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New census numbers show that the population of the country is increasing in the center of cities — and especially in cities in the West.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, urbanist, architect and author of ” Country of Cities: A Manifesto for Urban America,” told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson the two main factors driving young people and retirees back to cities are economic and environmental.
However, Chakrabarti says the renaissance of cities also reveals major deficits in urban areas.
“The most important issue that we as a nation have at this point — in terms of the well-being of our population — is we have drastically under-invested in infrastructure, in urban school systems, and cities and mayors are scrambling to take up the slack that the federal government has left us for many decades now,” Chakrabarti said. “They are trying to make sure there is more equity in our cities.”
Chakrabarti adds that in addition to economic and environmental considerations, the diversity of cities are a real draw.
“Young people, as well as retirees, want to be near culture, and real culture demands diversity,” Chakrabarti said. “Whether people are gay or straight, or whether people come from different international backgrounds, that’s where most people want to live.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW, and there are some new census estimates out today that show that people are flocking to the nation's cities. That includes New York City, where the population has reached a record 8.4 million. But it also includes Houston, Fargo, North Dakota and The Villages in Florida. Vishaan Chakrabarti is author of "A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America." He joins us now from New York. Vishaan, thanks for joining us.
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: Thanks, Jeremy, thanks for having me.
HOBSON: Well, what's your takeaway from all this? What's going on here?
CHAKRABARTI: Well, it's not a big surprise that we're seeing both millennials and baby boomers or retiring baby boomers heading back into urban places. We've been seeing this trend now for a number of years, especially after the Great Recession. And I think it's driven by a few critical factors. One is the economy, and a lot of young people are very concerned about student loan debt and don't necessarily want to take on mortgage debt or especially automobile debt, And so they want more compact lifestyles in cities.
HOBSON: They want to live in a place where they can rent an apartment and take public transit.
CHAKRABARTI: Yes, yes, and I think even after maybe the first kid comes along, they're getting much more curious about urban school systems and I think putting pressure on urban school systems to get better. I also think that there are a lot of environmental concerns and environmental conscientiousness in this generation. I think climate change is upon us, and this is a generation that grew up with, you know, Katrina and Deepwater Horizon, and I think that they really want to use resources in a smarter way.
They don't want necessarily big SUVs and huge homes and big heating bills and so forth.
HOBSON: Although if they're worried about the effects of climate change, it doesn't explain why they would be moving to New York City in big numbers after Sandy.
CHAKRABARTI: Well first of all, I don't think you can run from climate change, regardless of where you live. But, you know, actually if they're thinking with their heads, they really are actually attracted to a place like New York City. I mean, most New Yorkers use a third less energy than the average American, and it's not because we're saints down here in New York, it's because we tend to use mass transit, and we tend to live in apartments that heat and cool each other.
And so if they're thinking about that, and there are different ways to think about that. I mean, a lot of it is a reflection of, say, how much it costs to commute, and it's a lot cheaper to commute on the subway than constantly having to refill a big car at four bucks a gallon. And so I do think there's conscientiousness about that.
HOBSON: Well, so who are the losers here? Which cities are losing population, or I guess I should say which areas are losing population?
CHAKRABARTI: It's interesting, if you look at a map of the United States, about 70 percent of the population is now gravitating towards what we call sort of seven or eight megaregions. It's not just the Northeast. You know, if you look at the whole region between Seattle and Portland or Charlotte and Atlanta or the Texas Triangle, we have regions that are attracting most of the population of the states.
What that means is the large swaths of geography that are outside of those regions are decanting population at a fairly rapid rate. Look at Upstate New York, for instance, which has been struggling to keep population for years. The rural areas in the Midwest are losing population. You know, our economy has gone through a huge upheaval, and people are finding jobs in urban areas throughout the country.
And that's I think one of the most interesting aspects of this data. It isn't a concentration of people moving to Southern cities ore Northeastern cities. It's really cities across the board.
HOBSON: So I guess the next logical question is: Are suburbs going to become the new inner cities? Are they going to suffer from the same problems that cities did when people flocked to the suburbs?
CHAKRABARTI: That is already starting to happen. We're seeing a lot of poverty rise in our suburbs, and it's a poverty that is very difficult because it's intergenerational. People are stuck in the suburbs they can't necessarily afford. If you're in a poor suburb, you're only with other poor kids in schools. You can't afford to drive as much as you can if you're a richer person. And this is why we have to look at our suburbs carefully and see how we can build better sort of rail links and places where people can live around train stations so they have more mobility.
HOBSON: Well, and we see that the fastest losing county in the country, according to the census, was Lassen, California, whose population declined by 4.4 percent. Eight of the top 10 counties where deaths exceeded births were in Florida. Vishaan Chakrabarti, I wonder if people are moving into the cities if they are prepared for that influx of people. They certainly, many of them, don't have adequate affordable housing. They don't have adequate public transit. It seems like it's going to be a lot easier for the rich or richer people to get by in this new world of urban cores being revitalized.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you've put your finger on I think the most important issue that we have as a nation at this point in terms of the health and well-being of our population, which is we have drastically under-invested in infrastructure, in urban school systems, and cities and mayors especially I think have been scrambling to take up the slack that the federal government has left us for many decades now.
And so they're trying to build at the local level good schools, good parks and make sure that there's more equity in our cities. Obviously we had a very significant election here in New York a few months ago, and Mayor de Blasio really ran on this platform of delivering more affordable housing, delivering more equity, and I think they're trying very hard at City Hall to do that.
You know, we really need to rethink how we're investing in our public works, and nothing says that to me more than when I travel. I just came back from Brazil, actually, where there's a lot of urbanization going on. I was just in Australia and looking at some of the things that they're doing in their cities. We are not keeping up, Jeremy, and this shouldn't be a partisan issue. It should be a bipartisan belief in building the kind of infrastructure that everyone from President Eisenhower did as a Republican all the way out to, you know, the kind of high-speed rail initiatives that President Obama has talked about.
HOBSON: I want to ask you about one more thing, one more piece of information from this report today, which is that Los Angeles County had the largest number of net international migrants over the time period, followed by Miami-Dade and then Queens County in New York. How important are international migrants in rebuilding these cities?
CHAKRABARTI: Hugely important. I think mayors are very frustrated by U.S. immigration policy and the fact that there hasn't been immigration reform. They're hugely important because these are strivers. And cities attract strivers. And that's why cities also have a certain amount of inequity because poor people come to cities to make it. And the real measure is whether there's social mobility for those people.
And there's another aspect to what you just said that I think is very important. We talked about the economic and environmental reasons for this drift back to cities, but there are also huge diversity reasons. People, young people as well as retirees, they want to be near culture, and real culture demands diversity. It demands, you know, whether people are gay or straight or whether people come from different international backgrounds.
That's where most people want to live. They want to live with that kind of diversity, and that's another big magnet for our cities, and again not just the coastal cities but cities across the country.
HOBSON: Author, urbanist and architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, author of "A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America." And you can find more details from today's census report at hereandnow.org. Vishaan, thanks as always.
CHAKRABARTI: Thanks very much.
HOBSON: And by the way, no, Vishaan Chakrabarti is now related to our colleague Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.