Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Sky Is Not Falling On Cities

This op-ed article by Carol Coletta is printed courtesy of www. planetizen.com where it was featured last week:

Cities aren't in decline. The way population change is "measured" by the Census Bureau leaves much to be desired, writes Carol Coletta in this week's Op-Ed. But even if cities were in decline, a city's population is no longer tied to its economic success. What is ironic about these estimates and the misleading story of decline that has been spun around them is the fact that cities no longer have to grow big to grow wealthy. For the first time, according to research from CEOs for Cities, a city's population is no longer tied to its economic success.

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by Carol Coletta

The problem is the headlines are wrong. The leads are wrong. And the Census Bureau's estimates are wrong.

It's not the first time. The biggest surprise of the 2000 Census was the fact that many cities had gained population because throughout the previous decade the Census Bureau had asserted that cities were in decline. While downtowns boomed and in-town neighborhoods gained new life, the story out of Washington continued to promote quite the contrary.

How did the Census Bureau get it so wrong? The first and most obvious point is that the latest Census numbers are estimates. According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Census Bureau consultant Dr. Virginia Carlson, these estimates are reported within a margin of plus or minus 3 percent. Yet, newspapers reported that Chicago, for instance, lost 1.2 percent of its population. That number is easily within the margin of error. Using the Census Bureau's own methodology, Chicago's population may, in fact, have increased. But look closely at how Census calculates its estimates, and the story gets curiouser and curiouser.

First, Census assumes that population changes are spread relatively uniformly within a county, discounting the fact that immigrants tend to congregate in central cities. Birth rates, too, are assumed to be evenly distributed throughout a county, even though certain kinds of central city populations have higher fertility rates.

Second, the Census Bureau counts only construction of new single family houses when making its population estimates, despite the fact that renovations and conversions make up a significant segment of the "new" housing market in cities, especially older central cities. Even renovations of boarded up, single family homes are not counted. Compounding the problem is the fact that housing (and therefore, population) loss is estimated by the age of the housing units, so that cities with older housing are assumed to "lose" more units than places with newer housing. What this means, in fact, is that the Census Bureau actually cannot measure urban renaissance if urban renaissance brings with it the revitalization and renewal of older housing.

Third, the Census Bureau assumes that the number of people living in housing units hasn't changed since the last decennial Census. That means it is biased against a number of vital trends we've seen that mean larger households, namely 20-somethings sharing space, new immigrant households and families moving into cities.

What is ironic about these estimates and the misleading story of decline that has been spun around them is the fact that cities no longer have to grow big to grow wealthy. For the first time, according to research from CEOs for Cities, a city's population is no longer tied to its economic success. Instead of worrying about growing big, cities should be worrying about growing smart. The percentage of citizens with a college degree is a much better predictor of economic success than population. So the real question for cities is how to develop, attract and retain talented people.

Nevertheless, even though it is not a necessary ingredient of success, population change continues to be a popular way to measure cities. Unfortunately, the way population change is "measured" leaves much to be desired. Will the big surprise of the 2010 Census once again be the comeback of cities, just as it was in 2000? It will be if we don't change the way estimates are made.

The real story of what's happening in cities today has yet to be told.

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Carol Coletta, host and producer of the nationally-syndicated public radio show Smart City and president of CEOs for Cities, has been pioneering innovative strategies to improve cities for 30 years.

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