Rail~volution: Will New Americans Fuel Smart Growth or Suburbanism?

This year’s Rail~volution conference — the annual gathering of livability advocates, urban sustainability coordinators, and transit agency officials – kicked off today with remarks by Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institution and Manuel Pastor, who teaches demographics and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Is this the new image of walkable urbanism? Photo: ##http://wekeroad.com/2008/01/05/me-gusta-los-angeles##WekeRoad##

Leinberger noted that Hollywood does more consumer research than anyone else, and it portrays what audiences aspire to. So, we can see in the difference between TV shows of past decades and current shows the evolution of tastes in the U.S. Where we had I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, and The Brady Bunch, all set in the suburbs, we now have Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City – all set in cities.

Indeed, Leinberger often talks about the increased demand for urbanism, especially among young people, but he also noted the downsizing trend as baby boomers move out of big houses to smaller spaces in more walkable, urban neighborhoods. And he credited the trend of people having fewer children with the expansion of the demand for walkable urbanism: Only 25 percent of households have children now, as opposed to 50 percent in the 1950s. Singles and couples without children are the “target market” for walkable urbanism, he said, and that constituency is only growing.

At the same time, Manuel Pastor argued that the main catalysts of walkable urbanism in the future are going to be the people with the highest fertility rate in the nation, having the most children: Latinos. (Latina women have an average of three children each, while each white woman has an average of 2.1.)

Pastor said the age gap between whites and “non-white Hispanics” (Latinos) – the median age among whites is 41; among Latinos it’s 27 – is causing significant tension. The state with the largest age gap between whites and Latinos is Arizona, which notoriously passed (what was then) the country’s most repressive anti-immigrant law last year. The gap is also responsible for low levels of per capita spending on education, since older whites “don’t see themselves” in the younger generation using the schools. And good urban schools are key to keeping families in cities as their children grow up.

Even with their big families and many children, Latinos prefer to live in cities, Pastor said. New arrivals, especially, disproportionately use transit. The walkable urbanism in immigrant neighborhoods is characterized by “taquerías, not cappuccino bars,” Pastor said. Latinos simply don’t follow the same trends as white Americans when it comes to suburban flight when kids come into the picture.

Meanwhile, Leinberger also gave the audience a sneak preview of the results of a Brookings study coming out in December. The findings are more or less what Leinberger has been saying for years: There’s a pent-up demand for walkable urbanism, and that it shows in higher real estate values in those areas. They found that when an area goes up one point on its WalkScore, office rents go up by $9 and retail rents go up by $7 per square foot per year. The premium on urban locations – the extra amount a tenant pays to set up shop in a walkable city – doubled during the recession.

And as an aside: While I believe Leinberger when he says that a renewed real-estate industry commitment to walkable urbanism could be the ticket out of the recession, I probably wasn’t the only person in the audience who cringed a little when he said walkable urbanism was also the solution to the crime problem. More people on the street, he said – not more police officers on the street – lead to greater urban safety. For someone living in a city that was torn apart by the crack epidemic in the eighties, I find that simplistic explanation a little hard to swallow.

However, I was a little more convinced by his follow-up, which was that class and race segregation and ghettoization had a big hand in causing the spike in crime. He highlighted the wealthy Washington neighborhood of Georgetown, which saw the building of elaborate, sprawling mansions on the same street as tiny two-story woodframe rowhouses in the mansions in the 18th and 19th centuries. “That’s how we built cities for 6,000 years,” he said, “and for most of that time they were very safe.”

We have several Streetsblog reporters at Rail~volution over the next three days — stay tuned for lots more coverage of the events.

  • Less Recent Arrival

    New arrivals live in cities because they can rent a house or apartment much easier than in the suburbs where most housing is to own, not rent, and many regs do not allow renting. “New arrivals” — great term that — also often do not have the money to buy a car, nor the documentation to get a drivers license or insurance. So, it remains to be seen whether newly arrived Mexicans, in particular, are fans of walkable neighborhoods or just can’t afford a car and to buy a house. Also, the term “latino” is overly broad. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are not the same as Mexicans, or Columbians etc. They have different patterns of work, immigration and settlement.

  • Danny G

    Re: the title, my bets are on millions of different people making millions of different choices, the net effect being somewhere between smart growth and suburbanism.

  • Diegorsanchez

    “Columbians” are from South Carolina.. I think you are referring to Colombians.  That is a big difference.  Please dont get it mixed up. thanks/

  • Great observations about the new arrival Central and South American communities and transit.  I see that playing out here in New Jersey where immigrant communities are now filling and saving the once emptying cities.  But just as “Less Recent Arrival” said, I don’t really know if these new arrivals prefer walkable, transit rich communities or if they live there do to a lack of choice due to the cost of housing elsewhere and the inability to own a car.  Like most people seeking the American dream, the people coming to New Jersey and living in these communities buy a car as soon as they are able.

  • Jakewegmann

    Yeah, my sense is that Latino immigrants behave in very similar ways to the immigrants that come before them — the first generation is more likely to set up shop in an inner city neighborhood, and then the second and third generations are much more likely to move to suburbs for the same reasons that Americans of all ethnic backgrounds do. (Of course, I have seen evidence that more and more Latino and other immigrants are bypassing inner cities when they first arrive than in the past.)

    I would love it if Prof. Pastor’s general story were true — that cultural preferences amongst Latinos cause families in the second and third-generations to opt for city living — but I’d have to see some actual numbers in support of it to make me believe it. 

  • TN

    I think that the skepticism others have expressed is warranted. We see this in the San Francisco Bay Area with the pattern of settlement of Asian immigrants. We know that many 1st generation families settled in Chinatowns in San Francisco and Oakland. Now a few generations later, Asian Americans live all over the suburbs. In fact there are large Asian American shopping centers in suburban locations.

    In Southern California, there are large populations of Asian Americans spread over Orange County. The newer immigrant populations are changing the political and social landscape of these suburban areas.

  • Anonymous

    “Where we had I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, and The Brady Bunch, all set in the suburbs, we now have Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City – all set in cities.”

    Actually, “I Love Lucy” was set in NYC at first, until they moved to Westport, Connecticut.. 

  • The increase in immigration really calls for the need for more diverse kinds of housing, including smaller lots but also large lot housing for inter generational families. Older suburbs that can keep the quality of their schools up and were designed in the pre 1960’s era with connecting streets, can maintain and enhance their value and still be viable in a post oil economy. They can be easily retrofitted with sidewalks where there aren’t any. The cul de sac neighborhoods are less viable. 

    Also I agree that Latinos are not one group, and as education levels increase, the number of kids will go down. That is true in all countries. 

  • The increase in immigration really calls for the need for more diverse kinds of housing, including smaller lots but also large lot housing for inter generational families. Older suburbs that can keep the quality of their schools up and were designed in the pre 1960’s era with connecting streets, can maintain and enhance their value and still be viable in a post oil economy. They can be easily retrofitted with sidewalks where there aren’t any. The cul de sac neighborhoods are less viable. 

    Also I agree that Latinos are not one group, and as education levels increase, the number of kids will go down. That is true in all countries. 

  • Anonymous

    I would be amazed if recent latino immigrants really have different preferences from every group before – namely that most people prefer to live in detached, suburban style living and drive a car as their primary mode of transportation, if they can afford it.

  • Hauser

    The trends show continued suburbanization of the traditional sprawl pattern. New immigrants will probably replicate the habits and tastes of most Americans today, thus, suburbanization will continue. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it’s the realistic assessment. If anything, immigrants may be more reluctant to live in dense, walkable communities and use transit, as having a house in the ‘burbs and your own car (or two or three) is seen as a sign that one has “arrived” at success.

    As I said in my other post: Take a look at any sunbelt city; Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston (the
    arch-example), Phoenix, Atlanta, Jacksonville, etc. This is where most
    of the growth in the U.S. has happened in the past 40 years and
    continues to happen. The few other places with growth are growing in
    sprawl-y, sunbelt-y ways (Washington DC, Minneapolis).

  • Anonymous

    I think a lot has to do with cost. Chinatowns and inner cities undoubtedly offer the absolute lowest-cost housing, if you’re willing to make sacrifices in square footage and neighborhood quality, given that you don’t need a car. Once people make some money, the next-cheapest attractive option is to get a car and a place in a distant exurb, city apartments being either expensive or in bad neighborhoods or both. Even so, despite its cost, San Francisco is full of first and second generation immigrants in all parts of the city but the most expensive, even as many also move out. It’s simply a matter of limited supply.

    What does this mean for the future? I think it will continue to be determined by cost. I think gas prices will be a factor, as will local government budgets. If the exurbs were built with iffy accounting, as I suspect they may have been, it will come back to haunt them, leading to high taxes and decreased services, and making them less attractive. A lot will also depend on what government policy allows to be built. Even in SF, though new construction can generally be described as “smart growth”, our limits on development mean that not a great deal gets built and what is built is generally luxury housing. Looking further afield, there are obvious places where smart growth would certainly be a great success, but where it is limited by local policy. For example, the BART commuter train has large parking lots in the middle of fairly dense, walkable neighborhoods. Though they are obvious locations for transit-oriented development, so far the efforts in this direction have all involved large and highly subsidized parking garages (see the Macarthur station plan, for example).

  • Anonymous

    I think a lot has to do with cost. Chinatowns and inner cities undoubtedly offer the absolute lowest-cost housing, if you’re willing to make sacrifices in square footage and neighborhood quality, given that you don’t need a car. Once people make some money, the next-cheapest attractive option is to get a car and a place in a distant exurb, city apartments being either expensive or in bad neighborhoods or both. Even so, despite its cost, San Francisco is full of first and second generation immigrants in all parts of the city but the most expensive, even as many also move out. It’s simply a matter of limited supply.

    What does this mean for the future? I think it will continue to be determined by cost. I think gas prices will be a factor, as will local government budgets. If the exurbs were built with iffy accounting, as I suspect they may have been, it will come back to haunt them, leading to high taxes and decreased services, and making them less attractive. A lot will also depend on what government policy allows to be built. Even in SF, though new construction can generally be described as “smart growth”, our limits on development mean that not a great deal gets built and what is built is generally luxury housing. Looking further afield, there are obvious places where smart growth would certainly be a great success, but where it is limited by local policy. For example, the BART commuter train has large parking lots in the middle of fairly dense, walkable neighborhoods. Though they are obvious locations for transit-oriented development, so far the efforts in this direction have all involved large and highly subsidized parking garages (see the Macarthur station plan, for example).

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