Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cities and Suburbs

Just writing down a few thoughts, nothing rigorous.  The question is, do shifts in the urban/suburban living pattern explain some of the drop in violent crime over the last few decades?

Here is what I am thinking.  At one point in time economic forces made city land desirable, and the richest people lived in the city.  Outside the city the population density dropped off sharply and people were basically poor or middle class.  Then with the advent of the railroad, electricity, the telephone, and the car, a lot of economic activity shifted to the suburbs and to smaller cities, and a lot of rich people moved to the suburbs (where land was cheap, taxes were low, the poor could be excluded, etc.).  So the pattern of living shifted from rich and working-class cities (with rural poverty) to rich and working-class suburbs (with urban poverty alongside, in some cases, a core of affluent people still living the in the city).

At this point cities didn't have much to do in economic terms.  (They were still centers of government, courts, education, etc., but there were no longer plentiful working-class jobs.)  This would, in my story, coincide with the urban crises of the 1970s through 90s.  Poor people were located in the cities and were stranded there without good jobs.

But then cities started to gain from their comparative advantage in providing goods and services for consumption.  Young people wanted to live in dense areas with lots of social opportunities, good food, good shopping, good transit, a vibrant art scene, etc.  Gentrification represents a shift of rich people from the suburbs to the cities and a shift of poor people from cities to inner-ring suburbs.  By itself, that just involves moving from one place to another and doesn't necessarily have much impact on poverty or economic opportunity.  But it could be that for a given concentration of poverty, cities are more prone to crime than suburbs.  (Not 100% sure why that would be, but maybe because in the suburbs you can maintain more physical separation between yourself and your community - not an unambiguously good thing, but maybe good for crime-prevention.)

So in other words, on top of the usual explanations (new policing tactics, lead abatement), maybe crime is falling because gentrification is reorganizing our patterns of living in a way that suppresses crime.

I'm not sure how to test this hypothesis.  If it is true, it probably bears on the debates over gentrification, but it also has different implications for different cities.  Major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York probably benefit, but smaller cities, or cities with more entrenched crime and poverty, may not be able to shift the equilibrium.  However, it may be that as New York becomes unaffordable, the growing affluent class will spill over into cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, because the amenities they provide are increasingly scarce (or rather, the supply of dense, attractive urban areas will grow very slowly).  Cities will "fill in" with affluent people and other cities will enjoy the same equilibrium shift that New York has undergone.

Alternatively, maybe the amenities people really care about (socializing, good food) will become more available in the suburbs as immigrants are priced out of cities and as the internet enables social interactions even in less dense areas.  (Already you see people like Tyler Cowen claiming that the best ethnic food in the DC area is in suburban strip malls.)

Anyway just getting my thoughts down, don't know if I will try to find data (not sure what data to look for), but fun to think about.


Blogger Sarang said...

I guess the biggest thing to test for is reverse causation; there is a more obvious path from declining crime to gentrification than the other way round. I wonder if anyone has done time series on this. (You'd want to look at crime in 1990 vs. measures of gentrification in 1995 vs. the converse, etc.)

It's certainly true that crime has _moved_ somewhat, and that (some) suburbs and small towns are much more dangerous than they used to be. Anecdotally this has happened in much of downstate IL in the past 20 years or so, as Chicago has torn down projects and people have tried to resettle somewhere cheaper. It might be true that organized crime benefits from a critical density of poor people that's harder to achieve nowadays. That said, it might also be that the poor had better opportunities for advancement in crime-ridden cities than in the boonies, and that this should force more people into crime. (The Hegelian synthesis would be that the poor are completely screwed b'se they're losing all their options including the criminal ones.)

I would discount for Tyler Cowen's tribal bias toward suburbs, but of course it is true that a lot of good new ethnic restaurants will be in unpromising places wherever these happen to be (b'se of cost). I don't see this driving people back to suburbs as they currently are, though. The mechanics of gentrification is that people of high status and low income (typically young people) find someplace "edgy" and attract certain cultural amenities that eventually make the neighborhood high-status. But clearly hipsters aren't going to live in today's suburban mansions; it is likelier that the mansions will be torn down and rebuilt as row-houses.

11:46 AM  
Blogger James said...

Right, I think it's pretty clear that the two work together. Reduced crime makes an area more attractive for affluent people (or young educate people), while the presence of a lot of affluent and educated people (or the absence of anyone else) reduces street crime. Assuming that's the case, then there are at least two interesting questions:

1. What is driving gentrification and under what circumstances will it be more or less likely?

2. Is suburban space less conducive to violent crime than urban space?

As for gentrification, I think it can happen in a lot of different ways. The common element, I think, is that there is a critical mass of people who want to live near each other (for whatever reason) and so there is a self-reinforcing dynamic drawing young and/or affluent people to an area. It doesn't have to be driven by hipsters, although it can be.

It would be illegal to build row-houses in most suburbs (maybe that will change). It is true that real hipsters are unlikely to move to the suburbs, but at the margin there are plenty of young and/or affluent people who will make the tradeoff if suburbs offer enough amenities, and it seems as though the internet is a substitute for a lot of urban amenities (for instance, you can now see a huge variety of independent or foreign movies on the internet or through Netflix DVDs, so while cities still have an advantage, that advantage has been reduced). In some cities I would expect "gentrifying" communities to pop up on the outskirts of the city rather than in the core (I am thinking of cities like Memphis and St. Louis).

12:12 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Re: gentrification, it's a little narrower than that. For example a critical mass of recent poor immigrants might want to live together but that wouldn't, per se, drag the young/affluent in. Moreover there's an element of _demographic change_ involved, which restricts things further to "intrepid" groups -- e.g. affluent people with kids are unlikely to move to neighborhoods in which they feel uncomfortable. (In the original white-flight scenario, my sense is that there were more new communities constructed _ex nihilo_ rather than preexisting communities getting "gentrified." This would correspond to my row-house scenario, which as you say might not be possible.)

I don't see suburban houses being practical as _rental_ accommodation for the typical 20-something group of roommates / childless couple. Think of the lawns! And it does seem that young people value being around other young people and young-people things (bars, coffeeshops, etc.) that seem very difficult to imagine really working out at low total population density. I agree young people will have to go _somewhere_ but I think we're talking about converting one-family houses to apartments etc., along with a considerable amount of actual rebuilding. And this almost goes without saying but suburbs will always appeal to a large fraction of well-off people with kids; the reasons why they initially drew people from cities still apply.

Re: violent crime, I am somewhat skeptical. After all no one can hear you scream.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

ps this is an encouraging trend http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2013/07/sros_flophouses_microapartments_smart_cities_are_finally_allowing_the_right.2.html

2:54 PM  

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