Divided We Sprawl

Bruce Katz and
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University
Jennifer Bradley
Jennifer Bradley Fellow and Senior Advisor - Brookings Metro

December 1, 1999

A call for a reinvention of the American city and suburb that would exploit the infrastructure of the one and mitigate the “frantic privacy” of the other.

By many accounts Baltimore is a comeback city. It has a beautiful piece of calculated nostalgia in the Camden Yards baseball stadium, which draws tens of thousands of visitors throughout the spring and summer. It has a lively waterfront district, the Inner Harbor, with charming shops and not snacks for sale every hundred yards or so. But although it may function well as a kind of urban theme park (and there are plenty of cities that would love to achieve that distraction), as a city it is struggling. For twenty years Baltimore has hemorrhaged residents: more than 140,000 have left since 1980. Meanwhile, the surrounding suburbs have steadily grown. The population of Howard County, a thirty-minute drive from the city, has doubled since 1980, from 118,600 to 236,000. The people who have stayed in Baltimore are some of the neediest in the area. The city has 13 percent of Maryland’s population but 56 percent of its welfare caseload. Only about a quarter of the students who enroll in a public high school in the city graduate in four years.

And Baltimore is not unique. The image of America’s cities has improved greatly over the past few years, thanks to shiny new downtowns dotted with vast convention centers, luxury hotels, and impressive office towers, but these acres of concrete and faux marble hide a reality that is in many cases grim. St. Louis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., lost population throughout the 1990s. These cities are also losing their status as the most powerful economies in their regions. Washington started the 1990s with a respectable 33 percent of the area’s jobs. Seven years later it had only 24 percent. The rate of population growth in the nation’s suburbs was more than twice that in central cities—9.6 percent versus 4.2 percent—from 1990 to 1997. In just one year—1996—2.7 million people left a central city for a suburb. A paltry 800,000 made the opposite move. In the major urbanized areas of Ohio 90 percent of the new jobs created from 1994 to 1997 in the suburbs. Ohio’s seven largest cities had a net gain of only 19,150 jobs from 1994 to 1997; their suburbs gained 186,000. The 1990s have been the decade of decentralization for people and jobs in the United States.

Not even cities that are growing—southern and western boom cities—are keeping pace with their suburbs. Denver has gained about 31,000 people in the 1990s (after having lost residents during the 1980s), but the counties that make up the Denver metropolitan area have gained 284,000 people—about nice times as many. In Atlanta and Houston central0city growth is far outmatched by growth in outlying counties. And these cities, too, are losing their share of the jobs in their respective regions. In 1980, 40 percent of the jobs in the Atlanta region were in the city itself; by 1996 only 24 percent were.

Meanwhile, the poor have been left behind in the cities. Urban poverty rates are twice as high as suburban poverty rates, and the implementation of welfare reform appears to be a special problem for cities. Although welfare caseloads are shrinking in most cities, in general they are not shrinking as quickly as they are in the states and in the nation as a whole. Often cities have a disproportionate share of the states’ welfare recipients. Philadelphia County, for example, is home to 12 percent of all Pennsylvanians on welfare. Orleans Parish, in which the city of New Orleans is located, has 11 percent of Louisiana’s population but 29 percent of its welfare recipients. This hardly adds up to an urban renaissance.

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