Definitions in the world of urbanism are amorphous at best. The word “city” itself is a very good example. We make judgements based on the population, economic output, crime, and numerous other things relative to the boundaries of a given city. These are the numerators, if you will. But these cities range in geographic size from areas of 10 square miles to almost 1,000. They can be as isolated from the next closest city as hundreds of miles, or they may border one or more other cities. In this sense we look at data which has been painstakingly compiled to give us as exact and precise a representation as can be achieved which we then use to compare to other communities whose “denominators” could not be more different making their use in comparison arithmetically pointless.
I spent a few hours clicking through the Brookings Institute’s metro data and the newest census estimates for 2017 and that led me to wander through Wikipedia’s entries for various communities. I could see patterns developing within and between cities and metropolitan areas. Occasionally a data point would jump out at me: “Columbus has a population which is growing incredibly fast…for Ohio. Wait. It covers 200 square miles? Has it been annexing surrounding communities? It has. To gain access to Columbus’ water and sewer systems you must agree to be incorporated into the municipality.” If you just look at the raw data you’d think it was really bucking a trend; not so much.
The census data was sobering. After years of reading, granted from a self selected coterie of websites, that the trend toward suburbanization was over and that Millennials and Baby Boomers (Hey, that’s me!) were moving back to the cities the “we don’t have a dog in this fight” census numbers were showing a post 2007 crisis move back to even more suburbanization. I can hear the cheerleaders making excuses already:
“Sure, suburban growth is outpacing urban growth again BUT, it’s no longer outgrowing it at as rapidly growing a rate as it was before!”
“It’s not fair. Government regulators, bankers, and the developers all have their thumbs on the scale and so we can’t really see what people’s actual preferences are!”
My favorite one is that home values in urban areas are outpacing those in non urban ones. I have no doubt the numbers are correct, but it’s pretty easy to see how ridiculously hyperinflated values in a handful of enormous markets along with an epochal low in home values in urban areas generally makes this data meaningless for places like Springfield. From the very beginning of this blog I’ve made clear that this isn’t about just some generalized “urban living”, it’s about the places which have been struggling for survival for half a century.
When the larger cities of Boston and New York started to pull out of their tailspin in the 1980’s I was among many who hoped that they were enormous canaries in the coal mine for smaller cities like Springfield. The change in Springfield’s skyline which took place in the 80’s, along with the construction of thousands of units of yuppie housing in the downtown were indicators that the private sector thought that the rebound was imminent. What is apparent in hindsight is that the back to the city movement, however organic in nature, was short circuited by centralization and mergers in the corporate sector. Looking at the four modernist Springfield scaled “skyscrapers” that dominate the horizon, three of which were built by financial entities headquartered in the city, not one of them is the headquarters of a bank or other financial institution today; in fact the City of Springfield does not have anything apart from a credit union headquartered here. Not a single bank headquarters where once there were at least half a dozen.
The Dow of cities then, is a lot like the actual Dow Jones Average: it tells us a lot about a tiny sliver of the economy but it hides much more than it reveals.
Returning to the Brookings metro data for the northeast, it reveals some interesting things. As the narrative of the report suggests, those metro areas closest to Boston and New York City are starting to see spill over from the over-heated real estate markets of those two giant regions. Regions containing state capitals also have an employment base equivalent to a corporate headquarters or two which can provide stability. A city like Providence has proximity to Boston and a small state bureaucracy on its side, Syracuse has neither. That may very well explain a great deal more about their relative prosperity than the opening of a new coffee shop.
It’s fun to read and listen to enthusiasts who want to claim that this or that decision has made all the difference in creating, or not, prosperity in their urban neighborhoods when much larger processes are at work. A link from one of the aforementioned articles described a shortage of cities. I have no doubt that Manhattan would make do with a few square miles more of Manhattan, and San Francisco could double in size tomorrow fourth dimension-ally and it would not be nearly enough to slake the thirst for living in that city, but there are dozens of architecturally stunning, fine grained, walkable cities, with good bones and tremendous potential just rotting in the rain; because there is no demand for them. I’ve been told a dozen times that my townhouse would be worth a million dollars if it were in Boston. But it’s not in Boston. And that makes all the difference.
If there were really some general passion for urbanity it wouldn’t just be manifesting itself amidst all the usual suspects and expanding more or less only at their peripheries and in a few boutique neighborhoods in rapidly (once again) expanding areas in the Sun Belt and out west. I do believe that the future will be about walkable urbanism and local food production: traditional cities and productive farm land. But the future is not now. Given current realities, people want to live in McMansions in homogenous suburban communities, they want to live in hot climates without snow or even rain, and they want to commute 27 miles to work in an SUV on an 8 lane expressway. And they are going to continue to do so until they can’t.
The irony, and perhaps even the paradox for me is that my community will suffer as long as the economy at large keeps moving forward at pace, or will prosper only relative to decline overall. Such is the fate of a natural born contrarian. I may not like it, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to pretend that it isn’t true.
Some interesting visuals from the Brookings’ data (Dark Blue is best, Dark Red worst, gray is middling):
Metro Springfield is a slightly more prosperous than average metro, and metro areas, as opposed to smaller, or “micro” regions are generally much more prosperous making this area fairly well to do:
The metro does incredible well in terms of inclusion, being considered number TWO in the country by Brookings’ measurements from 2006-2016:
Growth here is slow, but better than most metros the region:
In terms of population Springfield (at the top) chugs along at a snail’s pace, but unlike similar places like Rochester or Syracuse (highlighted), it does continue to grow:
And these estimates are as of July 1, 2017. Given that Hamden County has taken in more María refugees than any county outside Florida:
I assume that the trend will not only continue, but may quicken slightly.