Blog Archives

The Darkest Shades of Sprawl

We’ve known for awhile that sprawl is poor land use policy; it’s inefficient and unsustainable, but there is new evidence to suggest that it is correlated to social mobility. Citizens living in sprawling cities are less likely to improve their socio-economic standing.

The rigidity of social status is greatly affected by accessibility to employment and other resources. Cities with higher degrees of sprawl are less accessible, and while they may provide job opportunities for the majority of their citizens, the transportation to those places of employment is hindered by their wasteful land use. Last week, The Equality of Opportunity Project (research done by professors from Harvard and UC Berkeley) released a study showing a map of the United States, colored according to a scale of upward social mobility. Below are the best and worst cities in the country:

Rank Odds of Reaching Top Fifth
Starting from Bottom Fifth
 Rank Odds of Reaching Top Fifth
Starting from Bottom Fifth
1 Salt Lake City, UT 11.5% 41 Milwaukee, WI 5.6%
2 San Jose, CA 11.2% 42 Cincinnati, OH 5.5%
3 San Francisco, CA 11.2% 43 Jacksonville, FL 5.3%
4 Seattle, WA 10.4% 44 Raleigh, NC 5.2%
5 San Diego, CA 10.4% 45 Cleveland, OH 5.2%
6 Pittsburgh, PA 10.3% 46 Columbus, OH 5.1%
7 Sacramento, CA 10.3% 47 Detroit, MI 5.1%
8 Manchester, NH 9.9% 48 Indianapolis, IN 4.8%
9 Boston, MA 9.8% 49 Charlotte, NC 4.3%
10 New York, NY 9.7% 50 Atlanta, GA 4.0%

While this is an interesting study and list, the researchers did not find any convincing data for causation although they pointed to causation in factors including religiosity, family structure, size of the middle class and measurements of racial discrimination, but this week in an article for the New York Times, Paul Krugman looks at their data on the physical segregation and distances between socio-economic groups.

In the cities where expensive housing was a great physical distance from lower income housing, social mobility suffered. Atlanta was a good example. Atlanta is very spread out, which makes public transit very difficult. Jobs aren’t as accessible to individuals without personal vehicles. There has been a hollowing out of urban core communities, and the consequences are very serious.

Atlanta may seem very far away to Lehigh Valley residents, but it wasn’t long ago that The Brookings Institute found many of the same faults in our region. In 2003, Brookings authored a report entitled “Back to Prosperity: A competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania.” The report featured a profile of the Lehigh Valley where they saw the population sprawling away from cities, towns and older suburbs. This hollowing out contributed to several trends that are highlighted in the report, including the growth of rural townships, decentralization of employment, lagging job growth and slow income growth. Through the 1990s, the Lehigh Valley lost more farm land than any other large metropolitan area and home values in urban areas rapidly declined. Due to the decline in value, tax rates for these municipalities increased. By 2000, racial and economic segregation had taken hold in the Lehigh Valley. During the 1990s, more than 26,000 white residents left Allentown, Easton and Bethlehem while over 27,000 racial minorities moved in. Employment decentralization has continued and further isolated the city population from jobs.

Sprawl is poor land use policy for a multitude of reasons: decrease in  home values, increase in tax rates, racial segregation, prohibitive lack of access to resources and employment and ultimately a rigidity in social class that is incongruous with the country’s promise of equal opportunity.

Revitalizing Older Communities in the Lehigh Valley

Allentown City Center

The Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition, formed in 1976 to unite legislators on the complex issues particular to the states within the Northeast and Midwest region of the United States, established the Revitalizing Older Cities (ROC) Congressional Task Force in the last year. Spawned from an initiative that focuses on older declining communities, the task force shares a strong interest in revitalizing the centers that were affiliated historically with manufacturing and transportation. Several legislators realized that the campaign to renew older cities hinged on the incorporation of several key policy areas. Cross-sector collaboration, among a broad range of fields, was the appropriate catalyst for significant change. Thus, the ROC Task Force was born, with bi-partisan membership composed of legislators with different concerns and different specialities.

Recently, the ROC Task Force drafted a letter to the House Financial Services Committe, requesting a hearing for the Community Regeneration, Sustainability, and Innovation Act of 2009, which would create a new grant program to assist metropolitan areas experiencing property vacancy due to population losses. The bill will address the problems of cities such as Allentown and Bethlehem – communities that have seen a major change in their workforce over the last ten years and are now struggling to retain residents.

Over the next few weeks, I will focus on the specific policy areas of the Revitalizing Older Cities Initative and relate each policy to the Lehigh Valley’ s cities. The six areas are:

  • Transportation and Infrastructure
  • Housing
  • Energy and Environment
  • Brownfields
  • Economic and Workforce Development
  • Healthy Livable Communities

My hope with this ROC series is to highlight some of the pertinent issues affecting our local communities and connect these issues to the broader national discussion. More importantly, it will draw attention to our region’s valuable assets, and the preservation of these assets as crucial to the Lehigh Valley. The first part of this series will focus on transportation and infrastructure within the Valley’s cities. Stay tuned.