Leaving the city for a better life? Not so fast....

Anything cities can do, suburbs can do better.

That's been America's theme for the past half century. So it comes as something of a shock that, during the 1990s, some cities bucked the trend.

Cities including Chicago, Miami, and Seattle managed to add wealth, jobs, and population at a faster clip than their outlying suburbs, according to a report released yesterday. Las Vegas – the only major US metro area where the average resident actually earns more in the city than in the suburbs – saw its lead increase during the '90s.

While it's too early to tell whether such turnarounds represent a long-term trend, they do suggest that major cities need not suffer relative decline. What they need, demographers say, is to build on their strong points.

"The easiest thing for cities to do is keep people who were attracted [there] in the first place," says John Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, which released the study. "That means providing safe environments, good schools, and maintaining the other services that continue to draw young people to them.... Cities will prosper if they're livable places for people to raise a family and live through their adult years."

Despite the progress in some cities, the overall trend remains clear: Urban centers are still, on average, behind their suburbs in all of the eight measures used in rankings put out by the Mumford Center, which is at the State University of New York at Albany. In fact, the 1990s saw cities fall even further behind suburbs, nationally, in each variable – including measures of income, poverty, unemployment, educational attainment, and homeownership.

Take income. By the end of the 1990s, household income averaged $36,535 in cities versus $50,175 in the suburbs. The city also had more than double the poverty rate (18.2 percent vs. 8.6 percent).

Cities did better in some regions than in others. Nevertheless, even fast-growing cities in the western United States are starting to sport telltale city-suburb gaps, the study found. At the beginning of the 1990s, Phoenix sported the least city-suburb disparity of any of the nation's 50 largest metro regions. No longer. By 2000, it had fallen to No. 7 in the Mumford rankings. The median city resident, who earned $500 more than the median suburban resident in 1989, made $4,100 less by 1999.

Surprisingly, the "winning" cities – the ones making gains relative to their suburbs – are found all over the US. Of the 50 largest metro areas, Miami made the most progress in the Mumford rankings of disparity: from 39th to 32nd during the decade. One reason: Its median income rose while its suburbs, strangely, saw a decline (once adjusted for inflation).

Chicago also closed the gap with its suburbs during the '90s. Its median income climbed 13 percent while that of its suburbs' climbed only 10 percent. But the city still has a long way to go before it catches up to its suburbs.

"It was just a very good decade for the city of Chicago," says Marc Thomas, senior planner with the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission in Chicago. "All of these households with higher incomes came into the city. The residents were better educated. Unemployment went down."

Across the US, education remains one of cities' few remaining trump cards. On average, they boast nearly equal shares of college-educated adults as the suburbs (26 percent vs. 27 percent) and professional-managerial workers (34 percent vs. 35.5 percent). One reason for the parity: Young and well-educated professionals typically launch careers downtown before raising kids in the suburbs.

The rise of the '90s New Economy played a role in improving Seattle's relative fortunes. Instead of watching its suburbs ride a high-tech boom as most cities did, Seattle fully participated. So instead of earning 79 cents for every dollar earned by a suburban counterpart – as in 1989 – the median Seattle worker made 85 cents for every suburban dollar by 1999.

Of course, much has changed since 1999. (Because of census reporting methods, the Mumford analysis uses income and poverty statistics for 1999 and other measures reported for 2000.) The collapse of dotcom and telecom companies has hurt cities that rode the boom.

"People are real concerned," says Mary McCumber, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council, based in Seattle. The region's mainstay employer, Boeing, has laid off thousands of workers. But local efforts, combined with a decade-old growth-management act by the state of Washington, have kept downtown Seattle vibrant, she adds.

San Francisco represents another winner of the 1990s that may not fare as well this decade, demographers say.

Moreover, average figures only tell part of the story, points out William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute, a nonprofit economic think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. In many California cities, and increasingly in other parts of the West, the growing populations are the very rich and the very poor.

In boom times, the new millionaires outdo the poor, and the city's average income goes up. In bad times, the opposite may come to pass.

Consider Las Vegas. Unique among the largest cities, it actually outearns its suburbs. But unlike Chicago, which saw poverty decrease during the 1990s, Las Vegas experienced an increase in the share of families in poverty.

Such disparity – either within a city or between cities and suburbs – worries many planners.

"There's a city-vs.-suburb mentality sometimes," says Ms. McCumber in Puget Sound. But, she adds, "you can't go it alone. You can't have a gutted-out core and be 20 miles out and think that you're not going to be tainted by the core."

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