The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The New Donut Theory

Protesters and police in Ferguson, MO this past August, following the shooting of Ferguson resident Michael Brown.  Ferguson may epitomize the direction and challenges ahead for many inner ring suburbs.  Source:

I don’t think I commented on this yet, but Urbanophile Aaron Renn wrote last month about the emergence of a “New Donut” theory.  For the uninitiated, the “old donut” theory was that impoverished central cities were similar to the hole of a donut, while the affluent suburbs were akin to the donut itself.  Aaron wrote that more cities are today displaying a model of strong growth and emerging affluence in downtowns, an outlying city neighborhood and inner ring suburb core of growing poverty, and continued growth from affluents choosing to live on the urban periphery.

From his post, here’s the old donut:

And here’s the new donut:

Well, some stats generated by the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia seems to validate this trend.  Demographers there looked at educational attainment rates, per capita income, and the percentage of those in poverty for four cities — Charlotte, Atlanta, Denver and Houston — at 1990 and again in 2012.  They plotted their findings by distance from the city center, and found that the 1990 data followed the “old donut” model: low educational attainment rates, low per capita income, and higher poverty at or near the city center, with all shifting as one moves outward.  That produced charts like this, for Charlotte:

In 1990, once the suburban periphery came up against rural areas, the traits of poverty became evident again.  However, the 2012 data showed a shift that produces a very different graph:

That indicates a sharp increase in educational attainment at the city center, a steep drop five miles out at the point of outlying city neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs, a rise through 15 miles out and then a drop again as one gets closer to outlying rural areas.  The same is true for per capita income and poverty rates, and the same is true for Atlanta, Denver and Houston.  You should check it out there.

The UVA group only analyzed a small group of Sun Belt cities, but I would imagine that this pattern is growing in most U.S. metro areas.  I also speculate that this pattern is deepening in Rust Belt metros in particular, as many of them have had a few more years of downtown revitalization to speak of, as well as fairly rapid growth in suburban poverty.

Time for goofy visualization.  If the growth of the suburbs in the 1950s-1980s was akin to a vacuum pulling wealth from cities, the 1990s and onward downtown revitalization can be likened to a rock thrown into a pool, creating ripples that are spreading outward.  End of goofy visualization.

As a policy matter, I think it’s becoming more and more important for alliances or partnerships to emerge between inner ring suburbs and outlying city neighborhoods so they can effectively address this trend.  Neither group will have the ability to address the trend individually, but they may be able to gain some political awareness of shared issues through city and suburban elected officials and state officials whose boundaries cross city and suburb.

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