the lowest common denominator.

But public radio can offer a wider perspective. Partly because of its funding model, which at least for KWMU is about 50% individual donors with the remainder from corporate sponsorships, government funding and foundational support. This leaves public radio stations a good deal more independent and capable of covering issues with fewer conflicts of interest. And partly from what I can only assume is tradition. Or another way of phrasing that: choice.

Public radio chooses to provide a human narrative to many of the stories they cover. You hear people in their own voices, beamed into your home from another city or the other side of the world. You hear the pain when they describe loss and their joy when they overcome it. It is an intensely emotional medium.

Public radio is like a city because it provides you with those new experiences you only get from other people. Happening across an engaging, moving story on the radio is like running into a stranger at a coffee shop and striking up a conversation. You didn't know it was going to happen, but by being at the coffee shop, by surrounding yourself with new people, you let it happen. And it enriches your day, maybe even impacts your life.

When I put on the radio on Sunday afternoon I'm always hoping for those same experiences. To hear about problems and solutions and suffering and triumph and the bizarre and wonderful ways that my fellow human beings live grounds me in the wider society. I find this diversity invigorating, much as I do city life.

Urban Income Inequality

Cities attract a diverse population. Really, it’s this diversity that allows cities to be the engines of innovations and cultural progress. However, one stark effect of housing different populations in the same area is the gap between those with means and those without. A recent report by the Brookings Institution, summarized in a New York Times article, expands on how this income inequality comes about and where it is trending. The conclusion is that cities with high per-capita income—what the New York Times’ author calls “thriving”—are also the ones with the most pronounced income inequality. Midwestern and Southern cities with less booming economies show lower income inequality.

 

Why is that?

 

My first reaction is: Obviously! Income inequality is the gap between the poorest and the richest. (In fact, the Brookings study notes they use a common—but not the only—measure, which is the income ratio of the 95th percentile to the 20th percentile of earners). Big cities, attracting both high-wage industries like finance and technology, and with high costs of living, are far more likely to have big earners than smaller Midwestern cities. And that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The economy is not zero-sum game.

 

However, the Brookings study points out the issues that will plague cities with a large gap: a narrow tax base, and issues making housing affordable for all residents. Perhaps one of the most important issues for a city’s future, a city with high income inequality will “struggle to maintain mixed-income school environments,” limiting the opportunity of lower-income students. And it's these cycles of poverty and limited opportunities that exacerbate inequality issues generation after generation.

 

In fact, those issues bring up an entirely different consideration. A city with lower income inequality may simply be excluding the poorest families who cannot even afford to reside in the city limits. Without adequate housing options, and decent schools, cities will push many people out to suburbs or exurbs. This will leave only those willing to pay premium rents and private school tuition and obscure the measure of income inequality.

 

So, is income inequality being driven by the rich getting richer or the poor getting poorer? Like everything in life, it's both.

 

Compared with the U.S. average, the 50 biggest cities have the bottom 20th percentile of households earning 10% less. That drops their income from $20,968 to $18,137. And cities are typically more expensive to live in than outlying areas, so that reduced income may in fact represent even less purchasing power. The 95th percentile of households earns about $5,000 more in big cities than the U.S. average. However, that’s an increase of only about 2.5%. So both upward trends by the rich and downward trends by the poor contribute to income inequality in big cities. But that 10% drop is much more significant when you start off at only $20k.

 

For your reference: the three cities with the lowest 20th percentile incomes: Miami at $10,438, Cleveland at $9,432 and Detroit at $9,083. The three cities with the highest 95th percentile incomes: Atlanta at $279,827, D.C. at $290,637 and San Francisco at $353,576. I’m very happy for those doing well, wherever they live. But I am distraught and taken aback that we host cities where one in five households make $10k or less.

 

So what do we do about income inequality? Can the mayors who have signed on to tackle it accomplish their goals through smart urban planning? The optimist in me certainly hopes so.

Educational opportunities can go a long way toward breaking cycles of poverty. But even if smart, effective and radical policies are pushed through immediately, we’re talking about 15 or 20 years before we see long-term effects.

 

Housing takes up a much larger share of income than it used to, and in many cities is a force driving people out of city limits. Although I have a lot left to learn about truly effective urban planning—an amateur interest I have—housing would seem like a good place to begin. Although policies like rent control and public housing rarely work as intended, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are new innovations in developing housing that works for both mixed- and low-income populations. Now is a good time to push forward with those ideas. 

 

 

The Importance of Narrative

Reading the outstanding Atlantic magazine recently, I came across an article by James Fallows that focused on the revival efforts of small cities. Although Fallows had a number of take-home points and examples, I honed in on one that rang true to me: the stories we tell ourselves matter. These stories matter for our own lives. New psychological approaches highlight how important autobiographical narratives are for shaping our personalities—even that these narratives are our personality.

Well take that to the community level, then. The narratives that we form as neighbors, neighborhoods, as cities, they all come together to actually define the personality of an urban area. And that means that a good story, a powerful narrative of progress and potential, can be self-fulfilling.

I think these are good lessons to keep in mind for any urban area. But perhaps it’s most important for those struggling to redefine their place in the new century and to cope with legacy challenges.

Fallows was visiting Eastport, Maine, a town of only 1500. He describes the people as “telling their own success story, as part of willing it to come true.” The residents were engaged throughout the town—the newspaper editor pulls tickets at the play—and defined largely by their optimism and the drive to achieve their goals.

Importantly, the town is moving forward, not longing for the good ol’ days. Although they are continuing to use their natural strengths and resources, like a deep harbor, the residents are moving with the economic tide as well. Farmed salmon are replacing overfished stocks. The European demand for low-carbon fuels is driving a huge export in natural charcoal. New technologies allow Eastport to capture energy from the daily tides in and out of the harbor. They are a port town, and that will never change. But the residents have found ways to capitalize on those resources in innovative ways.

Fallows returns to this point about narrative. The cynic could ask: Can it possibly matter? With ever-increasing globalization, even local economies are largely defined by supply and demand around the world. Cities rise and fall and that cannot be stopped by a cheerful smile. Of course, that’s all true.

However, Fallows writes, “the story [Eastport] is telling itself, that it is poised for success, makes that success more likely.” The narrative shapes the character of the town even before the ending is known. “This faith also improves life today, no matter where it leads, or doesn’t, tomorrow.” Would you rather live in a dreary city that is hopelessly losing itself to uncontrollable economic forces? Or a scrappy town, pushing innovative ways to move forward in the 21st century. I know I’d chose the latter.


Even the cynic would have a hard time arguing with Fallows: “In practical terms, a belief that you can shape your fate is more useful than a belief that you cannot.” Let’s tell ourselves the good story. Let’s expound our optimistic, but grounded, narrative of improvement. Let’s make today better, and tomorrow’s improvement more likely. Stories matter. They matter to us, and to our cities. Might as well choose the one with a happy ending.