The Problem with the Great Urban Revival Narrative: It Sorta Isn't True

 This isn't happening (nydailynews)

This isn't happening (nydailynews)

A blog post by Jen Kolko, the former Chief Economist at Trulia, has caught the attention of many urban commentators because it throws cold water on a broadly accepted narrative that we are becoming a more urban nation.  In fact, comparing data from the American Communities Survey released in 2014 and the US Census in 2000, Mr. Kolko argues that the urban population of the country has actually dropped by 7% in that time span. 

Some of the gap between this narrative and Mr. Kolko's data comes down to definitions and sub-demographic focuses.  Though the country has absolutely made a permanent shift from rural to urban, the definition of 'urban' generally used while referencing this long-term trend really includes suburbs and exurbs that are hardly high-density urban environments.  As Jordan Weissman at Slate points out, parts of Charlotte are suburban in nature despite being considered 'urban' while 'suburbs' like Hoboken are more urban in nature, which makes it easy to confuse general trends with more telling data analysis. Mr. Kolko focuses on high-density urban environments to clarify this confusion.

And there really is significant growth in high density urban dwelling by white, young, childless, college-educated millennials, particularly in larger US Metros.  This concentration of highly educated young workers in a few large metros has a profound economic impact not only on a city and the region, but on national economic output as well. This is partly why there is such overweighted coverage of young people moving to cities (also partly because it reflects the experiences of the majority of people in the media).   This very real trend has profound political and social impact on the cities affected, virtually all of which are struggling to cope. As a result, as economic inequality has finally caught on as a national issue, these selected cities have become the front lines in the media, even though they don't reflect the broader trend nationally.

This gets to the core of Mr. Kolko's analysis: the Great Urban Revival is really a story of the concentration of wealth in certain pockets of certain cities that few, if any, other groups of Americans are benefiting from. 

 Gentrification is for real, fyi (jedkolko)

Gentrification is for real, fyi (jedkolko)

The above chart depicts who is in fact moving to high density urban neighborhoods on a national scale and it is almost exclusively the wealthiest income earners. Just as revealing, the poorest Americans are the biggest losers during this period, which goes a long way of showing how real gentrification actually is. The chart also clearly shows the main datapoint in the blog's argument: that across all income levels, more people moved away from urban centers than moved to them.

Mr. Kolko also examines age cohorts and reveals some trends that this blog has been speaking to for some time - mainly that it is increasingly harder to retire or to raise children in cities.

 Cities to the old and young: Beat it (jedkolko)

Cities to the old and young: Beat it (jedkolko)

The orange figures on the positive side of the chart show that the growth of high-density urban dwellers is almost exclusively millennials and Gen X-ers (the 35-39 age group was the only one to see a rise in urban population nationally).  The biggest reason for this is the growing number of DINK (dual-income, no kids) couples in these areas. Some of my friends that whine about having to share brunch spots with strollers might be surprised by this data, but there it is:

 All about that DINK life (jedkolko)

All about that DINK life (jedkolko)

Talk of the Great Urban Revival then is really a discussion about the changing economy and how it is concentrating benefits in a narrow selection of cities amongst a smaller pool of highly educated workers.  So now that we know that the majority of those participants are almost exclusively wealthy, white, youngish, and without children, is there a way for cities to expand the pie to all groups of citizens? Or is it a zero-sum game where the features of a city associated with this particular GUR demographic can only exist at the expense of other demographics' necessary features? If cities are getting a higher tax base from citizens who aren't using services like schools or subways, how does this impact their investment priorities in the long-term?

Right now, the evidence as outlined by Mr. Kolko would suggest that cities are in fact a zero-sum game.  If you're undereducated, if you're on a low or fixed-income, even if you're middle-class but have kids, cities are making it nearly impossible for you to participate in the benefits of urbanism.  This is a betrayal of our values.

And that is not an idle lament.  The increasing concentration of extreme poverty in isolated urban neighborhoods and the suburbs across the nation over the same time period of Mr. Kolko's analysis shows how debilitating the absence of urban amenities can be for Americans. Easy access to cheap transit, education and health services, and a high concentration of jobs are only a sample of the benefits of urbanism.  Without life is brutal slog for too many people.  If we are to truly experience a Great Urban Revival, we must expand those opportunities to everyone.