Perceptions involved in how we see the livability of U.S. cities

Last month, a study from the Brookings Institution was a major news story.

White flight? In a reversal, America’s suburbs are now more likely to be home to minorities, the poor and a rapidly growing older population as many younger, educated whites move to cities for jobs and shorter commutes. [Source]

It’s complicated of course: new immigration trends chasing a different American dream, people of color from cities doing the same, white families from inner-ring suburbs moving farther from cities and younger white people moving back into those same cities (like me).

But it got me thinking about perceptions.

About how often someone who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century would disparage and dismiss our American cities as unlivable — tourist attractions amid pits and ghettos. No matter that the Brookings report suggests a larger percentage of country’s poor are now in the suburbs.

The suburban poor grew by 25 percent between 1999 and 2008 – five times the growth rate of the poor in cities. City residents are more likely to live in “deep” poverty, while a higher share of suburban residents have incomes just below the poverty line. [Source]

The report was promoted under the guise that our country needs to rethink its evaluation of our cities. That sometime in the 1950s, young white people started leaving cities for a new lifestyle. For 60 years, populations of every kind have followed what our country’s most able residents did then. Something has flipped and the speed with which it happens has everything to do with perception.

It’s funny that the two things that seem to most often keep people from living in our cities — crime and schools — are two things that are perhaps most impacted by one’s population.

If Philadelphia had 2.1 million residents (like in 1950), including a healthy swath of working families (no matter their race, religion or creed), its crime rate and public school success would be quite a bit different, I’d say.

I’d guess jobs to be the third most popular reason someone might move away from the cities. Residents and tax dollars and safer streets would impact them too.

Change is go’n come in our cities but how quickly we respond to those changes will make all the difference.