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Why U.S. cities need more multi-racial, mixed-income neighborhoods

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Can they be created without displacing anyone?

Oakland California streetscape
Oakland is celebrated as a center of racial and economic diversity, but in recent years its black population has decreased by half.
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There isn’t a universally accepted metric to indicate success at the neighborhood level—using the median income or housing prices to measure the strength of a community can obscure wealth disparities and high rates of homelessness. A new study offers a better suggestion: how well the neighborhood has integrated, both racially and economically.

“Part of the motivation of the report was so much of our attention gets focused on the degree of polarization and segregation in the U.S.,” study author Joe Cortright tells Curbed. “What we were trying to show is there are places like this that are working.”

What’s more, says Cortright, these are some of the best places for Americans to live and work.

For the City Observatory study, Cortright’s team measured the socioeconomic mixing of neighborhoods—meaning the likelihood that two randomly selected neighborhood residents would be from two different racial or ethnic groups. A similar indicator was created to compare residents across five different household income groups.

The report concludes that the U.S. currently has 1,300 neighborhoods home to about 7 million Americans which qualify as diverse, mixed-income communities. Many of these neighborhoods are in three U.S. cities—New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—but a detailed map that accompanies the study reveals that of the 52 most populous metropolitan areas, about 80 percent have at least one neighborhood which fits this description.

There is growing consensus that integration is key to promoting a wide range of positive outcomes for all residents by improving access to economic opportunity. More integrated communities give more people better connections to jobs, schools, and civic resources.

Integration is also important from a fiscal perspective as cities are adversely affected by the financial burdens of segregation. A 2017 study by the Urban Institute and the Metropolitan Planning Council of the Chicago metropolitan area found that segregation cost the city of Chicago more than $4 billion annually.

But there’s a specific benefit of socioeconomically mixed neighborhoods that’s more intangible—diverse communities have a high level of civic cohesion, says Cortright. “They create opportunities for people to have many more interactions with people very different from themselves.”

In fact, this particular benefit was cited in a study on intergenerational income mobility. A team of researchers re-evaluated the long-term impact of the Moving to Opportunity initiative conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s, where 4,600 low-income families were given assistance to move into middle-income neighborhoods. The study demonstrated how socioeconomic mixing—including moving out of public housing projects and into more diverse neighborhoods—meant children would be more likely to earn more than their parents.

Unfortunately, most neighborhoods in the country are not becoming more economically diverse. A 2016 City Observatory study which looked at economic segregation noted that a greater number of Americans were clustering in either very poor or very wealthy neighborhoods.

And while many studies on race and income are focused on the concentrated poverty found in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, Cortright points out that his study wanted to examine a different metric—diversity, in this instance, means a high rate of people from all different racial and ethnic groups, not simply a high rate of people of color. So a “diverse” neighborhood would not include one which is 100 percent Latino or 100 percent black.

Green areas represent neighborhoods in the top fifth of all neighborhoods in racial and economic diversity in the nation; pink areas represent neighborhoods in the lowest fifth of all neighborhoods in racial and economic diversity.
City Observatory

Obviously cities which are more diverse overall are more likely to have more mixed communities. But the age and location of a city is often a determining factor.

Older cities can make segregation harder to escape since they’re more likely to have institutionalized exclusionary zoning like covenants which blocked certain racial and ethnic groups out of neighborhoods. “The average age of the housing stock in a city is correlated with its segregation,” says Cortright. “Cities with old housing stock are more segregated, but it’s more about when the cities grew—not the age of the houses.”

Migration patterns also play a huge role in diversifying neighborhoods, says Cortright, because people who move to a different metropolitan area are less likely to segregate themselves due to personal histories or family relationships. “Without this prior knowledge, they are more likely to insert themselves into multi-racial, multi-ethnic communities.”

But for this type of mixing to occur naturally relies on continued economic mobility—something the housing shortage and falling wages have made impossible for many families that might be hoping to move to different neighborhoods or even different cities.

Expensive cities are also changing trends. California is seeing its working and middle class families flee for more affordable Sunbelt cities while new residents are mostly hailing from wealthy areas of the Northeast. And in the same way “white flight” defined the post-war exodus of white families from American cities, now “black flight” is changing many historically black neighborhoods in the Midwest, where residents are packing up for the suburbs and Southern U.S. cities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the city that has the most of its population—44.2 percent—living in racially diverse neighborhoods is Las Vegas, where much of the city’s housing was built relatively recently for large numbers of people who didn’t grow up there. Over 40 percent of residents in Sacramento and the Bay Area also live in racially and ethnically mixed neighborhoods.

One paradoxical point observed by the study was that many of the most socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods in cities were also regarded by locals as the ones that were gentrifying. In increasingly expensive cities, it might seem like integrating urban neighborhoods really means lower-income people of color are being completely displaced by higher-income white residents—but that’s not what the study shows is happening.

As neighborhoods become more diverse, they’re more likely to stay that way, says Cortright, not to become homogenized on the opposite edge of the spectrum. Looking at the U.S. neighborhoods which became more socioeconomically diverse between 1970 and 1990, a full 90 percent of those neighborhoods were as diverse, or more diverse, in 2010.

Cortright says that the dialogue around neighborhood change should be redirected around achieving a good level of socioeconomic mixing to ensure that long-term residents will stay. “It isn’t whether we prevent, slow down, or stop it,” he says. “It’s how do we continue to maintain that diversity.”

Cities can do this by building lots more housing, the report recommends. Using any increase in property values and tax revenues to fund affordable housing means that all residents will have access to the same opportunities. Cortright also recommends investments in transformative public spaces which can create shared experiences that “encourage, celebrate, and promote” that social cohesion.

Additionally, Cortright urges local leaders to focus in on the best-mixed neighborhoods in their cities and study what makes those neighborhoods so successful. “We know there’s a generational shift in attitudes about urban living, and we know people really value engagement and diversity,” he says. “What can we learn from these neighborhoods—what do they show us?”