The Social Equity of Cities: Is There A New Normal?

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As a self professed downtown, center-city enthusiast, I was jazzed to lay my hands on a copy of the much anticipated 2014 edition of P.U.M.A’s Global Trends Report featuring ground breaking research on demographic, lifestyle, global competition and other factors impacting the future of cities. This report in my estimation was “spot on” in its articulation of several emerging trends that downtown management organizations, business leaders and local decision makers will face over the next 18 months and beyond.

On the morning of February 25th, I read this report in its entirety, over an exquisitely prepared latte at a local Denver coffeehouse. One report trend that particularly captured my attention between sips was entitled “Social Equity: The Neglected Pilar.

Here is a brief summary of its essential message:

“While there is a broad understanding of the economic and environmental aspects of sustainability, the third pillar, social equity, is largely neglected. As global trends have benefited cities in recent years, we have seen a migration of largely upper income professionals seeking to live in downtowns. At the same time, income inequality in the United States is at its most extreme since 1928. Today, the top 1% of American households earn 22.5% of pre-tax wealth, while the lower 90% of American households earn less than 50% of pre-tax wealth for the first time ever.”

As a journalist that writes extensively on the interconnection between people and the urban environments in which they live, I have observed a steady rise in interest in social equity issues, due in large part to the growing wealth gap in the U.S. Despite the desire of cities to promote socio-economic environments that benefit all, efforts to support moderate to low income Americans in achieving fair access to housing and affordable lifestyle amenities continue to bedevil many of our nation’s city leaders and decision makers.

The recent tirade unleashed by the American film director Spike Lee underscores the growing tension associated with the changing socioeconomic face of America’s center-cities. Upset at the gentrification driven shifts, which have transformed the demographic and cultural milieu of his hometown of Brooklyn, Lee hit a sensitive, largely ignored cord with social equity proponents. Lee’s biggest objection? –the displacement of residents who can no longer afford the soaring housing costs in Brooklyn’s center-city and adjacent communities. According to Lee, these shifts represent a demographic encroachment that he believes threatens the social fiber of a largely African-American enclave that has deep historic and cultural roots.

The Social Equity–The Neglected Pillar of Sustainability section of the Global Trend Report clearly identifies income inequity as an issue that will pose significant challenges for cities moving forward. Specifically, it suggests that many center-city areas that morph into reconstituted locales of the wealthy, are becoming increasingly unable to accommodate the sort of moderate and low-income professionals that bring talent diversity to local business communities. This issue is particularly acute among the millennial demographic, considered the essential DNA for growing a robust downtown, center-city workforce.

Brad Segal, president of P.U.M.A notes that part of the rub is that city-centers and downtowns have traditionally served as a welcoming spot for all newcomers to an area. Social equity concerns, according to Segal, are now escalating as economic dynamics continue driving these historically accessible areas towards a higher income niche. This, he says, is resulting in access barriers, primarily in the housing realm, for the lower socioeconomic slice of the population.

“Much of what’s taking place here is due to a greater demand on the part of higher income residents for dense, walkable, urban environments that place them closer to desirable civic amenities, says Segal. “These shifts threaten the diversity and grit that have long made center-cities unique and help attract highly-sought-after young skilled workers. City leaders therefore must recognize that exclusively catering to those with high incomes could result in a loss of many of the attributes that make urban areas vibrant and a hotbed for innovation.”

Amid ongoing transformations in the downtown center-city landscape, questions remain as to how to elevate social equity issues like housing to a playing status level equal with the other pillars identified in the report. Segal believes that these shifts will require a sea change in the mindset of city leaders–one where they’re increasingly called upon to facilitate a delicate balance between diverse interests and constituencies. According to Segal, these local leaders would be wise to avoid the type of ideological bias that can lead to dissension and gridlock. “The reality is that urban decision makers and stakeholders should prepare for much more of this in years to come. All of this is indicative of a new normal relative to this social equity issue, with profound policy implications for our nation’s center-cities.”

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