By Jean Howard
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson broke ground on a new Interstate Highway system, the first of what would become hundreds of expansions as the nation’s highway system expanded to include mass transit, warehouses, low-cost housing and a network of tunnels, underpasses and bridges. Since that day, America’s residential stock has undergone an incredible transformation.
The changing face of housing has been particularly significant in urban areas, where the construction of these streetscapes resulted in growth rates far higher than average, many by 20 percent or more per decade for most of the past decade. White and Hispanic neighborhoods increased in average annual population growth from 2008 to 2012, while black neighborhoods increased at a rate of less than a tenth of a percent per year.
No community has been affected more starkly than my home city of Montgomery County, Maryland. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of whites in the county jumped by eight percent, Hispanics by 21 percent and blacks by 31 percent. There are now 17 percent more whites, 27 percent more Hispanics and 29 percent more blacks living in the county than there were 50 years ago. That’s more than 100,000 more white residents over that period. Yet, there are not enough whites, Hispanics or blacks to hold the county’s population. Blacks and Hispanics are the only two groups with declining populations since the 1950s.
In my neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland, for example, census data show that the number of white residents almost doubled from 2000 to 2012, while Hispanic and black populations remain virtually unchanged.
My fear is that Americans will lose an appreciation for what America’s suburban public-transit-oriented developments and highway interchanges have meant for economic growth and even racial diversity. The patterns that spread across the nation will seep out into our nation’s older and most dense suburbs, regions and cities, where intermodal transit is spread across a heavily white, Latino and black residential landscape.
As a result, those areas could experience slower or even no economic growth for the foreseeable future. The developments were not designed to move people from one place to another; they were intended to create new jobs and new choices for people.
In order to reach their economic potential, many of the most successful mixed-use regions must not just increase their workforce, but also increase their share of people of color and international trade. If successful, these new and improved urban infill areas could become the preferred locations for growth as a new generation migrates to them. Urban infill can include mixed-use redevelopments, investment in the gas network and development of dense, urban private commercial areas.
But these plans need to focus on how these parts of the United States can achieve balanced economic growth that brings about cultural diversity.
Here’s the way it will happen, according to historic analysis of the nation’s neighborhood patterns. Nearly two-thirds of the urban population growth from 1950 to 2010 was driven by white migration. In many of the nation’s most diverse neighborhoods, in Atlanta, Denver, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, the economic and racial composition of the population changed almost four times faster than the rest of the country. And in Texas, it went even faster.
Not only are young, white Americans leaving their cities at unprecedented rates, but they are also the children of the suburbs. Currently, only 27 percent of new school enrollments are racially and ethnically diverse.
So how can the country’s fastest-growing and most diverse areas return to more balanced growth? One way will be to increase the diversity of the people who live there, through education and health programs. Because of our aging population, our primary challenge will be to better educate and prepare younger ethnic and racial minorities to succeed in an increasingly diverse environment.
People are still searching for the ideal living environment for the next century. It’s tempting to take a nostalgic, nostalgic or sentimental approach, think back to the 1950s and 1960s, and build more housing complexes that are built like the 1950s. This gives us a false sense of nostalgia because it draws attention away from thinking forward and creating new places for a transformed America.
The country is growing increasingly diversified. An ongoing and ambitious effort to define and nurture the America of the future must involve ways of blending racial and ethnic diversity with economic diversity to reverse these trends and make our older urban infill communities more diverse.
Betty Jean Russell is a professor at American University.