Thursday, April 28, 2011

Benchmarking Urbanism

How does your city stack up against the competition? That depends on which places you consider to be in your peer group and your preferred metrics. As a geographer, I'm sensitive to comparing apples to apples. Putting Pittsburgh up against Portland doesn't make much sense to me, two very different urban animals. Or, so one could argue. A blogger trying to tease out a better cohort for the Twin Cities:

Portland does a great job encouraging growth along transit lines in developed areas, but it also has a dirty secret: The greenfield area around Powell Butte was a significant contributor to the city’s growth. As Portland’s annexation map makes clear, it has annexed land as recently as the early 90s, and plans to eventually annex the entirety of its urban growth boundary. That means that Portland has as much in common with Forest Lake as it does with Minneapolis.

The population growth in the Powell Butte area accounted for a greater share of the city’s growth than the downtown area – although downtown had a higher growth rate and is a smaller area. Still, it’s not really fair to ask a city that has been built out for decades to grow as fast as a city that still has a greenfield advantage.

When you are looking at Census, IRS, or ACS data, keep in mind that every city has its own quirks. Changes in population can be the result of shifting boundaries or new definitions. I like the solution the author above posits as a replacement for Seattle, Denver, and Portland:

Milwaukee, St Louis and Cleveland are of similar size, age and metropolitan structure, and at first glance Minneapolis and St Paul look good in comparison. St Louis and Cleveland each lost tens of thousands of residents in the last decade, and Milwaukee lost about two thousand – eerily similar to the Twin Cities’ combined losses. But the three rust belt cities also had population booms in their downtowns – all three had growth rates that surpassed Minneapolis and St Paul, and St Louis beat Minneapolis in absolute increase as well.

The problem, from places ranging from Chicago to Cleveland, is that the gains in the “core of the core” have been more than offset by losses elsewhere, especially the flight of blacks and other minorities – many of them immigrants – to the increasingly diverse suburbs.

Aaron is teeing up to make a different point, but it serves my theme as well. The aggregate numbers gloss over success stories. And among cities with similar challenges and geography, there is enough variance to have a constructive policy discussion. That is a lot more worthwhile than beating yourself up about being so far behind the likes of Portland.

The Rust Belt is too fixated on migration to the Sun Belt and not being cool enough. Meanwhile, the core of the core is growing. What can your city do to help that along? There is no need to panic and stop everything, trying to become the next Portland. Minneapolis-St. Paul is figuring out that being the next Cleveland might be a good goal.

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