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Stop Fretting About Whether Millennials Will Stay in the City

More than 9,000 babies have been born in each of the last five years in Washington, DC — but will their families stay in the city as these kids grow up? A recent study by the real estate company Trulia found that there was just one zip code in DC’s city limits where backpacks outnumbered strollers. Wealthy, west-of-the-park Chevy Chase has more kids in the 5-9 age group than 0-4. Every other part of the city has more babies and toddlers than school-age kids.

Even if cities still have too few backpack-age children, the urban revival will continue. Photo: World Vision

This trend is repeated in big cities around the country, according to Trulia. Young parents are happy enough to stay in the city with a little rugrat around — but once those rugrats need to go to school, those parents often start house-hunting in suburban school districts.

We’ve had a vibrant discussion here on Streetsblog recently about whether parents will really find what they’re looking for by leaving the city – and whether this trend will continue.

Improving urban schools is a challenge of huge national significance, especially for parents who don’t have the option of moving away. But Shane Phillips of the Better Institutions blog points out that it might not have much influence on cities’ ability to maintain recent population gains.

Phillips brings a useful perspective when he reminds readers that “Millennials aren’t the last generation in America.” There’s no sign that the declining interest in driving is going to reverse. If some parents move to suburbs, young people will still continue to migrate into cities.

But perhaps more importantly, Phillips writes, when Millennials move to the suburbs — as undoubtedly some will — they’ll demand better suburbs than the ones they grew up in. They’ll want the urban amenities and transportation options they got used to in the cities. That could put them on the front lines of retrofitting suburbia into a less car-dependent environment.

Snap a picture of city living with kids for the chance to win fabulous prizes! Details about the Streetsblog/Alliance for Biking & Walking Back-to-School photo contest here

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Crawlable Urbanism: Cities Are for Kids, Too

All of a sudden, I feel like all anyone is talking about is whether it’s a good idea to raise kids in the city. I’m raising a kid in the city. I feel great about it when she has a blast on the back of the bike, or makes friends on the bus, or gets excited about pressing the beg button at the corner. I feel a little less certain when we toddle down the sidewalk and come upon guys peeing on the dumpster or passed out on the stoop. When I look at the test scores for our neighborhood schools, I get a knot in my stomach.

You knew I was going to post a picture of my kid in this story, didn't you? There's Luna at the fountain in Columbia Heights.

A few days ago I visited my friends’ new home in Potomac, a wealthy, second-ring suburb with enviable schools. Their new house sits on two acres with a pool and a basketball court. After a few hours sipping beer in their landscaped yard and watching our children frolic in the pool, I had to do some mental gymnastics to remind myself why I didn’t pick this path for myself.

This City? Childless?

But the fact is, despite its obvious allure, that path is being chosen by fewer and fewer people. Even among families with kids, many who could afford 5,000 square feet with a pool are increasingly opting for a smaller house, a pool club membership, a shorter commute, and transit access.

In the current issue of City Journal, Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres pretty much erased this reality — my reality, mind you — with their silly article, “The Childless City”:

Even the partial rebirth of American cities since [the 1960s] hasn’t been enough to lure families [with kids] back. The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class” — a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students — occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.

Joel Kotkin's idea of city life. Woo-hoo! Photo: Splash News/Corbis via City Journal

“The Childless City” is illustrated with a picture — I’m not kidding you — of “the casts of The Real World and Jersey Shore party[ing] it up at a New York nightclub.” That, to them, illustrates the modern city.

I’d like to take Joel Kotkin on a child’s-eye tour of Washington, DC, a city emptied out a few decades ago by crack and riots and mayhem. Talk about a rebirth.

I’d bring him along to the bilingual story hour at the local library, which is walking distance even for my toddler. I’d show him parents taking the bus with their kids down to the National Mall to see dinosaur skeletons and war planes in our world-class museums. I’d encourage him to play in the fountain in the plaza of the transit-oriented neighborhood of Columbia Heights along with scores of wet, shrieking children of all colors and incomes. And after he got his soak on, I’d even buy him frozen yogurt, Chilean empanadas, vegan cupcakes, or Central American fried chicken from the establishments lining the plaza.

All of these child-friendly urban amenities are invisible to Kotkin. “We have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children,” he declares. The rent is too high, the yards are too small, the schools are too bad, the neighbors are too sketchy.

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Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn: Why Suburban Growth Is a Ponzi Scheme

Chuck Marohn cofounded the non-profit Strong Towns in 2009. Since then he has steadily built an audience for his message about the financial folly of car-centric planning and growth. The suburban development pattern that has prevailed since the end of World War II has resulted in what Marohn calls “the growth Ponzi scheme” – a system that isn’t viable in the long run because it cannot bring in enough revenue to cover its costs.

Last year, interest in the Strong Towns message surged and Marohn, in high demand, traveled to towns and cities all over the country delivering “curbside chats” about the need to build places differently. In this Streetfilm we provide an overview of his thinking about street design, land use, and transportation funding. For more Chuck Marohn, visit the Strong Towns blog and check out their podcast.

One of my favorite pieces of commentary from Chuck is this video walk-through of a “diverging diamond” interchange in Springfield, Missouri. As usual he pulls no punches, and he delivers the critique with a biting sense of humor.

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Suburbanization of Poverty Isolates a Growing Number of Americans

Poverty is no longer a predominantly urban problem — and the suburbs are no longer the refuge of the upper classes. There are now almost 3 million more poor people living in suburbs than in cities, according to a new book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution. While cities still have a much higher poverty rate, poverty in the suburbs is growing twice as fast: Between 2000 and 2011, the suburban poor population grew by 64 percent, compared to 29 percent in cities.

That means more people living without cars in places designed exclusively for cars. In the suburbs, destinations are farther apart and getting to many places involves traveling on wide, high-speed roads where walking or biking is especially dangerous. Transit access is spotty and infrequent, where it exists at all. And providing transportation services to the poor in spread-out areas is less efficient and more expensive than in compact cities.

“Overall, in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, 700,000 households do not have a vehicle and are not served by public transit of any kind, and 95 percent of those households are suburban,” the authors write.

Kneebone and Berube tell the story of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, which used to be a middle-class bedroom community for workers at the Westinghouse Electric Company and other thriving businesses in the Pittsburgh area. Diminished employment opportunities have reduced the population by more than a quarter and increased the poverty rate from 8 to 11 percent:

Low-income residents of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, often can't afford to buy or maintain cars -- and the community lacks effective transit service. Photo: City-data

Among the more pressing problems facing the growing low-income population in Penn Hills is access to transportation. The suburb covers nineteen square miles, has more than twenty distinct neighborhoods, and is traversed by an interstate highway, a few major state roads, and a series of local roads with only a few sidewalks that wind their way up and down the hilly terrain. Infrastructure in some parts of the township resembles that of a rural community more than a major metropolitan suburb. More often now, residents must navigate these byways without a car. By 2008–10, almost one in ten (about 1,700) Penn Hills households lacked access to a vehicle, notably more than three decades earlier, when the local population was much larger.

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Violent Crime Up in the Suburbs, Down in Big Cities

A result of better city policing? Or a symptom of suburban decline?

The owner of this Atlanta convenience store was killed -- outside his home in suburban Clayton County, 15 miles south of the city. Violent crime has spiked in the Atlanta suburbs, while plummeting in the city, reflecting a broader national trend. Image: Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal reports that over the last 10 years violent crime has spiked in the suburbs while tapering off in cities. Using data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Brookings Institution, WSJ reporters found that suburban homicide rates increased 16.9 percent between 2001 and 2010, while large cities saw a 16.7 percent decline over the same period.

“Today, suburban murders, from domestic violence to robberies gone bad to massacres like the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, make up about a quarter of all homicides in the U.S., up from 20.7% in 2001,” WSJ reporters Cameron McWhirter and Gary Fields write.

The reasons for the trend are still subject to speculation. The Journal cites better medical response and “aggressive policing” in places like New York and Los Angeles. McWhirter and Fields also point to stagnating resources for suburban police departments:

Criminologists and public officials cite weaker and more resource-strapped law enforcement in some suburbs for the increase, among other factors. That, in turn, attracts criminals who focus on suburbs, because they are looking for easier places than relatively well-policed cities to commit crimes.

“They just shifted their operations,” said Craig Steckler, the departing police chief of Fremont, Calif., and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Some of the biggest increases in crime were in the suburbs of Houston, Atlanta and Pittsburgh, WSJ reported. In Atlanta, a particularly pronounced case, violent crime rose 23 percent in the suburbs while dropping 49 percent in the city between 2000 and 2008.

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Will Cities Hold on to Younger Residents as They Have Children?

Many American cities are proving to be more resilient than suburban areas thanks in part to the shifting preferences of today’s young people. But as USA Today reported in a talked-about article earlier this week, the cohort that has flocked to cities is now reaching a stage of life which, historically, has been more closely associated with suburbia.

Photo: Giggle Gab

The oldest “millennials” — a generation that is larger than the Baby Boomers and many degrees more urban — are turning 30 this year. Many will begin settling down and having children — and their priorities will inevitably change.

Smart cities are doing what they can to prevent these folks from moving “upward and outward” like the generations that came before, USA Today’s Haya El Nasser reports. According to the sources USA Today consulted, this transitioning generation will be looking for good schools and recreational opportunities, but they’ll still want strong transit and walkability — a key advantage of city life over the suburbs.

Places like Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma City are looking at ways to help young families stay. Denver been mapping “day care centers, preschools, grocery stores and jobs” to see how well-served they are by transit. Cities like Charlotte, Anaheim, and Dallas are looking at ways to provide larger, more family-friendly housing choices within smaller urban lots. The school reform movement and the push to improve the quality of public education is another major piece of the puzzle.

There’s a lot at stake for all the residents of these cities, El Nasser points out: “Hanging on to residents as they age, make more money and have kids is a plus for cities because it strengthens and stabilizes the tax base while creating an involved constituency.”

Richard Florida told El Nasser that he expects 60 or 70 percent of millennials to move to the suburbs when they start families, compared to about 95 percent of their predecessors.

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In Philly, Housing in Walkable Places Held Up Better Than Suburban Housing

During the latest recession, housing prices were more resilient in Philadelphia's walkable neighborhoods. That is a reversal of the pattern that occurred in the previous housing downturn. Image: Congress for the New Urbanism

It’s been a bad few years for homeowners around the country, and those in greater Philadelphia are no different. But people who owned houses in Philadelphia’s center city or suburban areas near a walkable town center fared better than others.

According to a new report from the Congress for the New Urbanism, the homes in greater Philadelphia that suffered the steepest losses of the housing crisis were those in the most car-centric, sprawling neighborhoods. That was exactly the opposite of what occurred in the last housing downturn, when larger, single-family housing in disconnected, far-flung neighborhoods retained more of its value, researchers found:

During the first housing downturn of 1989-1995, housing prices declined the greatest in the urban core center (-33.7% in the center city), second-most in the central city of Philadelphia as a whole (-17.6%) and least in the lower-density areas of the suburban counties (-14.3%). But during the most-recent housing downturn of 2007-2012, home price declines have been the greatest in the low-density suburbs (-32.7%), second-most in Philadelphia County (-26.7%) and the smallest in the urban core of the center city (-20.2%).

The study evaluated the urban character of each zip code in the region, using criteria like housing density, transit accessibility, mix of land uses and other indicators. This method was employed to examine the relationship between urban form and the housing market, instead of using crude measurements like the political boundaries between suburbs and the city.

The authors attribute the new dynamic to rising energy prices, as well as the revitalization of central city Philadelphia and shifting housing preferences, especially among seniors and young people. The findings are consistent with other studies that have found walkable, transit-accessible places have bounced back stronger from this housing downturn than more car-centric areas.

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In Which Chuck Marohn and I Talk to Exurban Minnesotans on the Radio

Charles Marohn — our planner/engineer friend from Baxter, Minnesota and Strong Towns – and I appeared on a Minnesota Public Radio show on Friday about “the death of the exurbs.” The starting point of the conversation was the article I wrote last month about the new census numbers and what they tell us about the shifting patterns of housing development.

We entertained calls from people who feel the need for a two-acre buffer between them and their neighbors and from some whose own dalliance with exurban living ended in a bitter breakup. Later that day, I published the results of a Demand Institute study that found that the exurbs remain a “toxic” place that the housing recovery isn’t reaching.

Is the turn away from the exurbs really all about gas prices? And what is an exurb anyway? Are they getting too crowded? And what does it have to do with lobster?

Take a listen.

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Study Predicts “Resilient Walkable” Places Will Lead the Housing Recovery

This morning, a Minnesota Public Radio host asked me if the exurbs, whose growth rate flattened when the recession hit, are going to come back. Lots of people from far-distant suburbs like Blaine and Farmington called in, saying they like the way of life out there – they like having acres of trees buffering them from their nearest neighbor — and people won’t want to stop living in communities like that.

The data suggests otherwise, though. Earlier this week, the Demand Institute (a think tank created by the Conference Board — “a global, independent business membership and research association” — and Nielsen — yeah, the TV ratings people) released a report on the housing recovery. They say the worst of the housing crash is over and glimmers of recovery are on the horizon. But hope isn’t spread out uniformly across these United States. Those exurbs like Blaine and Farmington, Minnesota? They’re not coming back so fast.

Urban areas didn’t lose as much value during the recession. Home prices didn’t crash so hard. Not so many people found themselves under water, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. And urban areas are bouncing back faster. The Demand Institute calls these places “Resilient Walkables.” Only 15 percent of the U.S. population lives there.

The report bases its prognosis for recovery on seven factors: population size, walkability, severity of the crash, current affordability, unemployment, foreclosure inventory, and foreclosure policy. The Institute found what Angie noted earlier: Walk Score is positively correlated with strong housing prices. The Institute’s analysis of almost 1,700 U.S. cities showed that walkable cities had more positive price growth.

And it found that these “Resilient Walkables” were resilient indeed, with house prices projected to rise three percent next year and five percent a year for the four years after that.

Compare that to the places the Institute calls “Slow and Steady” – where more than a third of Americans live and where double-digit housing declines destabilized the market. Economic indicators are gloomy for these areas, but the authors find the planning solid, so the future is relatively bright. These are places like Charlotte, NC, Dallas and semi-urban D.C. suburbs like Gaithersburg, MD, and the study forecasts three percent growth starting in two years.

Then there are the “Damaged But Hopeful” areas – a category that encompasses big but depressed cities like Chicago and smaller ones like Stamford, CT. Thirty percent of Americans live in these places, too many of them fighting foreclosure. It will take them a little longer to get to three percent growth but from 2017 onward, the Demand Institute predicts that they’ll beat the national average.

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Mixed-Use Development Delivers Huge Public Returns Compared to Sprawl

Graphic: Planetizen

Walkable development pays — that’s the conclusion of a study recently outlined in Planetizen. For cities and towns facing tight budgets — just about everywhere in the United States right now — the smart way to boost tax revenue is to encourage mixed-use, walkable development, as the above graphic amply illustrates.

The for-profit development company Public Interest Projects (PIP) reports that urbanism produces much more tax revenue for localities than sprawl. Analyzing tax data around Asheville, North Carolina, the research team found that downtowns — places with the most places to shop per acre — often subsidize the more suburban parts of the community. In places like Asheville, mixed-use developments offered up to eight times (or more) the tax revenue per acre of a Super Walmart.

Former PIP employee Joseph Minicozzi, now a principal with for-profit development firm Urban3, tells Planetizen readers that many cities are approaching development from the wrong frame of mind (emphasis added):

Our mistake has been looking at the overall value of a development project rather than its per unit productivity. Especially relevant in these times of limited public means, every city should be thinking long and hard about encouraging, and not accidentally discouraging, the property tax bonus that comes with mixed-use urbanism. Put simply, density gets far more bang for its buck.

He concludes that public policies that encourage low-density development urgently need to be reformed:

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