Friday, May 4, 2012

Can We Exaggerate the Significance of Cleveland's Downtown Population Gains?

Richard Florida has a nice post at the Atlantic Cities about Cleveland's downtown population gains. Here is the meat of the post, which references a new report out of Case Western:
America certainly appears to be in the early stages of a back-to-the-city movement. While the bulk of population and economic growth took place in the suburbs and exurbs over the past several decades, the 2010 Census provided evidence of a subtle shift back toward the urban core, both in center cities and in more urban first- and second-ring suburbs.
This is not just happening in America’s largest, most cosmopolitan metros like New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, but in the archetypal Rust Belt as well.
Consider Cleveland. A recent report from Case Western's Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, entitled Not Dead Yet: The Infilling of Cleveland’s Inner Core, provides evidence of a shift in population back to the urban core:
Over the last two decades, the neighborhood's population grew 96%, with residential totals increasing from 4,651 to 9,098. It was the single largest spike of any neighborhood, suburb, or county measured for the two decades under study. Downtown residential occupancy rates now stand over 95% and developers are eagerly looking to meet residential demand.
And here is how Florida concludes:
The significance of Cleveland’s population shift cannot be exaggerated. As Jim Russell puts it: “the urban core is a net importer of young adults and a net exporter of old adults. That's the antithesis of a dying city."
I'm happy for Cleveland, but I think you can pretty easily exaggerate the significance of Cleveland's population shift, especially if you view this as unambiguously good. Downtown Cleveland now has about two percent of the city's population and .04 percent of the metro population, and the rest of the city is shedding people at a sharp clip (17 percent decline from 2000 to 2010). Nine thousand people isn't really enough to support a great deal of amenities, and certainly not enough to support schools and other services that families want. Perhaps downtown will continue to grow. Let's hope.

However, there are two associated problems that deserve attention through policy research and planning. These are general concerns not specific to Cleveland. The first is that because the city is still declining the tax base is still declining. It's arguably better for the city to concentrate population and employment is smaller areas in order to provide services more cost effectively, but Cleveland isn't able to do that. A small increase in population in one area is not offset by declines elsewhere. Now it seems that the city has a 2.75 percent sales tax, so increase entertainment and retail sales does help the bottom line, but as long as the city is declining it will be difficult to maintain public services that make downtown attractive in the first place. The sustainability of downtown resurgences and the financial implications of such is an area that needs serious research.

The second problem area has to do with the relationship between poverty, public transit and employment. Ed Glaeser, Matt Kahn and Jordan Rappaport argue that the poverty is (or was) concentrated in central cities in large part because of access to public transit and governmental policies that favor the poor. From their abstract:
More than 17 percent of households in American central cities live in poverty; in American suburbs, just 7.4 percent of households live in poverty. The income elasticity of demand for land is too low for urban poverty to be the result of wealthy individuals' wanting to live where land is cheap (the traditional urban economics explanation of urban poverty). Instead, the urbanization of poverty appears to be the result of better access to public transportation in central cities, and central city governments favoring the poor (relative to suburban governments).
Poverty has suburbanized, but a potential issue here is that gentrifying downtowns are driving poor households out and away from areas of relatively high transit access. As poor households are priced out of downtown housing they also lose access to employment opportunities accessible by transit. This creates a vicious cycle from which poor household can't escape, nor are there easy policy interventions to compensate.

By promoting luxury living in downtown USA we may be displacing people away from dense transit networks and reasonable access to employment. The way for poor households to improve their income is to then buy a car in order to access jobs. This potentially shifts low income transit riders away from transit while higher income people are able to choose to live car free. If this is the case--and again I'm arguing for research and planning rather than making dubious claims--then transit planning and policy are affected on environmental justice and equity grounds. We can't ignore the social welfare justification for maintaining high quality transit access. Of course, it is also plausible that by increasing transit ridership by educated, wealthier people the constituency for transit improves which will eventually result in better service. I'm not sure the New York City experience bears this scenario out, but maybe.

So I argue that it is possible to exaggerate the significance of 4,500 people moving into downtown Cleveland. There are still many unresolved concerns, and new ones that might come up. I will say that you can't exaggerate the significance of these issues for those of us in planning research!

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