A Favored Quarter Means an Unfavored Three-Quarters

Some places get thumbs up and others the thumbs down, and it hurts the entire region.  Source: allthingsd.com

Building on what I wrote about the Chicago region last week, it occurred to me that Chicago is not the only city afflicted by such bifurcation; it simply has one of the starkest divides.  In fact, I think that Rust Belt cities have made bifurcation their specialty, and it prevents regions from reaching their fullest development potential. 

The bifurcation idea is hardly new.  The notion that metro areas have “favored quarters” — a slice of urban and/or suburban property that seems to get the preponderance of investment within a metro area — has been with us for some time.  I can’t put a precise time on when the term was first applied, but I know I’ve heard it used since the early ’90s.  The series of maps at Radical Cartography here illustrate the theory: many higher income census tracts are highly concentrated in one or two slices of a metro area, and tend to define the entire metro for those outside of it (one caveat: the data at Radical Cartography may be a little old and in need of updating). 

The maps reveal some interesting things.  Ten-mile concentric circles start from the center of a metro area, and census tracts are colored by their income per capita — blue for lower income levels, red for higher levels.  It becomes clear that some of the generally recognized urban revitalization leaders on both coasts have some portions of high income areas within their boundaries (New York, San Francisco, Miami, Washington, Seattle, even Los Angeles, curiously), and the same exists for some Sun Belt cities (San Diego, Phoenix, Atlanta, Dallas/Ft. Worth).  But of the seven regions mapped that could qualify as Rust Belt regions — Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit,  Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis — only Chicago, and to a far lesser extent Baltimore, have any significant clusters of higher income red census tracts within their municipal boundaries.  I commented on this phenomenon myself earlier:

In the entire nation, only in the Rust Belt does the conventional suburban development pattern that most of us recognize (post WWII large lot SF homes, office parks, strip centers, etc.) perfectly align with the suburban political entity (incorporated municipalities beyond the core city).  This has had huge impacts on how Rust Belt cities are perceived, and contributes to the general malaise that prevents city residents to think of new futures for their cities.

Many people might say that it’s quite natural for one or more slices of a metro area to rise to the top.  But a favored quarter means that by definition there’s an unfavored three-quarters.  Decline accelerates in the unfavored areas at the same time revitalization occurs in the favored areas, in part because the unfavored areas fall totally out of the mindset of those looking to be a part of the favored areas.

I know this is terribly unscientific, but look here in the future to see the results of research that I’ll conduct on this.  Until then, I’d love to see your thoughts.

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