Growing Pains: Is the Age of Iconic American Cities Over? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Growing Pains: Is the Age of Iconic American Cities Over?

SPUR President and CEO Gabriel Metcalf, MPC President MarySue Barrett and RPA President Tom Wright talk cities at our June 2 Urban Think & Drink.

No matter where you live, it’s clear that the Chicago region is struggling. Last year, our region experienced the greatest population loss of any major metropolitan area in the country.

Sun Belt cities are far outpacing our growth; as of 2015, six of the 20 fastest growing metro areas were located in Florida and four were located in Texas.

Even our cold weather cousin Minneapolis is growing at nearly five times the rate of Chicago.

MPC Research Director Alden Loury kicked off the event.

While mid-size cities experience explosive growth, America’s most iconic cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago are experiencing crippling congestion, rising housing costs and decaying infrastructure. This led MPC to ask the question: “Is the Age of Iconic American Cities Over?”

At the Metropolitan Planning Council’s June 2 Urban Think & Drink moderated by our Research Director Alden Loury, the leaders of the Bay Area’s SPUR, New York’s Regional Plan Association, and Chicagoland’s Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) provided a resounding answer: No, but we must act now.

Promoting housing affordability

Gabriel Metcalf, president and CEO of SPUR, an organization with many similarities to MPC that dates back to 1910, painted a grim picture of housing in the San Francisco region. The region is booming, but the housing stock has not kept pace. He said, “The problem is people love our city, but…they don’t want to see any physical changes to the landscape.” Support for a new housing development is enough to “boot people out of office.”

From the other side of the country, the tri-state Regional Plan Association’s President Tom Wright described the New York City region as on its way to becoming the next San Fran. While the region gained 87,186 in population between 2014-2015, Wright noted, “Housing production has flatlined at 60,000 units a year in the tri-state region.” As more jobs are being created in New York city, more and more people are doubling up in apartments to make ends meet.

MPC President MarySue Barrett’s assessment of regional housing was more hopeful: Chicagoland has space to grow. Our city contains a significant number of vacant lots, many of which are in close proximity to transit; while often considered a deficit, our peer organizations suggested that available land could be an asset. When done right, transit-oriented development has the potential to lower household transportation costs significantly and create new affordable housing—and new jobs through on-site mixed-use retail.

Countering segregation and displacement: Creating opportunity for all

Our panelists noted that New York and the Bay Area don’t experience nearly the same levels of segregation by race and class as Chicago, but the trends are similar. In New York, while segregation is persistent, Wright said, “Within the city, the key problem is gentrification. Outside [the city’s borders], segregation is the larger issue.”

A standing room only crowd turned out for the event.

In San Francisco, there is significant concern about “displacement,” whereby longtime residents are struggling to access affordable housing and most “will never secure government subsidized housing,” according to Metcalf. He told a story of SPUR’s tech-sector Board members who have purposefully held back on creating new local jobs because of the skyrocketing demand in the housing market there.

Barrett noted that in Chicago, only five out of 77 community areas are experiencing gentrification. A vast majority—45 out of 77 community areas—are experiencing growing and deepening poverty. Barrett said we must look at creating affordability in “opportunity areas”—places with access to transit, jobs and good schools—while we simultaneously address decades of neighborhood disinvestment that has reinforced concentrated poverty.

Preparing our regions for climate change challenges

Metcalf emphasized “Flooding in the Chicago region is a nuisance, yes, but the issues with sea levels rising in the Bay Area are approaching an existential crisis.” He spoke about developments along the shoreline that cannot secure financing due to the expected sea level rises, such as the rehabilitation of buildings along the Port of San Francisco.

Wright related, noting that in Queens, if a predicted three feet of water level rise occurs, “approximately 160,000 will be displaced.” Linking this risk to the conversation on equity, Wright noted that, “By mid-century, it can be expected that a lot of the affordable housing in the city will be under water, as much of it was built near the coast line.”

Barrett noted that Chicagoland has significant challenges with stewarding water resources. In many ways, Barrett expressed, we are “a tale of two regions: those who use Lake Michigan as their drinking water supply and those who don’t.” Much of the growth in our region is taking place in suburban and exurban areas where the water supply is more limited. Resource modelers expect some high-capacity community and industrial wells will be unusable within 15 years, with a larger area at risk by 2050.

A wish list for your region

A June 2 Urban Think & Drink audience member invited our speakers to close the night in a whimsical way. With an invisible magic wand, the three leaders were asked, “What would you most like to see done in your region?”

A lot of what Metcalf and Wright talked about in their cities resonated with the Chicago audience.

Metcalf wants one “free zone” neighborhood in San Francisco: a place where any type of development could happen without bureaucratic processes or zoning requirements, just to see the impacts on housing and community development.

Wright chose to cast away the spell of inefficient regional governance. The New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region does not have an effective, tri-state regional entity to coordinate key investments across state lines.

Barrett’s wand would put a brick on top of federal, state and local funding until recipients prioritize affordable housing near transit and jobs.

Moving forward

At the end of our energizing evening, the crowd of 100 community change agents, public officials, students and business leaders left with a sense of clarity on the policy hurdles we face ahead.

Our regions, though very different, have shared priorities: we must create inclusive economic growth so that our regions have opportunities for new and existing residents. As our panelists emphasized, we must encourage the development of affordable housing and transit in both high-opportunity neighborhoods and in underinvested communities. Finally, we must anticipate how population and climate changes will affect the safety of our land use and the stewardship of our water resources.

Join the discussion at our next Urban Think & Drink in the Growing Cities series, "Why is Minneapolis Growing Faster than Chicago? With Twin Cities metro leader Susan Haigh." The event will take place July 14 from 5 to 7 p.m.

RPA President Tom Wright, MPC President MarySue Barrett and SPUR President and CEO Gabriel Metcalf

MPC thanks ComEd, Yagan Family Fund and TransitCenter for their generous sponsorship of our Growing Cities series, and Revolution Brewing for providing libations.

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