America today is beset by a New Urban Crisis. If the old urban crisis was defined by the flight of business, jobs, and the middle class to the suburbs, the New Urban Crisis is defined by the back-to-the-city movement of the affluent and the educated—accompanied by rising inequality, deepening economic segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing.
This crisis looks different across the country. The map below charts how America’s 350-plus metros stack up on my New Urban Crisis index—a composite metric my team and I developed. It accounts for measures of wage inequality and income inequality; overall economic segregation along income, educational, and occupational lines; and the unaffordability of housing. The index combines these factors on a scale of zero to one, where a higher coefficient indicates more inequality, segregation, and lack of affordability. Dark purple indicates metros where the New Urban Crisis is most severe, while light blue indicates where its impact is less harsh.
Dark purple stretches across the Boston-New York corridor and on the West Coast—especially around San Francisco and Los Angeles—as well as Miami, Austin, Houston, and Dallas, and Chicago and Memphis.
The table below shows the 20 large metros (those with more than a million residents) on the New Urban Crisis Index.
Los Angeles is first, New York is second, and San Francisco is third. Other leading tech hubs—Boston, Austin, and San Diego—number among the top ten. But the New Urban Crisis is felt far beyond the nation’s superstar cities and leading tech hubs. Miami, Philadelphia, and Memphis also among the top ten.
Houston, that paragon of unencumbered Sunbelt development, ranks just outside the top ten, coming in eleventh of large metros. Even though it can build housing and sprawl unfettered by the kinds of zoning and land use restrictions on which a growing chorus of urban pundits blame everything from expensive housing to growing inequality, it still suffers from the deep divides of the New Urban Crisis.
Even though Houston’s housing is more affordable than New York’s, Los Angeles’s, or San Francisco’s, it is rather expensive compared to most other metros, and Houston suffers from among the highest levels of inequality and segregation in the country, ranking fourth on both my Overall Economic Segregation Index and my Composite Inequality Index, with only New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco ranking higher.
The Sunbelt metros of Dallas, Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, Orlando, Nashville, and Raleigh can be found a little farther down the list. The Rust Belt isn’t immune, either: Cleveland is twentieth among large metros, and Milwaukee and Detroit also are hard-hit.
When we broaden our perspective to take into account smaller and medium- size metros, the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metro outside of New York City takes the top position overall on the New Urban Crisis Index.
Many college towns also rank quite high. Take, for instance, Gainesville (University of Florida), College Station, Texas (Texas A&M), Athens (University of Georgia) Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara)—which is also an enclave for the super-rich—Tallahassee (Florida State University), Ann Arbor (University of Michigan), Boulder (University of Colorado), Durham (Duke University), Tucson (University of Arizona), and Charlottesville (University of Virginia), as well as Fresno, Trenton, and Reno. This is not just because of the town/gown divide between well-paid professors and lower-paid service workers, but also because college towns have large concentrations of students, who are often temporarily low-income residents while they’re working toward their degree.
A fuller picture of the New Urban Crisis comes through in my statistical analysis of the factors that shape it across the board in all 350-plus U.S. metros. Look closely at the graphs below, which chart the relationship between this New Urban Crisis Index and key factors like the size and density of metros, the concentration of high-tech industry, and the location of the creative class. On each of them, the line slopes sharply upward and to the right, indicating a strong positive relationship. You’ll see—regardless of what factor we are looking at—that the superstar cities of New York and Los Angeles and leading tech and knowledge hubs like San Francisco, Boston, Austin, and San Jose frequently show up in the upper right hand quadrant of the charts. For the sake of discussion, I include the correlation coefficients on how much each variable tracks with the New Urban Crisis Index, an association that does not necessarily mean causation.
First and foremost, the New Urban Crisis is more accentuated in larger, denser metros. The New Urban Crisis Index is positively associated with the population size (.61) and population density (.55) of metros. It is also positively associated with the share of commuters who take transit to work (.42), a proxy measure of density, and it is negatively associated the share of commuters who drive to work alone (-.38), a proxy measure for sprawl.
The New Urban Crisis also closely tracks both the concentration of high-tech industry and of the creative class, two defining features of leading tech and knowledge hubs.
The New Urban Crisis Index is positively associated with concentration high-tech industry (.61), the creative class share of the workforce (.55), and the share of adults who hold college degrees (also .55). Conversely, it is negatively associated with the share of the workforce in blue-collar, working-class jobs (-.55).
The New Urban Crisis is also a feature of more diverse metros. The New Urban Crisis is positively associated with two key markers of diversity: the adults who are foreign-born (.52) and the share that are gay or lesbian (.61).
The New Urban Crisis is a feature of more productive and more affluent metros: It’s positively associated with income (.34), economic output per capita (also .34), and even more so with wages (.50).
Lastly, the New Urban Crisis Index tracks political affiliations and voting patterns. It is positively associated with more liberal metros (.59), measured as the share of voters who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and negatively associated with more conservative metros (-.55), measured as the share of voters who voted for Donald Trump.
In the end, the New Urban Crisis is a fundamental feature of larger, denser, richer, more high-tech, more creative-class cities and metro areas. This illuminates the central contradiction that stands at the heart of today’s urbanized form of knowledge capitalism writ large. The very same clustering of talent, business, and economic capability in large, dense, knowledge-based places also carves deep divisions into our cities and society.
Coping with the New Urban Crisis will be a running theme in my coming series of posts for CityLab. But first, I will tackle the modern variety of NIMBYism in this new era of winner-take-all urbanism, by calling it what it is: the New Urban Luddism.
This article is adapted from materials in The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It.