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American cities face new
realities after lost decade
A report by the Brooking Institution
reviewed by Tony Favro*
8 June 2010: American market research firms systematically classify the residents of a metropolitan area according to their purchasing power. Each consumer group receives a descriptive moniker according to its specific demographic, economic, and social characteristics: “Successful Suburbanites”, for example or “Urban Working Families” or “Low Income Southern Blacks”. The communities in which these groups live are likewise labeled: “Wealthy Seaboard Suburbs”, “Distressed Neighborhoods”, “Rustbelt Neighborhoods”, and so on. Vendors use this information to target the sale of their products and services.
| Trends | Front lines | New realities |
The Brookings Institution takes a similar approach to the entire United States in its recently-released study of the 100 largest US metro areas, The State of Metropolitan America. The traditional geographic divisions of Northeast, South, Midwest, West, and so on as well as commonly-used points of reference such as Rust Belt, Sun Belt, and Silicon Valley are replaced by seven new classifications of metro areas which, according to Brookings, better reflect the “new realities” of demographic, economic, and social changes in the US since 2000 and allow leaders to better target their policies and programs. The metro areas are classified based on common traits rather than geographic proximity.
The “New Heartland”, for example, includes Charleston, South Carolina in the South, Kansas City, Missouri in the Midwest, and Portland, Oregon in the Northwest metro areas that are geographically distant but share the traits of fast-growth and highly-educated residents, as well as lower proportions of Latino and Asian populations than the national average. The “Industrial Core” category includes metro areas from Providence, Rhode Island to Wichita, Kansas, older, slow-growth metro areas with aging, less-diverse populations. The other divisions in the Brookings’ study are “Mid-Sized Magnet”, “Next Frontier”, “Diverse Giant”, “Border Growth”, and “Skilled Anchor”.
The big picture, according to Brookings, is that the United States is affected by five powerful trends: growth and outward expansion; population diversification; an aging citizenry; uneven higher educational attainment; and, income polarization.
Consider some of the trends and their implications:
• More than 80 per cent of African-American and Latino adults in the US don’t have Bachelor’s degrees, compared with 40 per cent of whites and Asians -- and the educational divide appears to be growing.
• The total number of baby boomers and seniors has surpassed 100 million. Most are whites who live in suburban neighborhoods that were built in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to accommodate growing nuclear families. Moreover, their neighbors increasingly are nonwhite youth, a juxtaposition the report says may presage a “cultural generation gap.”
• The US population grew by 9 per cent in the past decade (metro areas by 10.5 per cent); racial and ethnic minorities account for most of the nation’s population increase. In 1990, minorities were the majority in 5 US metro areas; today, they are the majority in 17 of the 100 largest metro areas. By 2042, the US will become a “majority-minority” nation.
• Half of all children in the 100 largest metro areas are nonwhite, and by 2023 half of all children in the country will be minorities.
• One in eight Americans is foreign-born, including one in six in metro areas. Foreign immigrants and the children of immigrants will account for most of the US population growth over the next 30 years.
• Outer, exurban areas of metropolitan America grew at three times the rate of central cities and inner suburbs.
At the front lines of these trends are the cities and suburbs the metropolitan areas that house two-thirds of America’s population. The pace and complexity of change are unprecedented, according to Brookings, and the implications of the trends have become too large for policymakers to ignore.
For example, aging populations require higher levels of services, including transportation and housing needs that are currently unmet in most metro areas. Problems related to low educational attainment by minorities job preparedness, public safety, poverty, social isolation will likely deepen as these populations grow to become a larger proportion of the overall population. The costs financial and environmental to build further out on undeveloped land while existing communities and infrastructure deteriorate will certainly stress municipal and state budgets.
Embracing “New realities”
Many observers, the report notes, refer to the past 10 years as a “lost decade” for American metropolitan areas, a decade in which they failed to respond to the evident challenges. The primary reasons are a national recession and the accompanying job and income loss and, especially, a continuation of “the long, fruitless history of battles and mistrust” between communities within the same metro area.
The seven new categories of metro areas formulated by Brookings thus challenge citizens, mayors, and other leaders to look beyond geography and embrace data which are far more meaningful and powerful for effective policymaking.
The report downplays geography at all levels and, in so doing, places responsibility for meeting the challenges posed by the new demographic and economic realities squarely on the shoulders of state, federal, and, especially, local officials. The ultimate solution, the report suggests, is that “the lines between cities and suburbs must be transcended in all types of metropolitan areas.”
This is fundamentally a positive message. It implies that the problems are surmountable, that the redistribution of existing resources is more essential to success than the exceedingly difficult task of creating new resources which, of course, comes back to what the report identifies as a need for “coherent, purposeful” leadership.
“Local leaders,” the report concludes, “must forge regional solutions to newly shared regional challenges. They must undertake greater collaboration in the delivery of services, or outright combine outdated, inefficient local government units.”
*Tony Favro’s latest book Hard Constants: Sustainability and the American City is now available free of charge from City Mayors. Please complete our order form to receive a pdf copy. Libraries of academic institutions may receive a hard copy. Order form
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