Good suburbs further neighborhood diversity

To say that all pro-urban planners hate suburbs, or should fight suburban growth, is a common misconception in today’s polarized discourse. I think it’s rubbing off from our political discourse, as many of us are under the mis-impression that everything must be this polarized and charged.

Ultimately, the burbs and the urbs need each other; building an economically competitive city depends upon attracting diverse and diffuse people and skill-sets. When I was at CEOs for Cities, this was one of many metrics we used as units of comparison to isolate the variables that make cities successful.

At the macro level, countries that are more diverse are proven to adapt better to changing times, according to a 2011 Richard Florida article. That would be a pragmatic application of this premise. Beyond that, intrinsically, diversity is also an amenity that will attract a talented workforce that has options for where they go.

For instance, cities that can offer cheaply priced ethnic restaurants are going to have a draw. Cities where Wal-mart commands more than a third in general merchandising market share are conversely going to be undesirable relocation options.

It works the same way for neighborhoods.

Cities need a healthy split between urban and suburban neighborhoods, and the reason that it feels like real estate is all about the inner city right now is in many ways a natural market correction. After decades of sprawl induced more by public policy than by public demand, the market is finally taking over and resolving matters.

Until our cities offer enough urban product; A, the urban product will be over-priced; B, the suburban product will be devalued which undercuts building equity in those neighborhoods; and C, consumers wanting urban product will continue to be biased toward those cities that offer it easily.

Researchers almost always make the mistake of analyzing entire metropolitan markets as a monolith when it comes to affordability. For instance – the Rust Belt was hit pretty hard by the 2008 real estate crash, however inner city real estate actually grew in value while everything else plummeted. A tale repeated across almost all Rust Belt metros and many others, highlighting the value of market differentiation.

Good urban real estate is so valuable because we just don’t have enough of it. While people do keep on living and working in the suburbs, they are often doing so just because they can’t afford to do so in the inner city. Surveys show that there are more potential consumers for good urban real estate than there is product. Ben Adler of Grist takes the point further to argue that a majority of young families that have “fled to the suburbs” actually haven’t; they’ve just been priced out. Adler goes on to argue that if one takes ALL recession-era economic outcomes as indicators of consumer preference, then clearly North Dakota is the most coveted place in the nation.

bainbridge_squareWhile North Dakota probably isn’t actually the most coveted place, many suburbs continue to compete as great places to live. In 2016, they can do this by promoting cultural and economic diversity, and indeed many suburbs successfully cast themselves as the “anti-suburb” and create a great suburb as a result. Areas like Prince Georges County, Maryland and DeKalb County, Georgia (pictured) have been at the forefront of housing civil rights – both are the #1 and #2 highest-income majority-African American counties in the U.S.

In Northeast Ohio, walkable Shaker Heights pioneered housing civil rights in the Midwest with the straw buy scheme. As an elite community, Shaker Heights made a tremendous impact in moving housing desegregation forward by finding ways to welcome non-white elites. More on this can be read on a history series I helped Cleveland Restoration Society with. To this day, Shaker Heights is known for being a well-integrated, high-income, walkable, and community-oriented suburb. It will thus retain its value as distinguished real estate for a long time.

Furthermore, Cleveland is better off for having Shaker Heights as a connected piece of Cleveland’s urban fabric. Good suburbs are doing this for their anchor city all across the nation, and deserve to be cast aside from the disdain that is widely held for bad suburbs, of which we have way too many.


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