What Ferguson Means for Urban Planning

What Ferguson Means for Urban Planning

The sad events in Ferguson, Missouri are being used by urban planning advocates to popularize their latest cause: suburban poverty. Ferguson is "emblematic of growing suburban poverty," says the Brookings Institution. "Hit by poverty," says CBS News, "Ferguson reflects the new suburbs." According to a Brookings infographic, between 2000 and 2011 the numbers of central city poor grew by 29 percent while the numbers of suburban poor grew by 64 percent.

There was a time that the suburbs were demonized because only middle-class and wealthy people lived there, leaving poor people in the inner cities. Now that lower-income people are living in the suburbs, the suburbs are being demonized for having "concentrated poverty," with a distinct implication that wealthy whites have moved back to the cities leaving the undesirable suburbs to the poor and minorities.

The reality is that all demographic classes -- all ages, races, and income levels -- are growing faster in the suburbs than the cities. The suburbs offer less congestion, lower-cost housing, and often better schools and other benefits over the cities. Instead of turning the movement of low-income people to the suburbs into some kind of crisis, this movement should be celebrated as a success.

Take Ferguson as an example. According to the 2012 American Community Survey, the median income of black households in Ferguson is only 60 percent that of non-Latino white households (tables B19013B and B19013H) . But it is 36 percent higher than black median incomes in St. Louis, and 4 percent higher than black median incomes in the St. Louis urbanized area. And while it sounds bad that black incomes are only 60 percent of white, in both the city of St. Louis and the St. Louis urban area they are less than 50 percent of white incomes.

Ferguson blacks also enjoy higher homeownership rates than blacks in the rest of the urban area. The rate in Ferguson is 46 percent, well below the white rate of 85 percent (tables B25003B and B25003H). But only 34 percent of city of St. Louis black households, and only 41 percent of St. Louis urban area black households, own their own homes.

In other words, Ferguson is a step up the ladder from St. Louis. Instead of decrying the fact that low-income households are rapidly growing in the suburbs, we should celebrate the fact that large numbers of low-income people have been able to increase their incomes and move to the suburbs where they enjoy higher homeownership rates than they could have in the more expensive cities.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and urban planners in regions such as the Twin Cities are using the specter of "concentrated poverty" to justify their plans to build denser housing in the suburbs. As I've noted before, this is based on a fallacious belief that multifamily housing is more affordable than single-family; in fact, this is only true because multifamily units tend to be smaller. So, in consigning low-income people to multifamily housing, planners are effectively condemning them to small dwelling units with little privacy.

The truth is that "concentrated poverty" is simply a derogatory term for a natural sorting that takes place when people decide where to live. Low-income people don't want to live in neighborhoods where the only grocery stores are Whole Foods any more than high-income people want to live in neighborhoods where the only groceries are Walmarts. For a variety of similar reasons, people prefer to live with other people who share the same tastes, and that often means people of similar incomes. This is not an indicator of racism or "incomism," but simply a reflection of shared personal preferences.

What has happened and is happening in Ferguson is a sad reflection of the racism that remains latent in our society. But it is not an indicator that we need urban planners telling people how and where to live.

Randal O'Toole is a Cato Institute senior fellow working on urban growth, public land, and transportation issues. This piece originally appeared at The Antiplanner.

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