The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: As Goes Detroit, So Goes the Nation

A rider gets on a Divvy bike, Chicago’s bike-share system.  Source:

(Note: Earlier today I posted a piece at Forbes detailing recent studies that show employment growth in the nation’s inner cities — areas beyond the central business district but still within the boundaries of the central city.  One of the things I noted from the studies was that Rust Belt cities seem to be lagging in inner city employment growth, compared to cities in other regions of the nation.  I believe Rust Belt cities are still working to overcome long-standing negative narratives about them that hamper their revitalization efforts, irrespective of their economies and their demographics.  It’s more difficult for them, but not unattainable.  Consider this a companion piece to the Forbes one.  -Pete)

It all makes much more sense now.  What seemed to be a mirage now can be quantified, in ways no one dared to examine before.

Last week, I wrote about an article I’d seen in the Detroit News about the rebound of Detroit’s white population after more than 60 years of decline.  That was followed by a Washington Post/Wonkblog article that noted that the phenomenon witnessed in Detroit was not unique to it; in fact, it appears to be happening nearly across the board:

“Among the 50 largest cities in the U.S., nearly half gained a statistically significant number of whites from 2010-2014 (the change isn’t significant in 21 of these 50 cities). Just 5 lost whites. That’s compared to 35 cities where the white population shrank in the 2000s, and 31 in the 1990s. In Detroit, New Orleans, Washington and Denver, the white share of the population also rose over this same time.”

We’ve finally uncovered the underpinnings of recent urban revitalization in large cities.

In some ways this uncovers another layer in the debate between urbanists and and the traditional suburban lobby, who have been going back and forth on city and suburban growth.  Urbanists have been bolstered by data that supports their contention that America’s large cities are growing, and indeed are the foundation of our nation’s knowledge economy.  Urbanists have been saying that city revitalization is a paradigm shift that represents a change in values and preferences among Millennials.  Suburban supporters, however, maintain that people are still moving to the suburbs, that city growth is not only temporary but the preference of a niche market, and that suburbs is still where the majority of metropolitan development action occurs.

They’re both right, and it’s because I think we’re in the middle of a broader transition.

There are two drivers at work in metropolitan areas.  Suburbs continue to grow, largely due to increasing representation from minorities relocating from cities, particularly African-Americans and Latinos.  City revitalization, however, is occurring and is real; white population growth in cities, after a half-century or more of white flight from our largest cities, is unprecedented.  What’s allowing this to happen?  On the suburban side, perhaps a relaxation of the strict controls that previously excluded minorities — exclusionary zoning that maintained high home prices and a lack of housing type diversity, or financial policies governing mortgages by banks.  On the city side, however, I’d argue that the biggest factor is the erosion of stigma.  Areas of cities that were viewed as forbidden as recently as 20 years ago are now hailed as revitalization success stories.

As this transition occurs, it forces contemplation of what’s next.  How enduring is what’s happening now?  How widespread is it nationally, even regionally (within metros)?  What exactly are the implications of this demographic snapshot?  All of this is hard to answer right now.

If current trends continue for another 5-10 years, cities and suburbs could reach a new demographic equilibrium that many may find refreshing.  Cities will have an influx of new residents that will lend it greater diversity; the suburbs would gain the same.  But if the trend continues beyond that, on par with the growth of suburbia following World War II (and with federal, state and local policy supports to maintain it), it could be fraught with unintended consequences.

The ultimate unintended consequence: largely white, affluent, walkable, highly-networked and vibrant major cities, surrounded by largely minority, poorer, auto-dependent, disconnected and obsolete suburbs.

That very well could be where we’re headed.

2 Responses to “Repost: As Goes Detroit, So Goes the Nation”

  1. NickD

    Toronto already has the white urban core and minority suburbs. That's exaggerating somewhat, but the urban core is about 75% white, while the typical new subdivision in the outer suburbs is about 75% minorities. The income situation is a bit more complicated. Low income and working poor neighbourhoods are heavily minority and mainly in the inner and middle ring suburbs. Middle class neighbourhoods are mostly in the outer suburbs, and can range from heavily minority to white majority. Upper middle class and wealthy neighbourhoods are mostly in the urban core and certain far outer suburbs, and usually majority white.Income disparities are generally lower in Toronto, and it's not just about wealth redistribution (if at all), educational disparities are lower too. The minorities include much more Asians and fewer blacks and Latinos.



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