The Atlanta skyline with Mercedes-Benz Stadium
The Atlanta skyline with Mercedes-Benz Stadium. David Goldman/AP

When cities rather than metros are measured by inequality, economic segregation, and affordability, the New Urban Crisis has surprising hits and misses.


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This is the fourth post in a four-part series on the economic performance of America’s cities. Today, we cover the big cities that perform the best and worst when looking at income inequality and the New Urban Crisis.

The urban revival has kicked into high gear over the past few years. After decades of suburban growth and urban decline, the back-to-the-city movement has accelerated, with affluent and educated people headed back to the urban core. This accelerated urban revival has led to a growing reality of, and growing concern about, gentrification, housing affordability, inequality, and the increased segregation of Americans by income, education, and socioeconomic class—aspects of the New Urban Crisis.

Thus far, our series on the economic performance of America’s biggest cities has tracked key indicators of the urban revival. Today, I turn attention to its downsides, examining income inequality and the New Urban Crisis. To get at this, I worked with a team of researchers to examine the economic performance of America’s 50 largest core or principal cities over a five-year period, from 2012 to 2017. Economist Todd Gabe crunched the numbers on the economic performance of these cities, using data from the American Community Survey.

To provide context, we do a rough comparison of these 50 cities to America’s 51 large metros with more than 1 million people, using data from my book The New Urban Crisis. It is important to note that some cities that are part of these large metros are too small to make our list of the 50 largest cities, and there a number of large cities that are part of metros with fewer than a million people. Our city to metro comparisons are for illustrative purposes only.

My University of Toronto School of Cities colleague Karen King helped to analyze the data, and to make the comparisons to large metro areas. My CityLab colleague David Montgomery created the charts.

While there have been studies of income inequality across cities, most analyses cover metropolitan areas, which include suburbs and exurbs. Today, we track the new urban crisis across core cities.

Income Inequality

Income inequality has grown significantly across the United States and even more so in expensive cities. The graphic below shows the top ten most, and least, unequal cities on this measure. Our measure of income inequality is based on the standard measure of the Gini Coefficient, which ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 representing the highest level of equality and 1 representing the highest level of inequality.

Atlanta tops the list on income inequality, followed by New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami, and New York. Boston, Houston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Chicago round out the top ten. Expensive California cities like Los Angeles (12th), rank outside the top ten, as do leading tech hubs like San Francisco (19th), Austin (26th), and Seattle (28th).

This differs considerably from rankings of metro areas on income inequality. In the metro data I compiled for my book, New York ranked first of America’s 53 large metros (those with more than a million people), Miami was second, L.A. was third, San Francisco seventh, and Boston eighth. Atlanta did not make the top ten; neither did Dallas or Philadelphia. Chicago ranked 10th on both the city and metro lists.

Interestingly enough, hyper-expensive San Jose, in the veritable heart of Silicon Valley, did make the list of the ten least unequal metro areas, as does Raleigh in the Research Triangle tech hub. Three of the America’s least unequal metros are in Arizona—Mesa, Tucson, and Phoenix—and two are in Texas—Arlington and Fort Worth. Virginia Beach; Columbus, Ohio; and Colorado Springs round out the top ten least unequal metropolitan areas in the United States.

New Urban Crisis

The original urban crisis of the 1960s and 1970s was a crisis of economic failure, spurred on by the movement of people, jobs, and industry to the suburbs; the hollowing out of city economics; and the concentration of poverty and economic disadvantage in urban centers. The New Urban Crisis is a crisis of success, brought on by the movement of affluent and educated people, and of knowledge and tech jobs, back to the urban center.

The table below shows the top ten most and least unequal cities on this index. The New Urban Crisis Index is a composite measure of income inequality, wage inequality, economic segregation, and housing affordability. Eight of the top ten cities with the highest New Urban Crisis Index number among the top ten cities with the highest levels of income inequality, the exceptions being Los Angeles and Oakland. Tech metros like Boston (11th), Austin (18th) and San Diego (13th) rank outside the top ten cities on the New Urban Crisis Index.

The New Urban Crisis expresses itself quite a bit differently in cities than in metros. The list of cities with the worst levels of the New Urban Crisis is very different than the list of metros in my book. Expensive superstar cities like New York and Los Angeles and leading tech hubs like San Francisco top the list of the metros where the New Urban Crisis is worst. L.A. is first, New York second, and San Francisco third out of America’s 51 large metros. The tech hubs of Austin, Boston, and San Diego also rank the top ten metros where the new urban crisis is worst.

But when looking only within city limits, Washington, D.C. tops the list, followed by Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Miami. That’s an interesting comparison, since when looking at larger metro areas, Miami ranks sixth and New Orleans 18th. Near them on the metro ranking are Chicago at fifth, Houston 11th, and Dallas 12th.

The cities that rank lowest on the New Urban Crisis Index include mainly Sun Belt and Western cities, like Arlington and Fort Worth in Texas; Mesa and Tucson in Arizona; and Jacksonville, Florida, as well as Louisville, Kentucky. Interestingly, there are three smaller tech hubs on the list: Raleigh in the North Carolina research triangle, Colorado Springs, and Columbus, Ohio.

The New Urban Crisis is fractal, recurring at every scale and level of geography, across metros and within them as well. Take the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area for example: Dallas ranks among the cities experiencing the worst of the New Urban Crisis, but two other nearby communities, Arlington and Fort Worth, rank as some of the least unequal cities.

While superstar cities and leading tech hubs bear the brunt of the New Urban Crisis at the metro level, when it comes to cities, it is felt in fast-growing Sun Belt cities like Miami, Houston, and Dallas (even with their more lax land-use policies that make it easier to build housing than in their coastal counterparts); and more economically challenged cities like New Orleans.

The New Urban Crisis—and the inequality, economic segregation, and un-affordability that go with it—appear to stem from more than just housing.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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