Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns recently opened a conversation about race and inequality as it relates to urban planning in America. I’d like to respond.
Half of all Americans under the age of five are either latino, black, or Asian – or more likely some combination of those three mixed with some European lineage. In twenty years these little kids will be young adults and will comprise the new cultural, economic and political majority. In forty years they’ll be running the country and their kids will be even more mixed and diverse than they are. Race will no longer be a marker for class or status in America. As a nation we will eventually redefine the conversation about poverty and inequality. It won’t be, “What will white people do to solve the problems of ethnic minorities.” Instead it’s becoming, “What will we all do to lift ourselves and each other.” Spot the difference? This transition won’t come from older generations changing their attitude. It will come with the inevitable march of the actuarial table. So relax. Help is on the way – and they’re your grandkids.
So what does this mean for real estate and urban planners?
Over the last few generations poverty in America has either been white and rural, or black/brown and urban. The stereotype of Appalachian country folks and inner city ghettos and barrios did in fact broadly represent the underlying economic reality. The comfortable white middle class lived mostly in the suburbs. However, there are now officially more people living below the poverty line in the suburbs than in cities. This trend is intensifying and a lot of people are being left behind in some pretty flimsy subdivisions on the side of a lonely highway. People with a good education, financial resources, and social capital are migrating closer towards city centers and/or to upscale rural enclaves and leaving the suburbs behind. The big surprise is how many white formerly middle class people are now suburban have-nots and how many not-so-white people are thriving in revitalized inner cities.
Improving the lives of the suburban poor, while simultaneously taking some of the pressure off gentrification in the cities, is actually pretty simple. The existing suburbs need to be retrofitted to become more like traditional town centers with walkable neighborhoods, a functioning local economy, and at least a minimum amount of meaningful public transit. See examples here.
Of course, you need to pick your battles. In most locations each of those goals is nearly impossible to achieve on any significant scale due to culture and politics. Suburbs are typically composed of a self-selecting demographic that simply doesn’t want change of any kind and will fight it tooth and nail. This is especially true in the newest, most far-flung, and whitest exurban locations. Let the actuarial table do the heavy lifting out there…
For those suburbs that are destined to decline no matter what and are looking for palliative care for their residents there are low-cost options for reinvention and adaptation. Building codes and zoning regulations can be relaxed so underemployed people can run businesses out of their homes. That three car garage on the snout house on the corner is just the right size for a neighborhood mom and pop grocery store. That foreclosed McMansion has the perfect floor plan to convert to a small apartment building. That dead big box store is just right for incubating “makers” involved in light manufacturing. The empty strip mall can become a walkable elementary school and playground. When land becomes cheap enough vacant lots can be pressed into service as market gardens. Perhaps future generations of Bohemians, immigrants, and starving artists will colonize the abandoned Jiffy Lubes and Pizza Huts and breathe fresh life into them with a sense of nostalgia for a bygone way of life. But let’s not expect too much of this any time soon…
More realistically, let’s focus on the existing small towns and close-in traditional neighborhoods that were left behind in the rush to Levittown. They’re still fabulously inexpensive and relatively easy to revive even though they’ve been three-quarters empty for a few decades. “A land without people for a people without land.” Put fresh flesh on those old bones. Once grand places like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo and a thousand smaller places all across the country are just sitting there waiting to be rediscovered by people who may not have a lot of money, but are ready to roll up their sleeves and build a new life in a great vintage neighborhood. See examples here, here, here and here.