It’s not just a phase: urban population dynamics have changed

National Park Seminary new EYA townhouses

EYA townhouses in Forest Glen, Md.

Ben Adler from Grist wrote about a recent NYT trend piece about how suburbia is hollowing out, with few young families to replace the empty nesters. He puts too much emphasis on gross migration and population change, without drilling into how those components have been changing:

A handful of coastal and upper Midwestern cities are attracting more young professionals than before and are retaining them for longer… Even where gentrifiers are moving in at a pace sufficient to reverse outmigration, they’re barely making in a dent in reversing the tide.

Migration population losses from cities paint an unnecessarily dire view of urban prospects. There is a good reason why large metros would tend to lose people to domestic migration — and, for the 20th century, pretty much always did. A statistically significant group of young people move to large cities, get married there, have kids, and then move away in search of more appropriate housing. Two people move in, three move out: presto, population “loss,” even though the same number of people moved in and out. Similarly, for decades a steady flow of retirees southward, away from large cities, was a good thing for society — an indicator that healthier seniors were physically able to move, rather than remaining house-bound.

Yet long-established movements like these (plus shrinking household sizes, plunging overcrowding, the twin crises of deindustrialization and crime, and employment displacing relatively dense central-city residential), may have largely run their course.

Yes, this does indicate that “the school problem” remains,* but indications are that cities are attracting more young people, and retaining them for more years. This is occurring both before and after the critical life milestone of marriage: new households are overwhelmingly singles, couples, and unrelated persons. Whereas many of the 1950s pioneers who settled what are now inner-ring suburbs were young families headed by 20-somethings, or maybe 30-somethings, today many married couples (without kids, or with young children) stay in the city for longer.

Here in DC (where the city’s small size and overwhelmingly post-industrial nature makes the demographic transition especially sharp), Carol Morello from the Post observes:

the number of children younger than 5 has grown by almost 20 percent, from 33,000 to 39,000, according to census figures. In the same time span, the number of children ages 5 to 13 rose 7 percent. But there were fewer children 14 and older, suggesting that many parents still choose to leave the city when their children reach high school.

This also shows up anecdotally, as in the NYT’s quote of a Westchester County official (“Parents used to be 35ish, now they’re 45ish. What we’re seeing is not so much an exodus as a later arrival”) and this observation (at a recent ULI conference) by the biggest developer of townhouses inside the Beltway:

Within the DC region, the geographically compact core (about 3% of the region’s area) accounts for a huge share of net growth of 25-34s. (Drawn from 2010-2012 ACS.)

A larger share of households spending more years living in the city is a marginal boon to cities’ residential market share. Few Americans live in one place for life, anyways, but imagine the implication for apartment owners as their tenant pool both grows in size and stays longer.

Meanwhile, population decline hasn’t hurt some urban areas (like my old neighborhood of Bucktown, where densities on some blocks have fallen 90% since their WW1 peaks, and continued falling in recent years). These can feel more lively and active than ever, even with much-reduced populations, because incomes are way up. More disposable income can substitute for a smaller population; retailers look for underserved pockets of spending power, not necessarily people.

Yes, at the end of the day, cities need to provide homes for a growing global population and so should welcome growing populations. However, gross population shifts need to be disaggregated and viewed cautiously.

On another note entirely, I’d like to honor the recent passing of Donald Bogue, 1918-2014, who taught me much of what I know about demographic processes. (My “Relocated Yankees” paper was done as a final project for his class.) Even though he was well into his eighties when I took his class, his approach was the best of UChicago: thoughtful, broadly read, engaging, and kindly critical, and he helped to tie together a lot of loose ends that I’d thought about for many years. He leaves behind a tremendous published legacy — scores of publications in the Library of Congress, for instance — and his work on topics like Skid Row still has strong resonance in planning today, for example in understanding the historical intersections between homelessness and place.

* Don’t look at me for any answers; this isn’t a school policy blog.

Lumpiness: in cities’ property values, and in metro structure

Two only tangentially related thoughts on lumpy growth:

1. Richard Florida in The Atlantic Cities was one of the few major outlets to cover a report from the Demand Institute (a collaboration between Nielsen and The Conference Board) called “A Tale of 2000 Cities.”

The top 10% of American cities account for more housing wealth than the next 90%. The gains in the 2000s were tilted towards the already wealthiest communities.

The report includes an extensive look at a typology identifying nine types of American communities primarily by the strength of their local housing markets, post-recession. In keeping with the name, the results show a striking divergence, with a select handful of healthy markets sweeping up much of the gains — and leaving half of American cities and towns “currently facing fundamental economic pressure.” The report’s summary says: “In today’s global economy, nothing is more important than the strength and sustainability of the local labor market, regardless of whether employers are serving customers in Chicago, Chile, or China.”

If anything, today’s telecom-centric, information economy has resulted in the geography of opportunity getting lumpier, not more diffuse as earlier expectations had predicted — “reports of the ‘death of distance’ have been much exaggerated.” We telecommuters haven’t all decamped to mountaintops. The most valuable places are becoming even more so: they account for not only an outsized share of wealth but also the gains of recent years.

The underlying economic reality, that human capital is what drives most prosperity today, is why I differ from my colleagues who believe that “investment ready places” can thrive based on previous investments in capital goods like housing.

(I’ll have more thoughts in a later post about how macroeconomic changes, and in particular greater economic inequality, have left their mark on “gateway cities.” In the meantime, I highly recommend Ryan Avent’s ‘The Spectre Haunting San Francisco,’ which ties in man-of-the-moment Thomas Piketty as well.)

On another note, the report also has a good omen for suburban retrofits in “favored quarter” suburbs, in the form of an interesting but familiar disconnect between housing supply and demand in “Affluent Metroburbs.” 58% of housing stock in these communities is detached, “but fewer than half [of those seeking to move] say they are seeking a detached single-family home, compared with a national average of 60 percent.”

Among residents of “historic skyline cities,” a broad category that includes both healthy and less-healthy cities, there isn’t exactly a stampede to the exits. 54% of those who intend to move still “intend to stay in an urban area,” and “nearly one in five” wants to move for better schools (hardly the unanimity some cry about).

2. Alon Levy has a great post about how, on a macro scale, the gridded West has a suburban layout that fosters high-coverage bus networks, whereas more organically settled Eastern suburbs have a dendritic, hub-and-spoke layout that lends itself to commuter rail. (Yes, he points out that Johnny-come-lately Washington has, through Metro, grown into the latter pattern.)

This might go some way towards explaining “the Western Paradox” in Brookings’ findings regarding transit access to jobs. In short, Western cities (particularly in the desert southwest) had a strange spread: many jobs were technically accessible by transit, but low transit-to-work mode shares. The highest mode shares were found in older eastern cities, where a large fraction of suburban service jobs are inaccessible by transit.

A rising Potomac: oh, dam it

30m sea level rise along the Potomac

30 meters of sea level rise would wipe out most of the L’Enfant City, put the White House underwater, and leave the Capitol on a little island — but it could still be managed by damming the Potomac River at key locations, like Quantico or Mason Neck.

Of the world’s major coastal-plain cities, Washington, Rio, and London are among the few that could conceivably be saved by damming estuaries, although I’m sure the Japanese will still try.

The same can’t be said for Philadelphia, where the Delaware has a very broad valley, or even New York, where dams at Verrazano Narrows and Arthur Kill will have to be supplemented by very extensive construction to block Long Island Sound. Boston either becomes an archipelago or a polder at a mere 7m of SLR. Even Montreal faces serious property loss over 20m; at 30m Beijing becomes coastal and tides could reach Lake Champlain and the Caspian sea.

Much more than 30m, like the 60m these guys have in mind, and most everything on the east coast below the fall line would be gone. Even dams at the Golden Gate and St. John’s would no longer protect San Francisco or Portland. That’s when inland real estate might become rather more valuable.

Surprisingly, my river-view apartment should be okay up to +10m or so even without a downstream barrier.

Generated using

[Posted to Flickr on 12 June 2012, but today's Antarctic ice sheet news reminded me that I never cross-posted it here.]

Telematics can reinforce centralization

Self-valeting vehicles would make going downtown a lot cheaper and easier. Photo: Steven Vance

1. Telecommuting is great, but only to a point. According to Gallup, “the ability to work remotely corresponds with higher engagement, but primarily among those who spend less than 20% of their total working time doing so.” Employees who spent more than 50% of their time working remotely had engagement and disengagement figures similar to those who never worked remotely. (The release also has some nice quotes from Vint Cerf at Google about the value of face-to-face interaction, and how they’ve sought to increase collaboration within the workplace.)

2. On a similar note about the potential of telematics, there’s a lot of hype out there about autonomous vehicles, aka driverless cars, but Nat Bottigheimer and my former colleague Brooks Rainwater have appropriately measured responses.

In the few conversations I’ve had with transportation professionals about their impact, their understanding is similarly muted. Yes, platoons of autonomous vehicles will squeeze a little bit more capacity out of existing roads while maintaining laminar flow, but it’s not as if there’s scads of peak-hour capacity remaining to be had.

The really big impact will be upon parking. By removing the cost and hassle of parking at the final destination could make urban centers even more valuable, and further diminish the primary appeal of drivable (really, parkable) suburbia — which is that it’s easy to drive to, and park at. If both of those factors become immaterial, then why bother driving to the B-mall when you could go straight to the A-mall, or downtown?

Similarly, an interesting class divide could arise if the vehicles really do succeed in eliminating driver-error crashes. Such crashes could soon become stigmatized as something that only happens to poor people who can’t afford fancy crash-avoidance technology. (Do people today cluck-cluck with resignation about people maimed in car crashes because the inexpensive cars said victims bought used were not equipped with adequate airbags?)

Shorts: parking craters, carbon tax, Census tools


Urban renewal in New Haven created a “towers in a parking lot” environment, replacing its lower-scale past.

Several springtime shorts:

1. My Streetsblog post about Chris McCahill’s parking research got a strong reception last week:

Streetsblog recently spoke with Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin, to learn about his research into how parking affects small cities’ downtowns. Most recently, McCahill and his co-authors have shown how policy makers’ preoccupation with parking not only hollows out city centers, it also decimates the downtown tax base.

2. In carbon tax news, DC residents Christine Lagarde and Jim Yong Kim (who might know a bit about economics and taxation) both endorsed a carbon tax shift at last week’s IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings, per a report from the Sydney Morning Herald. Meanwhile, revenue-positive carbon tax legislation was introduced in California.

3. Three neat online Census tools for future reference:
Demographics around a point, from Census 2010 (so, alas, limited to the short form, but useful for gross population)
Shift-share analysis, to see how your area’s job creation in various sectors leads/lags its peers
Economic development cluster mapping, identifying geographic concentrations of firms by NAICS code and county

Modernist town founder urges evolution, not stasis, for his jewel

Reston: Lake Anne Village
[Nobody's around to sit with Bob by the shores of Reston's Lake Anne.]

One new fad insists that Modernist urban plans were designed as totalizing works of art, and thus should be frozen in their as-built, “apex” condition. That’s even though such places often were never built to their originally planned capacity, and almost always fail to draw the crowds that were promised. However, most of the auteurs who dreamt up and built these places have passed on, and we thus have no way to ask them whether their plans were truly end-state designs, or whether they were starting points for natural urban evolution — whether the founders hold more sacred either the intent, or the letter, of their plans.

Tom Jackman from the Post gets a word in with Robert E. Simon, one of the few long-lived Modernist visionaries who still plays an active role in his built creation:

Redevelopment is also in the works for Reston’s original centerpiece [link], the Lake Anne Village Center, including the addition of 800 residential units nearby. That, Simon said, ‘is an answer to a prayer’ because more than anything else, he still wants Reston to one day be a true walkable community… Of the seven village centers that Simon envisioned as creating a sense of community, only Lake Anne resembled that vision of shops, businesses and housing in one place. His hopes for multiple high-rises never materialized, so Lake Anne’s retail shops gradually fell into decline or closed… Simon remains convinced that village centers can create the community that makes Reston distinctive and is thrilled that a developer plans to remake Lake Anne Village Center, where Simon lives. The plan will replace an 180-unit apartment complex with 1,000 townhouse and apartment units, a concept on which Simon was consulted.

Planning’s fruits include Shaw’s Progress(ion Place)

Progression Place

Eight years on, the District seems to have gotten a nice return on its $20 million investment into Progression Place, the long-awaited development that replaced a city-owned parcel above the Shaw Metro that some called “the block of blight.” Not only has the Mid-City neighborhood gained an employment anchor (DC’s grants went to the office portion) and 50 units of affordable housing, but Progression Place also created a lively block of walkable retail that complements DC’s adjacent investments in the Metro and the Howard Theater. So yes, although you may have to wait a while, sometimes city plans do eventually work according to plan.

From a planning perspective, Progression Place features a broad mix of uses at a fairly high intensity:

  • It anchors a new uptown office district, with 100,000 sq. ft. of new offices being built now for the UNCF and Teach for America. Next door, the Wonder Bread factory has another 98,000 feet, for a combined daytime population at lease-up exceeding 1,000. It’ll be interesting to see who moves in here; even beyond the Digital DC initiative focused here, TFA is known as having a younger constituency than most other federal programs. Although the Green Line has spurred great residential and retail growth, its potential for office is rather less tested.
  • 205 apartments; 1/4 inclusionary, with both low and moderate income price points.
  • The retail tenant mix has a few nationals (Bank of America and Sprint) alongside several established local operators, led off with a critical mass of food & beverage destinations. The merchandising by StreetSense is also first-rate, and not only because I’ve a known soft spot for beer, bakeries, and tea. Having great retail in place (and thus a high Walk Score) will help residential leasing. I suspect that retail is somewhat of a loss leader here, which might explain why the retail and residential are under one owner.
  • There’s underground parking, but the overall parking ratio is about 0.57 spaces per 1,000 sq. ft., shared with the historic Howard Theater next door. A comparable project in the suburbs might include 4-5 times as much parking.

Just as importantly, the building’s architecture pulls off the “vanishing high-rise” trick quite well by setting the tower 35′ behind the storefronts. What could be an overwhelming slab of an apartment building — with a net density of 301 dwelling units per acre, excluding the site’s office and T Street wings — disappears at street level behind the historic row of storefronts:

Progression Place Storefronts

The 19,500 sq. ft. of retail is almost entirely housed behind retained and rehabilitated historic storefronts, retaining not only their appearance but also the fine-grained scale — i.e., the neighborhood’s classic rhythm of narrow lots and small bays. The original finishes, like exposed brick, carry through to the interior — but behind the front room, modern new building services are provided in the back of the house, as part of the new structure. This transition (visible in the retail floor plan) is subtle enough to have evaded notice by at least one table of architects I was dining with.

In some respects, this project probably benefitted from having local firms in charge of development and leasing, including layering a complex capital stack, and then selling the property on to a national income-oriented owner. Four Points’ next project might well be downtown Anacostia, a site they’ve been waiting on for several years.

Disclosure: I have no financial interest in any businesses or properties named, or located on named sites.

[Blogging update: now that I'm working at Streetsblog, I might be able to repost some pieces from there, and will continue reposting items cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington or written for other venues.]