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Doughnut development in big urban areas is waning

With the population change and declining income, Brookdale Mall went defunct.

Consider the doughnut.

You may think it’s a tasty treat, but for urbanists, the popular baked good has served as a metaphor for the American city — a fat, sweet ring of rich suburbs encircling an almost empty inner core. Go to St. Louis or Houston or Charleston, and you find humming businesses, shopping centers and brand-new housing — 20 miles out. Meanwhile, acres of downtown lie fallow, surrounded by crumbling neighborhoods inhabited by the poor and the newly arrived.

The doughnut, however, almost without our noticing, has been undergoing a dramatic change. Many of those vaunted suburbs are becoming homes to the poor, to immigrants and to minorities, while central cities are gradually attracting the affluent and educated. That’s the argument of “The Great Inversion,” an interesting new book by Alan Ehrenhalt, executive director of Stateline, a daily news site operated by the Pew Research Center.

“We are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end,” he writes. At the same time, cities are seeing African Americans move out to the suburbs and new immigrants land there rather than starting their lives in the central city.

Cities across the nation show evidence of the trend. Chicago, Ehrenhalt notes, lost nearly 180,000 black residents in the 10 years ending in 2010. At the same time, its downtown population has grown by 48 percent to 165,000; the city expects it to reach 230,000 in the next 10 years. Wall Street and Lower Manhattan, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, have become a preserve for upscale young couples with children. Atlanta’s black population decreased by 10 percent, and its Latin and Asian immigrants bypassed the inner city to create thriving enclaves in suburban Gwinnett County.

Twin Cities inversion

Inversion is visible in the Twin Cities.

“Affluent people are moving in along the river, living by the Guthrie,” says Myron Orfield, a law professor and director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota and a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “But it’s not huge,” he adds.

Less affluent professionals, Ehrenhalt points out, have populated the Seward neighborhood near the University, where coincidentally his adult daughter now lives. Similarly, suburbs have seen steady growth in their immigrant populations.

In 2000, some 113,000 who were born elsewhere lived in suburbs and exurbs. Ten years later, the Metropolitan Council reports an increase to 308,000. Richfield and Shakopee, among others, have become Mexican enclaves, and Eden Prairie and Brooklyn Center cores for Somalis.

“More than half of the metro area’s blacks and Latins live in the suburbs,” says Orfield. One result has been a sharp increase in poverty in Twin Cities suburbs.

African-Americans have also increased their presence in the burbs — usually those that housed working-class whites. According to the Metropolitan Council, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park have higher percentages of people of color than the central cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. In 11 suburbs, one-third of the residents are nonwhite; in another 11, one in four.  Carole Just, a neighborhood activist from St. Louis Park, which has seen an influx of black residents, says, “We’ve gone from white bread to cracked wheat”—a population mix, she contends, that’s crunchier and more interesting than previously.

This turn-about process, right now, is in its early stages. Suburbs remain largely white and wealthy, while center cities are still much less so. But if the de-doughnut-ification trend continues, the United States could end up with more European-style cities, which historically consigned the poor to the outskirts leaving the affluent to cavort in the parks, theaters and cafes downtown.

At the awful extreme of this pattern, you have something like modern-day Paris, where poverty-stricken families inhabit towering housing projects in the banlieus far from the jobs and the cultural life of the city — but close enough to inflict damage in angry riots in 2005 and 2007.

Brookdale Mall
MinnPost photo by Marlys HarrisAnticipated redevelopment of Brookdale Mall will include a Walmart.

City more appealing

What is causing the shift? For the affluent, the city has become more appealing. One reason: deindustrialization. Back 50 and 60 years ago, when the suburban surge began, cities were sites for heavy manufacturing. Few cities these days produce downtown. Here in the Twin Cities, the flour and lumber mills along the river have long since disappeared and with them the grime, noise and pollution that sent families to the suburbs to escape. A drop in violent crime since the 1990s has also helped to lure people to the city — or at least make them feel less urgent about leaving it.

Millions of Americans ensconced in the burbs are not dropping everything to surge into town, however. They couldn’t do so even if they wanted to since the collapse in housing prices has prevented them from selling their large suburban homes. It’s more, Ehrenhalt suggests, that a younger generation, one that grew up in the suburbs, finds them less entrancing than their parents.

“This is the generation that grew up watching ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Friends’ and ‘Sex in the City,’ mostly from the comfort of suburban sofas,” he writes.”I do not claim that a handful of TV shows has somehow produced a new urbanist generation; obviously, it is more complicated than that. But it is striking how pervasive the pro-city sensibility is within this cohort, particularly among its elite.”

Carole Just puts the lure of urban living in more practical terms: “People in their 30s — they want to be close in, they want to be near bike trails, they want to walk to shopping, and they want neighborhood restaurants.” And, she says, they plan to have all that with kids. “Maybe if they give birth to a third child, they’ll move out to the suburbs,” she adds.

Drawing the former or traditional Twin Cities inner-city populations out to the suburbs are jobs. According to Orfield, they have decentralized, with those in the service sectors clustering in first- and second-tier suburbs. A decline in affordable housing in the inner cities and a yen to escape crime and crowding propel others outward.

Once a few former inner-city residents or a clump of immigrants of one nationality establish a beachhead, more follow.

“People gravitate to areas where they feel comfortable,” says Todd Graham, principal demographer for the Metropolitan Council. “They feel comfortable when they see people who look like themselves.”

A less benign reason for this clustering, says Orfield, is steering by real-estate agents. A paper  he coauthored with Katherine Fennelly, a professor of public affairs at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, took note of a developing suburban segregation “exacerbated by real estate agents who steer white residents away from integrated neighborhoods claiming that ‘the schools are bad,’ while simultaneously recommending the same neighborhoods to residents of color promoting the schools as ‘integrated.’ “

The turnabout, speculates Ehrenhalt, may make cities themselves stronger. New (or staying) affluent residents will strengthen the business climates and an already fairly strong tax base. Rising rents, he contends, cause less displacement of the poor than previously believed, and “the lives of those remaining are enriched” by a revitalized city.

Suburbs that have seen an increase in poorer residents with fewer English language skills face big challenges, however. With their smaller and less stable tax revenues, they’ll have do provide more intensive social services, schooling and even transportation help to keep the Twin Cities from gravitating toward the Parisian model.

The doughnut may be turning into one of those whole-grain breads, but it will definitely need some shoring up at the edges.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/14/2012 - 10:45 am.

    Doughnut holes

    An interesting piece.

    “…”People in their 30s — they want to be close in, they want to be near bike trails, they want to walk to shopping, and they want neighborhood restaurants…” Some of us who are well into our 60s would like that, too.

    Poor planning a half century ago, however, means that my quarter of Minneapolis – within sight of the new Wal-Mart in Brooklyn Center pictured in the article – has only one of those amenities that 30-somethings associate with city living. In both shape and position, the northwest corner of Minneapolis is a lot like the northwest corner of Arizona – physically cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon. My part of Minneapolis is similarly isolated from the rest of the city by the Humboldt rail yard and industrial area.

    The area does have Shingle Creek’s lovely greenway, and plenty of bike paths. For shopping and restaurants, however, residents have to leave the neighborhood, which has only one lot of 1,500 that’s zoned “commercial.” The rest of the neighborhood is zoned R1 residential, and the result is that residents have little choice but to get in the car and drive (or hop on the bus) to purchase just about anything. My previous six+ decades were spent in suburbs, all of which had better and more convenient pedestrian access to shopping, restaurants and entertainment than my city neighborhood, which is more stereotypically “suburban” than any place I’ve lived.

    Beyond those kinds of amenities, however, or the lack thereof, I do think there’s something to Todd Graham’s assertion about comfort levels in the article, and a look around my block and my neighborhood shows an interesting mix of ethnicities, though from my viewpoint of the neighborhood, it appears that what adds up to a mix overall becomes more discrete block-by-block associations when more closely examined.

    Overall, Minneapolis seems in the middle of the pack in regard to the demise of the doughnut. For several decades, I lived in suburban St. Louis, and while my “home town” suburb changed very little in the last census, St. Louis proper is still hemorrhaging population, losing 29,000 people. On the other hand, I also lived for more than a decade in suburban Denver, and the population of the core city there increased by several thousand in the last census. Minneapolis lost “only” a couple thousand, and of the three cities, Minneapolis seems to this non-native of Minnesota to be – by a wide margin – the most ethnically diverse of the three.

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 05/14/2012 - 01:49 pm.

    Not much different.

    I think the doughnut as an analogy is dying, but not the process it described. Instead the process of disinvestment has changed with older suburbs now suffering from the same process that hollowed out the central city, while the central city benefits from increased investment.

    So we now have a bunch of holes developing in older suburbs while resources go to support new development in the exurbs and restoration of the central city. The argument that this is an “inversion” is misleading since the outward expansion continues unabated in the exurbs where there is new development with new commercial areas.

    Its not clear that building a large central core of thriving neighborhoods is sustainable in an auto-dependent region like Minneapolis and St. Paul. The need for parking and road infrastructure makes creating walkable, dense urban areas difficult or impossible. The continued focus on transportation investment to support further growth in the outer-ring suburbs and exurbs would indicate auto-dependence is growing, despite investment in things like light rail.

    Both downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul appear to be business, entertainment and shopping areas for suburban residents, rather than vital urban neighborhoods. You can take light rail downtown, but if you want to go anywhere beyond the light rail line you face a long walk with little in the streetscape to recommend it. Unless breathing exhaust fumes is your idea of a pleasant walk.

    Seward has been populated by “less-affluent professionals” for a very long time. They may be more affluent now given housing prices, but the community does not appear to have changed its character much in the last 30 years. Its still a University-oriented bedroom community. And neighborhoods along Lake Street like Longfellow, Corcoran and Whittier, that were supposed to be the fore-runners of a new urban renaissance 30 years ago, don’t seem to have made huge progress in that direction.

    In short, the idea that the doughnut hole is filling up with attractive neighborhoods appears to be mostly wishful thinking. Instead it is filling up with commercial activity that depends on suburban residents to support it. It is becoming a bigger and better commercial center, but making it a great place to live with great neighborhoods remains elusive. And likely will remain so as long as the priority is getting people to the commercial center from their auto-dependent suburbs.

  3. Submitted by David Greene on 05/14/2012 - 02:52 pm.

    Agree, Disagree

    I agree with much of what you write here, but not all of it.

    Lake Street has absolutely seen an urban renaissance. There are many local shops of all kinds selling crafts, meals, groceries, etc. from cultures around the world. It is certainly much more lively than I remember it being even 15 years ago. The Midtown Exchange has been a big success, even with the struggles of some of its Global Market tenants. The apartments and condos appear to be very popular. The design of the Global Market could be much improved (better sight lines, etc.).

    There’s a lot of work going on throughout many neighborhoods in Minneapolis to rehabilitate housing. NRP has been a wonderful program, so naturally the Mayor killed it. We’re in our last round of funding and not much will be left in the next few years. Fortunately, many neighborhoods set up revolving loan programs for home and business owners to rehab their property and that can go on for however long the neighborhoods wish.

    Downtown certainly needs more residents and activity. The North Loop has done well as has the Riverfront but there is almost nothing between the towers of Loring Park and the river. Maybe, _maybe_ with better transit (buses and LRT) we can start filling in the parking lots of east downtown. Reconnecting the grid above 35-W on the east side would make a big difference. Some land bridges there could do wonders. Knocking down the viaducts on the west side would also open up nice opportunities.

    I am disappointed that the city leaders (especially downtown businesses) think that adding some planters and benches to Hennepin Ave. will fix the problem. We need a big program to undo the tremendous damage cause when we built the freeways and cut off easy pedestrian access to downtown by city residents.

  4. Submitted by Stephen Przybylinski on 05/14/2012 - 03:22 pm.

    Give me an alternative

    It is necessary for Minneapolis and Saint Paul to continue to be progressive in transportation planning to retain and grow a core-city population. Major infrastructure projects like the Southwest line and Northstar line are so important for allowing suburban residents an alternative to highway commutes to business districts. And if suburbs are becoming less affluent, then public transportation connections to these areas are critical.

    Although I feel bike lanes and trails are comparitively rich in and around the city, auto-dependency is certainly predominant.It took decades to create an auto-dependency, and it will take many more to allow for a major shift in manuevering urban space without the use of a car. Planners must be at the forefront of establishing, mainting and promoting alternatives to traditional means of commuting into, and out of, cities. When a city can establish training, busing, biking and walking as its prime means of mobility, there will be a population more inclined to live in denser areas.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/14/2012 - 04:44 pm.

    Interesting comments

    Thoughtful comments by all who followed me.

    Some further consideration leads me to think that Ross Williams is on to something. While I live in the city technically, my isolated neighborhood FEELS like a suburb, and when I go downtown (North Star to Target Field – I’m nowhere near light rail, and won’t be unless/until a northwest line is built), my experience is pretty much as he describes it – exhaust fumes and a streetscape that offers little. While it’s “busy,” it certainly doesn’t have the feel of a genuine residential area. For one thing, the grandfather in me notes that there are virtually no children to be found downtown.

    Indeed, auto-dependency, if not the only culprit, seems to be a major one.

    David Greene makes some good points, as well. I’ve not been here long enough – or maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention – but I’m not sure “the Mayor killed it” is necessarily an accurate description of the demise of NRP. I don’t know that it’s NOT an accurate description, either, but funding for a host of valuable programs seems to have evaporated with the state’s budget issues, and subsequent attempts to eviscerate local government aid. The house I’m living in was foreclosed upon, rehabbed with NRP funding, and I feel very fortunate to have stumbled upon it when – as a complete newbie to the metro area – I was looking for housing near enough to the grandkids to make babysitting at least minimally convenient.

    It’s hard not to agree with David’s last paragraph. An infrequent visitor to downtown, which I find quite unfriendly to non-natives just in terms of navigation, I agree that softening the edges of Hennepin Avenue with some planters and pedestrian-friendly features is not going to be enough to get me to go there on any sort of regular basis.

    And, as a former planning commissioner in Colorado, Stephen Przybylinski (I’m sorry, Steve, but I couldn’t possibly say that three times, quickly), it’s hard NOT to notice how amazingly auto-dependent the metro area is. As a visitor, this “feature” wasn’t as apparent to me, but once I’d moved here – and made the mistake of trying to go somewhere, anywhere, outside my neighborhood at 4 PM – the gridlock was readily apparent. Indeed, instead of gutting the Community Planning/Economic Development division at City Hall, it ought to be reinforced. As Steve suggests, it took this and other metro areas around the country at least half a century to become as auto-addicted as they are, and it will likely take decades to undo some of the most egregious damage created in the process.

    For cities to succeed, they have to be places that welcome and make accommodation to humans, not to automobiles. The change doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing, but the emphasis needs to be more on the former than the latter. It’s an obvious point that seems to have been forgotten, but that we’ll have to reinvent if downtown areas are going to be viable and relevant as residential areas once again. That transformation has to take place in concert with, if not before, downtown retail activity once again becomes the economic driver it used to be, and there’s always the possibility that it won’t happen at all, with the current dysfunction simply extending into a quite unsatisfactory future.

  6. Submitted by jody rooney on 05/15/2012 - 09:53 am.

    While the article is interesting the comments are far richer

    Articles that look at macro trends are like the old macro economics, they look at the results and infer the causes. Just as macro economics collapsed between my undergraduate (Class of 72) and graduate degree (Class of 90) so too should this macro look of city planning.

    Aggregate individual decisions make up the trends and to the extent they can be measured that should inform us about trends and projections not the other looking at the results and making sweeping generalizations about why.

  7. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 05/16/2012 - 06:14 am.

    urban development-Harris piece

    It’s not only young adults moving into the city. On the east side of the river in Minneapolis, we are finding many empty nesters and older professionals are also moving in. With two major new developments proposed and underway in SE Minneapolis (the other side of the river to many of you), and others such as Cobalt between University and 4th Streets SE along E. Hennepin, recently finished and occupied, an economically diverse, vibrant community is being re-created in the shadow of downtown and near the University of Minnesota.

    Where else in the city can one watch eagles soar as you walk across the Stone Arch bridge, walk to the many restaurants and a good movie theatre along the river, walk or take the bus downtown and back or take in the Art-a-Whirl festivities in NE Mpls this weekend? Say nothing of attending all the interesting events at the University nearby. In a 2011 issue Metro magazine rated our neighborhood, Marcy-Holmes, no. 4 of the 20 most livable neighborhoods in the city. Come see us. We have rentals and historic homes at all price levels and are encouraging people to live near their work, if you work downtown or at the University.

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