Immigration, ethnicity, and race continue to leave a major imprint on the culture, politics, and economy of cities and their suburbs. Rapid sociodemographic change—which especially impacts urban regions—has once again thrust immigration, ethnicity, and race to the forefront of policy and politics throughout North America and Europe. The articles in this virtual issue explore cutting-edge research on the resiliency of immigrants and ethnic and racial groups, who despite their considerable challenges and struggles, continue to shape and reshape urban and suburban landscapes within cities across the West.
The following, previously published JUA articles are included in this virtual issue and can be accessed without a subscription for a limited time.
Wandering through a museum exhibit some years ago on art from the cradle of civilization, I came upon a map of the ancient Middle East with the names of scores of cities that no longer exist, and I was suddenly struck that the world is indeed full of sites of once vibrant cities that died. Thinking about the phenomenon of urban death, it became clear that there are multiple causes—wartime destruction, desertification or jungle encroachment, natural disasters, and so on—but that the common factor in urban death, theoretically, is that for one reason or another the city is no longer able to fulfill its essential urban functions. I wondered if cities in a modern society like the United States could die, that is, if there came a point where they were no longer doing the things that cities do that make them cities. Detroit seemed like a good place to begin an exploration of that possibility.
Elsewhere I posit three fundamental urban functions, each so crucial to the sustainability of a city that the failure of any one of them may set a city on the path to death.1 These include governance (the management and financing of common public responsibilities), an economic function that I call the maintenance of the marketplace (the fostering of employment, investment, and trade), and cultural production and preservation. In “Is Detroit Dead?” I subject the city to an examination akin to that which a doctor conducts on an ailing patient and conclude that the city is no longer fulfilling either its governance or its economic functions and thus appears to be dying.
As that article was in the works and in the few years since publication, downtown Detroit (approximately 5 percent of the land area within the city’s boundaries and 5 percent of the total population) has experienced a $9 billion building boom of mostly repurposed and revitalized commercial property, 16,000 new jobs, and some 3000 new or renovated housing units. City boosters point to this as a sign of the city’s resurgence. Yes, but…. I would suggest that such a judgment is premature.
Detroit is still largely a city in despair, particularly for much of its black population. Little of the downtown activity has had discernible spillover benefits for the vast neighborhoods beyond the downtown. Population continues to decline (though the rate of loss slowed in the last year or two); the school system is in a perpetual state of grave crisis; poverty remains higher in Detroit than in any other big city in the U.S., with the rate for African Americans more than three times that for whites. Furthermore, the rate of concentrated poverty is higher in Detroit than in any other large metro area, and Detroit is the second most racially segregated city in the country. The median per capita income even in the apparently prosperous downtown is less than half the national average.
The city has steadily relinquished its governmental functions, greatly diminishing the scope of municipal capacity. Partly this a function of the formal reallocation of various functions—street lighting, social welfare programs, the convention center, water and sewer, the crown jewel of the public park system and so on– to other levels of government (special authorities, Wayne County, the state of Michigan). But the reduction of municipal capacity is also the product of the virtual abdication of development functions to the private sector, and in particular to just a few individuals, unaccountable to local government or the city’s citizens. Detroit is no longer a fully self-governing city within the context of American local government expectations and possibilities.
The city is also still falling short as a magnet of economic opportunity, one of the most central aspects of the so-called vital marketplace urban functions. There is a limited array of economic activities, most of which are not accessible to people with little education. No other big city in the U.S. has so few foreign born immigrants. Although some college-educated young people have moved to the city in recent years—artists, entrepreneurs, tech specialists—the city is not a destination for small town domestic migrants nor high school graduates seeking work. Unemployment is still more than two and half times the national rate.
So is Detroit dead? Not yet, but I still think it is hovering on the verge. There is a core with an aura of vibrancy—a Whole Foods grocery opened in the center a couple of years ago and is often touted as evidence of resurgence–that belies its vulnerability. But much of the rest of the city continues to be a dead zone, still with abandoned houses, empty fields, long-shuttered factories, and a public school system that has lost more than two-thirds of its students since 2002. Detroit still seems to me to be the American way of urban death.
Peter Eisinger is Professor Emeritus at the Milano School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School in New York City.
What do the Pope, the President of the United States and the head of the IMF have in common? They have all recently spoken out against rising inequality which has now become a widely recognised global trend over the last thirty years (OECD, 2011; The Economist, 2012). With Oxfam (2016) reporting that the richest 62 people in the world had accumulated wealth equal to that of the poorest half of the world’s population put together, and the top 1% being worth more than the rest of the world’s population combined, the emergence of levels of inequality not seen since before the 1st World War has clearly started to penetrate political discourse. Thomas Piketty (2014) has driven the point home even among hard-nosed economists. Suddenly, inequality is back with a vengeance. What has been discovered, of course, is the outcome of 30 years of neo-liberalism, which has more or less explicitly favoured those with capital and disadvantaged many of the rest. Especially in the advanced economies, politicians across the globe are having to come to terms with increasingly restless populations who are showing their collective displeasure with this state of affairs at the polling booth.
But as urbanists know, social inequality has a spatial dimension. Brenner and Theodore (2002) have argued that the impacts of neo-liberalism are arguably most evident in our cities where urban processes have been characterised by a distinctive shift in the locale of key socio-economic drivers. The “Great Inversion” (Ehrenhalt, 2013) has reorientated the focus of economic growth back towards the centre of major cities as the emergent ‘knowledge economy’ has transformed the fortunes of once failing inner cities, often stimulated by major public policy intervention. But the urban poor who were once concentrated in inner city areas have not simply disappeared. They have found themselves increasingly displaced into older and more marginal suburbs beyond the inner city, many of which were developed in the period shortly before or in the three decades after the Second World War.
This shift has changed the nature of the debates on urban socio-spatial inequality, especially in the United States, where the emergence of suburban poverty (Kneebone & Berube, 2013; Semuels, 2015) has been associated with a strong local political response from the “First Suburb” coalition of financially challenged suburban local authorities in many American cities (Lucy & Phillips, 2000; Puentes & Orfield, 2002). But similar trends have been identified in Canada (Hulchanski et al., 2010) and the UK (Lupton, 2011; Hunter, 2014).
Australia has not escaped this process. The recent Oxfam report referred to above showed Australia to be only second to America in terms of the percentage increase in the share of national income received by the richest 1% of its citizens. As a result, rising inequality is also a fact of life in Australia. Our analysis of the spatial impact of these tends is based on a comparison of data for Sydney, Australia’s largest city, for 1986 and 2006 using the well-established Index of Socio-Economic Disadvantage produced by the Australia Bureau of Statistics for each Census. The analysis confirms conclusively that there was a clear tendency for disadvantage to become increasingly suburbanised during this period, a period synonymous with the introduction of neo-liberal principles in the economic reforms of mid-1980’s and succeeding policy directions. While the number of suburbs containing at least one census tract deemed to be highly disadvantaged had fallen marginally, suburbs with high concentrations of disadvantage (those where disadvantaged tracts accounted for 80% or more of that suburb’s population) increased significantly in number, indicating an increase in the geographic concentration of disadvantage. Accompanying these changes was a dramatic reversal of the earlier geographical patterns of income distribution across the city with the almost total disappearance of the concentration of disadvantaged tracts evident in Sydney’s inner city in the 1980s. There was also clear evidence of a widening gap between the wealthiest and poorest households in the city. In the process, the income differential across the city deepened, with a loss of “middling” incomes across much of the city as the income profile has stretched both upwards and downwards.
That thirty years of “structural adjustment” in those countries at the forefront of the neo-liberal counterrevolution should have led to the deepening of social fault lines and the associated spatial restructuring of our cities in line with this should therefore not be surprising. What remains to be seen is how far these adjustments will continue or whether an emerging political reaction to the predicable outcomes of untrammelled markets and policy-induced inequality will lead to a new consensus that will seek to address these new geographies of suburban disadvantage in advanced neo-liberal economies.
Bill Randolph is a Professor and Director of the City Futures Research Centre in the Faculty of the Built Environment at The University of New South Wales, Australia.
Andrew Tice is a Senior Demographer in the New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment.
Brenner, N.& Theodore, N. Eds. (2002). Spaces of neoliberalism: Urban restructuring in North America and Western Europe. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Economist.(2012). For richer, for poorer: Special report on inequality, 13 October.
Ehrenhalt, A. (2013). The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. New York, New York: Vintage (Random House, Inc).
Hulchanski, J. D., with Bourne, L. S.Egan, R., Fair, M., Maaranen, R., Murdie, R. A., & Walks, R.A. (2010). The three cities within Toronto: Income polarization among Toronto’s neighbourhoods, 1970–2005. Toronto, Canada: Cities Centre and Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto.
Hunter, P. (2014) Poverty in Suburbia: A Smith Institute study into the growth of poverty in the suburbs of England and Wales (London: The Smith Institute).
Kneebone, E., & Berube, A. (2013). Confronting suburban poverty in America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Lucy, W. H., & Phillips, D. L. (2000). Confronting suburban decline: Strategic planning for metropolitan renewal. Washington, DC: Island Press.
From 2010-2012, I was conducting fieldwork in New York City, focusing on an aggressive wave of private equity investment in the city’s rent-stabilized housing market during the mid-2000s housing boom. Readers may be familiar with this trend through the story of Stuyvesant Town, a complex consisting of nearly 10,000 apartments in Manhattan: in 2006 Tishman Speyer and BlackRock purchased Stuyvesant Town for more than $5 billion, then rumored to be the largest real estate transaction in U.S. history. Soon, stories of harassment and illegal rent increases affecting long-term tenants occupying rent-stabilized units began to emerge. By 2010, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Stuyvesant Town’s new owners defaulted on the mortgage. The default highlighted how their aggressive investment strategy, which partially depended on converting rent-stabilized units at this middle-class stronghold to market rate rents, unraveled in a dramatically changed global investment context.
What readers may not be aware of is that the story of Stuyvesant Town is not unique: close to 10% of the city’s million or so rent-stabilized apartments were affected by similar investments in the mid-2000s. Private equity firms assembled large portfolios of aging multi-unit buildings in poor, predominantly Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods, primarily in upper Manhattan, the west Bronx, and southeast Brooklyn. Investors paid inflated prices far beyond what the net rental income could support, expecting to increase returns by ‘releasing’ apartments from rent stabilization and onto the open market, or simply flipping the properties to another buyer. The investments were soon dubbed “predatory equity” as new owners harassed and defrauded tenants to realize their strategy. However in the global financial crisis that soon followed, many of these deals went into foreclosure as the debt service proved unsustainable, the credit crunch prevented refinancing, and falling prices made it difficult to deleverage by selling off assets.
The case of predatory equity highlights how the urban fabric has become a key object of financial capital accumulation, and how financial actors, processes, and imperatives now penetrate everyday life in this process. But cities are also sites of resistance, and in this article I was interested in how community-based organizations sought to contest the financialization of urban space and re-assert the social value of rent-stabilized housing for the city’s low-income residents. This is an important question because of the direct implications that predatory equity had for tenants. It is also an important question because the broader arc of urban scholarship on community-based organizations and community development corporations often emphasizes how the practice of such groups has grown depoliticized and co-opted by the state and the private sector after decades of neoliberal ideology and governance. With this research, I wanted to explore the political possibilities for community practice in an urban context characterized by predatory capital flows. The challenges associated with this context are markedly different than those posed by the urban disinvestment that so many community groups developed to address.
The findings reported in this article highlight the role of alternative knowledge production and reworking financial sites, spaces, and structures as key strategies for contesting financialization. The former encompasses both rhetorical tactics that sought to de-naturalize market logic and chart alternatives, as well as data-driven tactics designed to produce quantitative and geographic knowledge about predatory equity and its consequences for tenants and neighborhoods. The latter entailed innovative use of financial artifacts and the dynamics of liquidity and fixity as a means of extending community practice beyond urban space to the realm of finance. A significant amount of research since the 2008 crisis has addressed the impacts of financialization. Such work is vital. But as financial capital continues to colonize homes and neighborhoods in the wake of the crisis, it is just as crucial to remember that this process is not given: financialization is fragmented, incomplete, and contradictory, and therefore contestable, as I have shown in this research.
China’s urbanization is significant worldwide. The country’s urban population proportion increased from 18 percent in 1978 to 51 percent in 2011. It is estimated that the urban population in China will exceed 60 percent in 2020 and 70 percent in 2050. This unprecedented urbanization process is characterized by under-urbanization of population and fast urban land expansion. After the fiscal relation between the central and local government dramatically altered after an important tax reform in 1994, local governments in China had to look for additional revenue sources that are not controlled by the central government and to capitalize on the land over which they have powers of expropriation, allocation and conveyance to finance urban services and development projects. Under local governments’ strong drive to expand urban land, built-up areas in Chinese cities almost doubled from 1996 to 2000.
Existing literature has tried to build the conceptual framework of such a land-centered urbanization process but limited empirical studies have been able to assess the impact of land financing (leasing) on China’s urbanization with a nationwide sample. This study fills this gap by analyzing the panel data from 1999-2009 for all 286 prefecture-level cities in China. Fixed-effects, random-effects and two-stage least squares estimations are run to test the driving forces of urbanization in China. The findings reveal that land financing, measured by different indicators, significantly contributed to land urbanization in China. Economically stronger cities with higher real estate investment more aggressively pushed for land urbanization. Extracting economic benefits from land development has become a dominant character of China’s urbanization.
It is important to realize that urbanization is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. China’s urbanization is even more unique in terms of its speed, scale and government-driven nature. The true purpose of urbanization should be improving the living standard but not revenue generating. It is suggested that urbanization can truly serve its justified goals only if fiscal and political relations between central and local governments can be adjusted. China’s urbanization will continue to be the most significant event affecting the world development. But only when its drives and goals are justified can urbanization be more desirable and sustainable in the long run.
Lin Ye is a Professor in the School of Government at Sun Yat-sen University. Alfred M. Wu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
Our article, “Dawn of the Dead City” was first published in the Journal of Urban Affairs (JUA) in 2013. It was recently resurrected in the May 2016 virtual issue of the journal. The article examined residential vacancy patterns in Buffalo, NY between 2008 and 2010. One of the main foci of the article was to refine approaches for measuring housing vacancy and abandonment in order to gain insights into the neighborhood effects of derelict property. This was accomplished using: HUD Aggregate USPS Administrative Data on Address Vacancies, the American Community Survey (ACS) five year estimates, housing choice voucher (HCV) records, and municipal in rem property records. Multivariate analysis identified significant relationships between vacancy patterns, socio-economic characteristics, and institutional factors.
Through this analysis we identified a new type of derelict property unique to older core cities, which we labeled zombie properties. The defining characteristics of these properties are long-term vacancy and abandonment in segregated neighborhoods experiencing sustained population loss and socio-economic despair. We also observed that the clustering of zombie properties had a contagious effect, putting once vibrant neighborhoods in a state of perpetual dystopian limbo.
Since the publication of the article, the zombie nomenclature that we helped pioneer has gained currency across academic and mainstream media outlets. Our article has been cited in: Housing Policy Debate, Cities, Progress in Planning, and other peer reviewed publications. Google searches for “zombie properties” return headlines in media outlets like the: New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Christian Science Monitor.
Ironically, we also observed that neighborhoods overwhelmed by zombie properties buttressed others in the urban core that have become centers for eds and meds revitalization. There is growing recognition that anchor-based revitalization strategies in core cities have not fully addressed growing inequity in society. Increasingly, scholars have come to the conclusion that some of these efforts have actually aggravated inequality and promoted the emergence of a polarized spatial landscape where nodes of revitalization are surrounded by neighborhoods that have been overrun by zombie properties.
We believe that “Dawn of the Dead City” helped prompt a broader discussion of the relationship between segregation, socio-economic inequality, and the landscape of property abandonment in the contemporary city. The resurrection of the article in the May 2016 JUA virtual issue promises to expose a broader audience to this pivotal analysis.
The May 2016 Virtual Issue on Global Urban Change is available on the web, with articles accessible without a JUA subscription for a limited time.
Our latest Virtual Issue has been released! Each Journal of Urban Affairs Virtual Issue features previously published content related to one pressing or noteworthy theme. The topic of our May 2016 Virtual issue is Global Urban Change.
The transition from the 20th to the 21st Century has been characterized by processes of rapid urban change, including unprecedented population growth and decline, urban intensification and suburbanization, and major socio-demographic shifts in the spatial structure of cities. This virtual issue of JUA presents innovative theoretical and methodological scholarship examining the physical and social transformation of cities in a global context. It contrasts the conditions of growing and declining cities in the West, explores the unprecedented expansion of Chinese and other Asian urban regions, and examines urban (re)development processes in the neoliberal era, including sociospatial conflicts and struggles over the right to one’s home and neighborhood.
We are excited that some of the authors from this virtual issue have agreed to write blog posts related to their articles, so look for that in the coming days and weeks!
These articles can be accessed without a JUA subscription for a limited time.