33. Where We Are and Where We Are Going: Ten Clues for Planners

There is no shortage of opinions on the conditions in the US related to public planning and these views seem not to have changed much in the past half century. There is now, however, recent, relevant and useful research to provide a fact driven new and predictive view of Americans and the places where they live and work and how they travel. Doubtless, there are university planning departments and metropolitan planning organizations that are well acquainted with the studies referenced here and perhaps their work is already influenced by them. The purpose of this article, however, is to motivate those to whom the research is unfamiliar and those who only exceptionally are guided by research when the conventional wisdom has long seemed adequate. Taken together, these studies reflect a a profoundly different America from that experienced in the post world war era.

As everyone knows, for a half century, metropolitan areas have  expanded, densities have declined, cities have shrunk and non metropolitan counties have grown. Public transportation became a governmental afterthought, highways were built far beyond actual requirements and we have acquired more cars in many places than we have licensed drivers to use them. The American household is still popularly envisioned as two parents and two children living in a low density, crime free suburban Nirvana with free schools and where all trips beyond 1000 feet are by car. The single occupancy vehicle work trip time lengthened from 20 minutes to 30 minutes or more as a trade off against lower priced real estate. Much public planning is still shaped by these hoary assumptions and seemingly inexorable trends.

Because planning is intended to be forward thinking, planners need to understand relevant new research reflecting:

  • The revolutions of American tastes and demographic changes;
  • The new constraints and how they will shape settlements and land values.

The Revolutions

  1. Where to Live–The Yankelovitch  research organization reported three years ago that young people 18-34 years of age want to pick where they live before seeking work. This preference is in sharp contrast to the image popularized in William H Whyte’s “The Organization Man” where two generations picked their employers and the corporations told them where they were to work and thus to live. (“College educated young adults consider ‘place’ first when choosing locations: jobs are secondary.” CEOs for Cities, 2006).
  2. Residential Growth–The US Environmental Protection Agency reported about the same time that for the first time there had been ”remarkable” residential growth in central cities and first ring, older suburbs. In 2010, EPA said of its study of the 50 largest metropolitan areas that “a fundamental shift in the real estate market” is occurring. Jonathan Hiskes wrote that the proportion of home building…in central cities has doubled in 26 metros”.(Hiskes, Jonathan. “New homes are cropping up in cities, not suburbs”. Grist, 2010.)
  3. Crime— Crime is at “the lowest level ” per 100,000 population, according the Justice Department. The Gallup Organization noted last year that crime was no longer the major concern reported earlier by surveyed respondents. Instead of muggings, which previously topped the reasons for crime fear (now in sixth place), concern about identity theft tops the list. The Pew Research Center asked respondents for their “top priority” concern; crime ranked  twelfth. Example: Downtown residents in Philadelphia, PA told surveyors that “safe neighborhood” was the second highest reason for moving there, after walking to work. (Gallup. Pew Research Center. 2009. Justice Department, 2007. “State of Center City” Center City District, 2009).
  4. Living Downtown— Example: Having recorded ever smaller populations since the 1950s, Philadelphia was long regarded as an extreme case of the popular view that cities were economically hopeless. It turns out that not everyone had been moving to the suburbs. Indeed, the University of Pennsylvania Planning Department began reporting almost a decade ago that ”unprecedented” population increases were occurring in almost all large city Downtowns. (Birch ,Eugenie.”Who Lives Downtown?”,2005.)
  5. School Age Children— This, too, reflects a demographic revolution. Fewer than a third of all U.S. households include any school age children. If, as widely believed, much of the “flight” to the suburbs was motivated by public school choices, that factor is of no value to nearly 70% of households. (U.S. Census, 2000)
  6. Households—Example: The Pew Research Initiative noted that the number of jobs in Philadelphia continued to decline while the population and number of households increased. “Simply confusing”, Pew confessed. This is  an apparent paradox only if one associates population levels  to be entirely influenced by numbers of jobs, as  economic analysts have done since time immemorial. In every decade but one since 1950, the city’s household levels remained stabile while household size shrank here and throughout the country.  (Pew Research, 2010. William Penn Foundation, 2010)
  7. Amenities and Growth—If growth is  not entirely determined by number of jobs, , what else explains population growth ?  Two economists studied 150 metropolitan areas and examined the factors  most closely associated with growth. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, those with the most amenities—parks, libraries, specialty shops, good restaurants, theatres, pleasant appearance and such—were the winners.  Americans want to live in places where they are happy with the surroundings, the quality of the experience opportunities, places where they can conveniently indulge themselves. (Carlino, Gerald and Albert Saiz. Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, 2009;” Houstoun, Lawrence “Amenity-driven economic growth”. International Economic  Development Council,2010.)
  8. Walkability—Three  garages large enough for SUVs were recently the measure of a satisfying home; sidewalks seemed useless and are often misssing. One recent  study measured the number of destinations within walking distance of 90,000 recent home sales in 15 markets, controlling for size, rooms, neighborhoods, etc. There was a correlation between “Walkability” and housing prices in 13 of the markets, the greater number of  convenient destinations, the higher the sales price. Only Las Vegas produced a negative correlation—housing prices decreased there with higher Walk scores(see 10 below). Earlier studies  reported the real estate benefits resulting from proximity of homes to  transit and to parks (“How Walkability Raises Home Values” CEOs for Cities. 2009. “The Economic Benefit of Parks”, Hoffman, Dan, David Schwartz, Lawrence Houstoun. New Jersey Department of Conservation ref)
  9. Redefining “Suburb” and  Reenvisioning “City”—Americans have a  hazy  view of suburbia, mainly seeing it as “not city”, that is, not those places with density and crowds. It is more useful, however, to distinguish between places  where one must move virtually everywhere by car(Auto Dependant) and one where there are bus and train options (Transit Served).  America’s cities should be recognized as highly valuable places because they offer the greatest amounts of diversity and convenience, two vital elements influencing  land values. This has long been true  in London and Paris, as well as San Fransisco and Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech forecasts a surplus of 22 million large lot homes  in 15 years. University of Michigan market research reports that while roughly a third of US households prefer traditional suburban life and another third value “mixed use, walkable urban areas.” Example: Luxury detached homes in suburban Westchester County, NY sell for $375 a square foot, while  condos in transit served White Plains sell for $750.  Crime in most cities is down. Christopher Leinberger reports an increase in crime in communities outside Charlotte, NC while the rates in the city remain stable. The slumming of the suburbs? Perhaps, but don’t expect nineteenth century, transit-served places like Ridgewood, NJ and Ardmore, PA to slum. They inherited the infrastructure essential to success in the twenty-first century.(Metropolitan Institute, Virginia Tech University,  University of Michigan ) .
  10. Gasoline, the Shaper— If these studies and references fairly describe where we are, where should we look to glimpse the likely future? One provocative reference is Christopher Steiner’s “$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change our Lives for the Better”( reviewed in Planning, August, 1009). No flaky, left wing radical, Steiner’s day job is writing for Forbes magazine.
      • At $4 a gallon, reduced auto travel will save almost a third of those now killed on roads:
      • For every $1 increase in gas prices, 1100 fewer lives are lost to obesity-related costs;
      • Fewer miles driven will reduce the rate of heart disease.
    • Steiner notes that, at $4 a gallon, jet fuel made up 40% of air carriers’ costs and as petroleum prices rise he quotes experts’ views regarding which airline will go under(at this writing, three are struggling to combine). At $8 a gallon, the airline network will contract to 50% of its current size. “Resort townies will live lonely lives… Las Vegas with 19 of the world’s 25 largest hotels will shrink to half its current size…Public transit will be the  belle of the ball.”
    • Some positive effects of these revolutionary price changes include:
    • Steiner’s forecasts are shaped by actual changes that occurred in the prerecession period when gasoline was $4 a gallon and are drawn from experts in the affected fields—air travel, medical, real estate, etc. At $4 a gallon, property values declined at the metropolitan edges. Transit ridership was up. Low wage jobs went begging because workers couldn’t afford to commute to dispersed, low density places.

Steiner’s view of tomorrow’s America does not require the apparently impossible political challenge of raising gas taxes. These  changes are forecast entirely on the kind of supply and demand relationships that even right wing opinion makers must acknowledge. We are running out of affordable oil and the price of fuel will reflect this reality.( Steiner, Christopher.“Twenty dollar a Gallon Gasoline: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Make our Lives Better”,2009; Houstoun, Planning, August 2009).

The handwriting is on the wall. There are enough potential entries here to make many a persuasive power point presentation. Still, skeptics  will point out that it would be more reassuring if we had the benefit of ten more years’ experience, that there is still fear in and of many city neighborhoods, that someday we will have cars that consume appreciably less petroleum than today’s.  Some will propose to wait and see.  In the meantime, planners may enjoy some stimulating reading and reflect on the fact that these changes have begun without governmental action.

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