Monday, April 06, 2009

Darlings of Density

(Via CEOs for Cities) Urbanophiles are fond of pointing out all the advantages of high-density geography, such as the ability to better cope with the current recession. We tend to think about density in terms of living downtown, as opposed to the suburbs. But the main issue is jobs, and just how concentrated they are in a given region:

In the total survey of 98 metropolitan areas large and small, Buffalo joins cities as large as New York City and as small as Wichita, Kan., among the 30 places labeled as suffering from “moderate decentralization.” Rochester and Poughkeepsie are also in that category, as are cities as diverse as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tulsa and Toledo. Albany and Syracuse, meanwhile, are among 53 metro areas labeled as being in the throes of “rapid decentralization,” as are cities from Atlanta to Chicago to Seattle.

Only three communities — Milwaukee, Wis., Chattanooga, Tenn., and the Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, Calif., area — are seen as turning the corner toward making gains in their central core areas.

A recent World Bank report identifies economic decentralization as an impediment to development. Job density should be incentivized. That's not the recommendation Brookings makes, but the research does reveal a surprising economic geography in the United States.

I'm still trying to tease out why Pittsburgh is emerging as a Rust Belt outlier. Chattanooga's improving core is a clue given that the two cities are quite similar given the physical imposition of density:

Chattanooga, much like Pittsburgh, is bounded by mountains and hills that create a concentrated downtown area. Northeast Ohio has a very different geography, and must deal with it accordingly. We will always be more “spread out” and this will demand a different approach to both design and physical development.

Just so happens that Pittsburgh is listed as one of the most (7th among large employment centers) centralized economic geographies in the United States. Nearby Youngstown is one of the least centralized. (Only Poughkeepsie and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre are worse among small employment centers.) However, Pittsburgh is among the many metros in the process of rapidly decentralizing, while Youngstown is indicating an abatement of economic diffusion.

Given the trend, I'm delighted to read about the pending opening of the Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville:

[Real estate developer Phil Spano] said Children's is "the first development I can remember where you take a very large entity and put it in a very densely populated inner-city area. There's a lot of anxiety and apprehension, and rightfully so."

Imposing a large employer in a dense residential area has posed numerous challenges. But I expect Pittsburgh to derive great benefit from increasing the job density. Hopefully, the Children's experience hasn't soured the prospects of more developments like it in the future.


Paz said...

I would also cite the Pittsburgh Technology Center on the Mon as an example of excellent retention of employers in the downtown area.

The loss of Westinghouse to Cranberry hurt though.

Jim Russell said...

I think the Tech Center on the Mon is a bad example. IMO, it isn't all that different from a suburban tech park. While a great use of a brownfield, it feels isolated from the rest of Pittsburgh, even Oakland. I doubt there is any spillover beyond fellow occupants of the park.

As for Westinghouse, didn't it go from Monroeville to Cranberry? If that's the case, then the relocation is a wash. However, the nuke program at Pitt has interesting implications.