A blog about our common life

They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain--ISAIAH 11:9a

I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Jew.--MOHANDAS K. GANDHI

And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets--ZECHARIAH 8:5

NOTE: The perspectives herein are solely the author's, and not those of Coe College, or any other organization of which he is a member.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Is our children learning?

Anxiety about the quality of American schools has since the 1980s been driven at least in part by American students' mediocre performance on international tests. In the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15 year olds finished 17th among 34 OECD nations in reading, 20th in science and 27th in math, which a frustrated U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called "a picture of educational stagnation" (Simon, cited below). Younger students did somewhat better in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), with 4th graders finishing 11th among 57 countries in math and 7th in science, and 8th graders finishing 9th in math and 10th in science. In the same year, American 4th graders finished 6th among 53 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). (Results from 2015 TIMSS and PIRLS will be available this November.) If maintaining America's favorable position in an increasingly competitive, global economy depends on how well-prepared young people are as they enter the work force, these are not good signs, though some might be taken as at least OK.
Johnson STEAM Academy, Cedar Rapids, IA
Lowest test scores in the metro area
82.2 percent of students eligible for free lunch
(photo by author)
Viewing American students as a homogeneous group with mediocre levels of achievement produces, however, a misleading picture of American education. (There are also serious questions about the validity of the test results as statistical indicators, which reservations I share but which I am for the sake of the present discussion going to ignore.) To take just one dimension of diversity, the socio-economic status of the student body, students from low-poverty schools had average PISA scores similar to the top countries in all three categories, while students from low-poverty schools averaged scores that would have put them near the bottom of the OECD (Simon 2013; see also Shultis 2012). Geography matters, too: Several states score consistently much higher than the U.S. national average across-the-board on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores: Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey. Wisconsin, Indiana and Virginia are close behind them. Whatever's going on there is clearly different in a good way than in the states that score much lower than the national average: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico. How is it then useful to treat the "crisis" as uniform nationwide?
Westfield Elementary School, Robins IA
Highest test scores in the metro area
6.0 percent of students eligible for free lunch
(photo from school website)
In the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area test scores at the individual school level vary according to the poverty of the student body. Here are the global ratings from greatschools.org and the percentage of students at each public school whose family income qualifies them for free lunch:

0-10 %
11-20 %
21-30 %
31-40 %
41-50 %
51-60 %
61-70 %
71-80 %
81-90 %

es es es




es es


HS MS MS IS es es es
 HS es


es es
MS es es es


IS es





Es es
es es es


MS es


Of the 11 schools with 20 percent or less of their students qualifying for free lunch, all but two score at least 7. Of the seven schools with more than 60 percent qualifying, all score 1 or 2. (There are also some inter-district effects that are hard to explain without further investigation. And I can no longer find SES data for private schools in Iowa. About ten years ago, I did a similar examination of public and private elementary schools that showed (a) private elementary schools had very low rates of free-and-reduced lunch students, and (b) their tests scores were comparable to, not better than, public schools with very low rates of free-and-reduced lunch students. And now it seems this handy metric is going to be lost even for public school comparisions.)

To be sure, as reporter Stephanie Simon notes, "poverty alone does not explain the lagging results in the U.S. Vietnam is a poor nation, yet it outscored the U.S. significantly in math and science." The problem is the nature of poverty in America, a rich country with areas of concentrated poverty particularly in central cities that are isolated from the mainstream economy, cut off from avenues to economic opportunity (Chetty et al. 2014, 2016). In many places this reality is enforced by zoning restrictions that keep the poor out of and away from economically-successful areas, including the schools (Rothwell 2012). Being poor anywhere is difficult, but being poor in America presents a particular set of challenges that are reflected in educational performance.

It should be clear by now that efforts to improve American educational outcomes need to address the subgroups with distinctively low performance: children from poor families living in areas of concentrated poverty. Most analysts' approaches focus either on individuals or society.

The predominant individual approach is some form of school choice, which at least means the ability to choose among public schools within or across school districts. The ability to form charter schools, as well as government vouchers that can be applied to private school tuition, further increase the range of choices. The core assumption--that school performance is driven largely by the talent and effort of the staff, and that market-style competition would spur higher quality and more innovation--seems to me flawed. If the school staff were the causal variable, we'd see performance vary more randomly across the map rather than being so easily predictable by local SES.

Nevertheless there are some reasons to think seriously about school choice: Giving people choices might increase their feelings of personal efficacy as well as responsibility for outcomes; it reminds school staff, to the extent they need reminding, that they are accountable for student learning; it might be a short-term way to start getting the improved social mobility that Chetty et al. argue would come from physical mobility; and it would be a way to reassure new middle-class residents that they could seek the best education possible for their children (Duany et al. 2010: 172, though n.b. their preferred solution is a consolidated regional school district: "Only if city schools are able to share the resources of those in the wealthier suburbs can large numbers of parents be convinced to locate their families downtown").

Efforts to improve racial integration attack the performance problem at a more societal level. Gary Orfield and colleagues (2016) argue from numerous studies that racial as well as economic segregation continues to be linked to inferior economic opportunity, and question the lack of policy "initiatives to mitigate spreading and deepening segregation in our nation's schools." Other societal approaches include improving teacher recruitment and training, essentializing the curriculum ( like "Common Core") and increasing spending on education. (For a list of plausible education policy questions for presidential candidates, see Hansen 2016.) Each of these societal approaches, though, takes the distribution of resources and opportunities in American society as givens and tries to do the best they can with them.

I realize the potential for a mixed message here, and I would not for a moment suggest that either the staff of high-poverty schools or low-income parents should ever give up striving to be the best they can be. There is a lot that individuals and schools can do to make things better (Gran 2016). But as a community, as a country, we have to confront how much poverty, particularly concentrated poverty, affects academic performance. Nothing, really, short of a frontal assault on inequality of opportunity will do.

EARLIER POST: "Starting a Conversation about Education," 16 August 2015, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2015/08/starting-conversation-about-education.html

Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point Press, 10th anniversary ed., 2010)
Michael Hansen, "What We Need to Know from Candidates on Education Policy," Brookings, 9 August 2016
Gary Orfield, Jongyeon Ee, Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, "Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State," The Civil Rights Project, 16 May 2016
"PISA 2012 Results," http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results.htm
Jonathan Rothwell, "Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools," Brookings, 19 April 2012
Steven Shultis, "It's the Schools, Stupid (Part I)," Rational Urbanism, 22 September 2012
Stephanie Simon, "PISA Results: 'Educational Stagnation,'" Politico, 3 December 2013, http://www.politico.com/story/2013/12/education-international-test-results-100575
"TIMSS 2011 Results," http://nces.ed.gov/timss/results11.asp

SEE ALSO: Elizabeth Kneebone, "The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty," Brookings, 31 July 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/the-growth-and-spread-of-concentrated-poverty-2000-to-2008-2012/#/M10420 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Taleb talks parking

Are there "antifragile" ways to develop this city-owned property?
My friend and fellow Corridor Urbanist Ben Kaplan has just written about ongoing downtown development in our town, specifically the question of how to plan parking capacity when great changes in cars may be just a few years in the offing. Ben notes the winning developer's proposal for a city owned lot on 3rd Avenue and 1st Street includes a 744 space parking garage; the other two finalists included garages with 365 and 552 spaces, respectively. "But what if," asks Ben, "we're on the cusp of a world where we rarely, if ever, park our cars ourselves?"

"Basically, by 2030," he goes on, "it's reasonable to assume that most of the cars on the road will have some level of automation. What does a world where most cars can drive [and park] themselves look like?" Well, for one thing, all those garages and parking lots would still have all the negatives identified by the prophet Donald Shoup (chunks of unproductive and unattractive space, missing teeth on the street, generally killing the urban buzz) with none of the positives (individual convenience, sends a message that people from away are welcome).

Meanwhile, the Strong Towns Book Club, in its discussion of book 3 in philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb's provocative Antifragile (Random House, 2012), asks: How would a local government use the barbell strategy (embracing both extreme risk aversion on one side and extreme risk taking on the other while shunning everything in the middle)? As applied to the parking dilemma, how does a city struggle to balance the expectations of drivers with the needs of productive places and the people who use them, when fast-paced technological change may soon upend the basic realities on which such assessments are built?

Taleb in book 3 builds on his concept of antifragility, the idea that success means more than riding out the bad stuff (mere "robustness" or "resilience"); it should mean becoming stronger from adversity. He introduces us in chapter 9 to two lovable characters, each of whom stands for an important aspect of the antifragile life. "Fat Tony" DiBenedetto has a strong antipathy toward "the empty suit" (p. 145) and "believed that nerds, administrators, and, mostly, bankers were the ultimate suckers" (p. 147) because they master the details that are essentially superfluous while missing the big important things. The restlessly curious Nero Tulip recognizes some stuff doesn't make sense even when intellectuals purport to explain it, and so "a system built on illusions of understanding probability is bound to collapse" (p. 147). Both men made money from the financial collapse of 2008 because they recognized the pretense behind all the smart people saying they had things under control, so they had made investments that bet against the smart people's predictions.

Fat Tony and Nero teach us that we, individually or collectively, don't know as much as we think we do, and so life choices and public policies that assume much knowledge of the future are attended by great downside risks when the inevitable unexpected events develop. The antifragile path, we learn in chapter 11, is rather to let go of detailed predictions based on statistical metrics (which with their false precision are "just air" [p.150]) and focus on avoiding the major downside risks that could lead to collapse. This frees the individual to take occasional flyers on high risk activities that have the potential for major payoffs. Uniformly medium risk still carries the chance of complete failure, so go for "a dual strategy composed of extremes, without the corruption of the middle"--the barbell metaphor--"somehow they all result in favorable asymmetries" (p. 162).

So how do we "barbell" our downtowns? The presence of autonomous cars on the time horizon can in this sense be a blessing to city officials and business leaders, because it frees all of us from any idea how this is going to play out, like knowing how many parking spaces we're going to need. Let go, say Fat Tony and Nero, of the models showing how downtown is going to develop in the next 15-30 years, because they're all surely wrong in some important way or other. Focus instead on the worst that can happen--what would constitute catastrophic failure?--and avoid that outcome(s).

For cities catastrophic failure would either be financial insolvency or being saddled a large amount of useless space, which are probably correlative anyway. In the specific case of Cedar Rapids we could add massive property damage from another flood on the scale of 2008. So you don't want to invest so much in infrastructure that you can't afford to maintain, and you don't want to take a form that can't adapt to changing circumstances and fashions. I think that if we develop with too little parking (stop laughing! and follow my argument here), such a mistake would not be catastrophic; things would work themselves out because the rising value of parking space would impel some developer to invest in creating more of it. If instead we choose too much parking, that has great downside risk: it winds up being expensive to someone, which ultimately means the municipality once the businesses fail or flee. An excess of space devoted to parking means vast emptinesses at street level, which severely handicaps the area's ability to attract residents, businesses and visitors.

In positing near-term major change in people's behavior, Ben complicates the scenario by asking what happens if we miraculously get the parking right for 2016 but in 15 years it turns out to be way too much? That would lead to failure if all that parking can't be inexpensively converted to some more productive use. So just as we should construct buildings that can be converted to a succession of uses--this...

not this...
...we should design at least some of those parking facilities for flexible use, too. Could, for example, a parking garage with excess capacity be made to shrink from the outside in, so there could be shops on the street side? Approaching it like that seems to me to be the city's essential interest, while we leave the details up to the market.

Ben Adler, "Cities Finally Realize They Don't Need to Require So Much Damn Parking," Grist, 2 August 2016
Ben Kaplan, "What Happens After Autonomous Cars?Corridor Urbanism, 4 August 2016

"Can Regional Planning be Antifragile?" 31 May 2016
"Downtown vs. Parking," 29 September 2013"The Parking Dilemma," 31 July 2013

Monday, August 1, 2016

Crime and our common life

Source: nationalreview.com
Don't you know the crime rate's going up! up! up! up! up!
--"SHATTERED," The Rolling Stones (1978)

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump is asserting a dark, dystopian portrayal of America in 2016 as overwhelmed by predatory criminals and terrorists, in spite of data that show the national violent crime rate has steadily fallen for 25 years. This sharp and sustained turn in the crime rate has created space for the rejuvenation of American central cities, many of which have seen population increases above the national average for a decade or more. For those of us who lived through the three decades before 1990, during which the violent crime rate had steadily risen, the new era has come as something of a miracle, one scarcely-to-be-believed (which may be why many people don't believe it).

Trend in U.S. violent crime, from newgeography.com
According to the Uniform Crime Reports produced by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the national violent crime rate in 1970 was 363.5 per 100,000 population. In 1990, it was 731.8, slightly more than double the 1970 rate. Ten years later, it had fallen nearly a third, to 506.5, at the time the lowest since 1978; and in 2014, the last year for which a report has been produced, it was back to 375.7, roughly back to the 1970 level. A preliminary report for the first half of 2015 shows a 1.7 percent increase in violent crime over the same period in 2014--probably statistically significant, but hardly a reversal of the post-1991 trend (Comey 2016). Criminologist James Alan Fox told PolitiFact: "There are some spikes in homicide and shootings in certain cities, yet other cities continue to experience low rates. As a nation, we are far better off than anytime for the past several decades. Crime rates are low, and there is no consistent and reliable indication that things are getting worse" (Jacobson 2016a).

While this scenario played out over much of the country, it has not been playing out uniformly in all areas. Nearly all states experienced the rough doubling of violent crime (2.013x) from 1970-1990. However, Michigan (1.37 times their 1970 rate), Virginia (1.16x) and West Virginia (1.37x) had much lower increases, while the District of Columbia saw its already sky-high rate hold nearly steady (1.10x). On the other hand, a number of states saw much higher rates of increase during this period, including Iowa (3.77x), Massachusetts (3.63x), South Carolina (3.41x), Connecticut (3.25x) and Wisconsin (3.09x).

There is more divergence among states' experiences after 1990. In the chart below, Iowa's violent crime is always lower than that of Illinois, but increased faster before 1990 and its decline thereafter was slight. Iowa never exceeded half of Illinois' rate before 2003, after which it always did. (Source: F.B.I. Uniform Crime Reports, aggregated at disastercenter.com)

STATE  1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985
Illinois    468    477   508   556   627   670   626   631   677   744   808   793   774   728   725   715 
Iowa         79      99     87   102   121   141   133   144   161   181   200   204   173   181   199   212

STATE 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Illinois   800   796   810   846   967   1039  977   960   961   996   886   861   808   690   657   886
Iowa      235   231   257   266   300     303  278   326   315   354   273   310   312   280   266   268

STATE 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Illinois   602   556   546   552   542   533   528   497   445   424   416   403   370
Iowa      286   278   288   293   284   295   289   282   269   257   266   273   274

Nationally, violent crime in 2014 was 51.3 percent of the 1990 rate. New York and California, notably, had 2014 rates less than 40 percent of 1990 crime. Seven states, however, saw crime rates actually increase in this period: Montana (203.2%), South Dakota (200.6%), West Virginia (178.4%), New Hampshire (149.1%), Alaska (121.2%), Wisconsin (109.7%), and Nevada (105.8%). Another seven, including my home state of Iowa, had crime rates between 80 and 100 percent of the 1990 level, declines that are unlikely to be perceptible at the level of personal experience. Incidentally...
  • the largest metro area in these fourteen states is Las Vegas, Nevada (pop. 2,114,801, rank 29th); most of these states had no metros close to this size. I wonder if the surge and decline in violent crime since 1960 was largely an urban phenomenon?
  • The 14 states' 2012 presidential votes were roughly split, but more Republican than the nation as a whole: Mitt Romney won eight of the 14 for an electoral vote advantage of 40-34. This offers mild-at-best support to the thought that the Republican Party's 2016 theme might resonate with their core voters' experiences.
Even at the national level where data are joyous, explanations vary widely, which is hardly going to give people confidence that we know how we got here or how to sustain the decline. Washington Post reporter Max Ehrenfreund (2015) lists five common explanations for the decline in homicides, all of which can be extended to violent crime in general:
  1. Larger police forces, funded by the federal Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 as well as state and local initiatives. The ratio of police officers to the general population increased in the mid-1990s, though it had declined to its previous level by 2010. Some analysts credit this with reducing the incidence of crime (Levitt 2004), while others do not (Kleck and Barnes 2010).
  2. Use of big data by law enforcement agencies enables better targeting of resources. Specifically identifying certain "hot spots" means police officers can be where the action is, or is likely to be, and their being there can prevent some of it (Roeder, Eisen and Bowling 2015: 67-73).
  3. Alcohol consumption per capita, as estimated by the National Institutes of Health, shows a remarkably similar surge and decline with violent crime, rising from around 2 gallons per person through 1958 to a peak of 2.76 (1980-81), and then declining to 2.15 in the late 1990s (Haughwout et al. 2016, Table 1). Since 1999 it has risen back to around 2.3. Should we be alarmed yet? It makes sense that alcohol consumption beyond a certain level is associated with violence, but who knows why national alcohol consumption rises and falls? 
  4. The banning of leaded gasoline under the Clean Air Act of 1970 removed a significant hazard to developing young brains, which may have made people less likely to turn violent. However, criminologist Phil Cook notes that the decline in violent crime occurred among all age cohorts, not just those benefiting from the lead ban, so he is skeptical (Kleiman 2014). Meanwhile, many children in older homes--including, in the 1990s, the unfortunate Freddie Gray--still face the hazard of lead paint (Bendix 2016).
  5. Sustained economic growth beginning in 1982 preceded the sharp bend in the violent crime curve, and could have accounted for increased confidence and greater actual economic opportunity as well as more money to spend on security. However, it doesn't explain why the declining crime rate has continued past 2000, which years have seen two recessions including one of epic proportions, and when even periods of economic growth have been paradoxically unhelpful to poverty rates and median incomes. And if people in power knew how to fix that paradox, they'd do it, instead of rounding up the same old partisan policy proposals.
Other explanations include (6) the zero-tolerance approach by police to nuisance behavior known as "broken windows" (Wilson and Kelling 1982); (7) "community policing," which is more direct interaction by police with citizens, emphasizing a cooperative approach to problem solving; (8) increased incarceration, thought to decrease crime by incapacitating the most likely offenders; (9) declining proportion of the population in the most crime-prone age group i.e. those between 15 and 24 years of age; (10) widespread repeal of gun regulations and adoption of "right-to-carry" measures; and (11) the end of the surge in use of crack cocaine by the mid-1990s. The Brennan Center for Justice produced in 2015 a comprehensive review of the various theories including results of their own empirical analyses, What Caused the Crime Decline?, which is available online. They find support for theories 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (broken out various ways) and 9 (for the 1990s only). Needless to say, the other theories have their advocates, too. The point is that the degree of uncertainty about what caused the positive outcomes of the last 25 years can lead to anxiety about whether they can or will be sustained. Or that an equally unexplainable short-term uptick isn't the first sign of Armageddon (Ehrenfreund and Lu 2016), especially if opportunistic political candidates are pushing that story (Jacobson 2016b, "Fact Checker" 2016).

Whatever the reason(s) for the long-term decline in violent crime, public reaction has often been muted-to-disbelieving. In most of the 25 years that the incidence of crime has been reduced, large majorities of the American population have told polls crime is actually on the increase.

Most years since 1990 vast majorities think crime is on the increase. Source: Gallup
Policy analyst Wesley K. Skogan of Northwestern University points out that, of course, beliefs about the nationwide incidence of violent crime is not the same as personal fear of being victimized. In a 2011 paper he reported ten years of survey data from Chicago that showed declining fear of crime, which he attributed to declining incidence of both crime and disorderly behavior, improvement in the physical appearance of neighborhoods and increased confidence in the police. And there's all that movement back to cities to back him up. However, it seems to me that if most people believe overall crime to be on the increase, feelings of personal safety are more vulnerable to change. And confidence in the police has been shaken by a number of widely-publicized police shootings of black men and in some cases their own ham-handed responses (See also Ruud 2014).

A sudden increase in incidents involving firearms--shootings in Chicago in the first half of 2016 were half again as many as the same period in 2015 (Sweeney and Gorner 2016), and on a much smaller scale Cedar Rapids saw a spate of shootings (KCRG 2016)--focus attention on crime, although it's hard to account for the consistency of public perception as depicted above. A small number of spectacular, widely-publicized terror attacks in America and elsewhere in the West can also fuel the impression that danger is increasing. And, as I've shown earlier, the nationwide improvement in violent crime rates has been experienced to varying degrees in particular areas.

Many people blame news media for this misimpression by pushing sensational "if it bleeds, it leads" reporting (See about a zillion sources, such as Matthew Robinson, Media Coverage of Crime and Criminal Justice, Carolina Academic, 2010).  David Rothenberg of the Fortune Society wrote The New York Times after the 2016 Republican convention: "Perception is everything at election time. Any casual surfing of the television channels tonight will show murder after murder. Sadly, some of the most dramatic 'crime stories' never make prime time — the stories of men and women being released from prison, facing barriers that limit housing and jobs, fighting personal demons while navigating societal restrictions, struggling just to get through the day. Such stories are the ones that should be surfacing at political conventions. The fiction lives while the truth remains in the shadows." For this reason, violent crime gets far more attention per incident than do fatal auto crashes (Shultis 2016).

Both the reality and perception of crime are important to the future of cities. Urban criminals most frequently victimize the most vulnerable of our citizens; as Dreier et al. point out (Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century, Kansas University Press, 2001, 202-203) most residents of high-crime urban neighborhoods are hard-working and law-abiding, but suffer from predation by a few of their neighbors. To compete successfully with suburbs for residents and businesses, cities need at minimum to be clean and safe (Duany et al., Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, North Point, 2000, 157-158). The dangerous reputation of cities makes many people fearful of the population density we need to be environmentally and fiscally sustainable (Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy, MIT Press, 2006, 205).

Crime and the fear of it threaten to undermine our efforts to build a common life. A common life in the 21st century depends on the success of cities: It's where a large percentage of our citizens live and more are moving, urban design is the most ecologically and fiscally resilient, and diversity and the potential for inclusion are greatest. To the extent Trump's dystopian rhetoric resonates with a significant part of the American population, cities and the people who care about them must strive to improve their reputation.

ON THE SAME TOPIC: Josh Stephens, "Trump to Cities: You're Dead to Me," Planetizen, 26 July 2016, http://www.planetizen.com/node/87620/trump-cities-youre-dead-me

NOTE: The Department of Justice compiles data from the FBI and other agencies at the Bureau of Justice statistics page. However, I find other aggregators easier to use; for this piece I used the same data as found at Disaster Center.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Gentrification: what do we know ?

How will development in New Bo affect Oakhill-Jackson?
A number of forces--economic, ecological, health and fashion trends--are driving middle-class Americans back to the central cities many of their own ancestors abandoned decades ago. If you're looking for affordable, walkable urbanism, you need to be looking in places built along those lines, and those tend to be places that were built a good while ago. Accordingly, central city populations have increased in recent years--in many respects, given the scope and durability of the economic and environmental forces, it's surprising the trend isn't stronger, although as the California city council member said to Dave Alden last week, "as long as they can afford a tank of gas for their new SUV" a lot of people are comfortable where they are.

Maybe climate change is just a data error, maybe we're now Saudi America with limitless supplies of cheap energy, maybe the economy will roll over and whimper in the face of the awesomeness of the next President. However, if not, it's likely this wave of gentrification is just the beginning.
Restaurant coming soon
Gentrification occurs where there is a "rent gap" between the actual and potential value of housing. (The corollary is that in the many places where there is not a "rent gap," gentrification is unlikely, but more on that later. So far gentrification has produced some considerable successes, along with some negative impacts. That sounds a lot like life in general, but let's not be too quick or too blithe in our dismissal of those impacts. Our common life can't promise good outcomes for everybody, but there need at least to be opportunities for all.

The argument for gentrification rests on data that show its positive effect on places, and the real absence of alternative paths for areas of concentrated poverty. Joe Cortright and colleagues at City Observatory have tracked urban neighborhoods from 1970 to 2010. A small percentage of urban high-poverty neighborhoods have seen dramatic improvement in economic conditions and increased population; the rest have stayed the same, or gotten worse, while losing population. Hence displacement occurs whether or not a poor neighborhood gentrifies, and gentrification doesn't automatically push out one poor resident for every middle-class interloper who moves in (p. 22). A study of Philadelphia neighborhoods found long-term residents of gentrifying neighborhoods were no more likely to move away than residents of neighborhoods that weren't gentrifying (Florida 2015b). Similar studies in the last decade of New York City by Lance Freeman and Boston by Jacob Vigdor turned up similar results (see Freeman 2005). Meanwhile:
Block by block, the neighborhood changes. The newcomers fix up old buildings. Galleries and cafes open, and mom 'n' pop groceries close. City services improve. Finally, the [initial waves of bohemians] are joined by lawyers, stockbrokers and dentists. Property values rise, followed by property taxes and rents.... To some urban planners, gentrification is a solution to racial segregation, a shrinking tax base and other problems. (Rick Hampson, "Studies: Gentrification a Boost for Everyone," USA Today, 19 April 2005; see also Hartley 2013 or the executive summary at Grant 2013)
New construction in Oakhill-Jackson
But if all were rosy there wouldn't be a debate, would there? Some opposition to gentrification is surely driven by fear of outsiders or resistance to change. But some of the negative effects of gentrification are materially real. The study of Philadelphia cited above showed the long-term residents who remained in gentrifying neighborhoods faced sharply higher housing costs. Residents who did move out went to places that were worse off, both in terms of socio-economic conditions and access to opportunity. Poverty became more concentrated, in parts of the city away from the educational, medical and transit facilities that attracted the gentrifying influx to those other neighborhoods (Florida 2015a). The price of housing is a widespread complaint, driven in some cases by speculation by outside investors (Chakrabortty 2014), and displacement has been noted since at least the 1960s, when the term "gentrification" was coined by London-based sociologist Ruth Glass (Slater 2014). And even in densely-populated, diverse cities, better-off newcomers don't integrate well with long-term residents (Lees 2008), while the most well-off are developing exclusive enclaves within the neighborhood (Badger 2015). New development impacts places as well, by removing historically-important landmarks; this "erasure of history" similarly occurs in formerly agricultural areas that have sold for suburban development (Rotenstein 2016).

Gentrification is a social force, and attempts to prevent it are likely to be as futile as attempts to roll back globalization. But it's not enough to say that change is inevitable; if there are consistent and permanent losers a society based on equal opportunity needs to respond. In fact, experiences with gentrification have not been uniformly bad or good (Grabinsky and Butler 2015). Preventing gentrification surely is doomed to fail, but can we make it "gentle" by tilting the process towards the good effects and away from the bad? Cities have a number of alternative responses to gentrification from which to choose:
  1. Richard Florida notes that gentrification has not occurred randomly, but occurs close to attractive transportation, park, education and health facilities brought about by public investment. This implies the capacity for cities to manage or at least mitigate the effects of gentrification. While successful cities have used investment in amenities to attract members of the vital creative class, "Building less divided and more inclusive cities will require a different and far more extensive set of public investments" aimed at less advantaged neighborhoods, "along with a renewed federal commitment to addressing the root causes of persistent poverty and concentrated disadvantage" (Richard Florida, "The Role of Public Investment in Gentrification," CityLab, 2 September 2015). In a light-hearted but seriously on point essay, Kristen Jeffers, Kansas City's "Black Urbanist," wonders why we're not doing this already.
  2. Some cities have tried inclusionary zoning to encourage mixed-income housing development. With this tactic, cities require developers to include below-market-rate housing, typically facilitated by public incentives, to get approval for a market-rate development (Stockton Williams et al., The Economics of Inclusionary Development, Urban Land Institute, 2016). New York City and San Francisco have been pioneers, others like Boston and Chicago have achieved some degree of success, and still other municipalities are considering inclusionary zoning measures. The study by the Urban Land Institute concludes inclusionary zoning "can be an effective tool for harnessing local real estate market dynamics to generate development of new workforce housing units under certain conditions" (p. 19, italics mine). The Benedict Park Place development in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver sounds like it resulted from inclusionary zoning arrangements, though I don't know for sure (Kaplan 2014). If requiring some housing be set aside at below-market-rate results in higher prices for other new construction, rent subsidies might achieve the same goal (Buntin 2015).
  3. I wrote about a year and a half ago about some cities that were trying to control increases in property taxes and rents. These have a certain face appeal, particularly in the case of long-term residents who are a particularly sympathetic group. (Boston requires 10 years' residence to be eligible for deferring payment of increased property taxes.) But a roomful of economists who might disagree on a lot of things are most likely to agree that price controls are awful--for a lot of reasons, but for our purposes the most compelling is that they are likely to discourage the very investment urban neighborhoods need. (Recall Cortright's evidence that areas of concentrated poverty over time either gentrify or get a lot worse.) I wonder if there's been time to evaluate some of these cities' experience with such programs?
  4. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, noting the contribution of government policies to the housing problems faced by the less-well-off, argues for addressing housing shortages through deregulation. Building codes "don’t allow people to stake out their own spot with a modest investment in a small place that is only designed to last long enough to be torn down and replaced." Zoning policies prohibit living above or behind your shop, "the prototypical investment of the upstart." Mortgage and tax policies encourage the well-off to build big houses on large lots, while either requiring the poor to take on way too much debt or excluding them altogether. The problem with gentrification, from this perspective, is not that it displaces people, but that the displaced have such crappy choices of places to go (Charles Marohn, "The Gentrification Paradox," Strong Towns, 26 January 2015; see also Cortright 2016).
  5. Pete Saunders, who writes the Chicago-based Corner Side Yard blog, argues for managing gentrification through ongoing dialogue between long-term and new residents, facilitated by creating institutions that can serve as loci for such dialogue. He draws inspiration from the successful experience of Oak Park, Illinois, which in the 1950s and 1960s was able absorb a large number of black immigrants without spurring white flight, both through grass-roots efforts and the creation of a Community Relations Commission. While admitting that is not entirely parallel to contemporary gentrification, he notes complementary interests that could serve as the basis for negotiation: "Potential new residents focus on the value of moving into a new neighborhood.  Longtime residents of that neighborhood, particularly homeowners, might look at new residents as the means to bring the actual value back to their properties" (Saunders 2016; for the role of interests in negotiation see Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2nd ed, 1992]).
Like Saunders I believe in "all communities for all people." It's really the only way to have anything close to equality of opportunity in this country that values it so highly. Gentrification that shoves people farther to the margins is no better than hunkering down in enclaves and fighting any changes in the name of property values. We must look for ways to make things work for everybody.

[P.S.--As Kristen Capps of City Lab shows, issues of housing and neighborhoods have not been highlighted by either party so far this election year.]
Old store with building permit, Oakhill-Jackson
EARLIER POSTS ON GENTRIFICATION: 8/14/2013  12/4/2013  3/21/2014  6/23/2014  12/9/2014 ... or click on "Gentrification" in the conveniently-located list of labels along the right column!

John Buntin, "The Myth of Gentrification," Slate, 14 January 2015
Ben Kaplan, "This Week's #Urbanist Goodreads are All About Gentrification," We Create Here, 2 January 2015

VIDEO: "A Changing Mission," San Francisco Chronicle (2014), http://www.sfchronicle.com/the-mission/documentary/

Streetcar tracks exposed by construction on 7th St;
this has nothing to do with this post but it's a cool picture anyhow