If You're Concerned About Segregation In Cities, You Should Blame The Suburbs

Editor's note: Below is a Q&A with Pete Saunders, a Chicago-based urban planner. He's been blogging about problems in city housing markets at The Corner Side Yard.

This Q&A went out to subscribers of our "10 Things You Need To Know Before The Opening Bell" newsletter on Wednesday morning. Sign up here to get the newsletter and more of these interviews in your inbox every day.

PS: Can you summarize the problem you're trying to diagnose?
Our nation's cities are on the cusp of rebirth to an extent not seen in my lifetime. It's fair to say that while lots of analysts and observers are debating whether or not cities are adding more population than suburbs today, the fact is that the tide has turned. More and more people are expressing a desire to live in walkable, urban environments, with amenities and access, than at any time in the last 50 years. And more importantly, they're acting on it. The trend will continue to build.

I've had a long interest in urban rebirth and revitalization that goes back to my growing up in Detroit in the '70s. And while I recognize that not all cities are the same, I'm concerned with how the rebirth is happening. There are so many new city movers who are either afraid of the conditions in sketchy areas, or afraid of being labeled as part of the problem of gentrification, that they're creating citadels of affluence in cities that have little or no connection to the rest of the city. My fear is that many would prefer to strengthen the citadel at the expense of the rest of the city. Where I live, in Chicago, might be the clearest example of this because of its long held segregation patterns, but it's happening in some fashion around the country.

I want to call attention to this and seek alternative paths.

BI: How does this problem differ between cities and suburbs? What role do current zoning laws play?

PS: At the metro level, if we're talking about reducing racial and economic segregation, the problem is one of constrained housing supply in the 'burbs, which artificially raises prices and acts as a barrier for minorities. Without a doubt a more diverse mix of housing types would open large areas of the suburbs up to minorities - and many suburbs have resisted that. However, when talking about the city alone, conditions change. I argue that the burden of artificially high suburban home prices doesn't rest on in-demand urban neighborhoods, that burden rests on the poor, working-class and middle-class neighborhoods whose prices have been artificially depressed as a result of suburban actions. So I guess I see suburban zoning laws affecting things at the metro level, having an impact on low and moderate income city neighborhoods, but having less of an impact in the most desirable high-income neighborhoods.

BI: What metros are exceptions to this problem?

PS: Admittedly this is more of a Northeast/Midwest city problem, where segregation is more clear-cut. There, economic and racial segregation tend to go hand in hand. But there are many Sun Belt metros (I'm assuming - I don't get around much) that are economically segregated by less so racially.

BI: You've written that, "If young affluents are serious about returning to cities, they should consider Austin, Bronzeville, Woodlawn and South Shore, and not just Wicker Park and Logan Square." How would this be different from some commonly accepted definitions of gentrification?

PS: Like I said earlier, there are lots of people who want to avoid the gentrifier label. So young affluents are headed to the same locations, and if the trend continues they will become a strain on amenities and city services. We're setting ourselves up for a point where we'll have a critical mass and explosion into surrounding communities that will do far more harm than good. I tend to think gentrification is a return to normalcy for most neighborhoods. Austin, Bronzeville, Woodlawn and South Shore [in Chicago] are relatively poor now, but that hasn't always been the case. I'm about trying to manage that transition, not just letting it happen.

BI: What metros, if any, are "getting it right" when it comes to this problem?

PS: I've only recently developed this dissenting view on housing, segregation and gentrification, so I'm not exactly sure about metros that are "getting it right" at this time. Honestly, it might be that no one is getting it right now, but that metros might be angling to be the first ones to do so. We're still in uncharted waters six years on since the housing collapse. No one really knew who the Sun Belt metro winners would be in 1947.