Why Do Our Cities Need to Change? Because We Have Changed.

Diversity, in just about every way, means cities need to focus on choice

September 29, 2014 at 4:30 pm CDT

Demographic Changes since 1970

Today, it’s hard to find such a thing as “one” typical household.

There’s a  4-year-old  who got re-elected mayor in Dorsett, Minn. He’s unlike most mayors for any number of reasons. One is that the nation actually looks pretty much the same as it does when he was born.

The typical Fortune 500 CEO is a guy in his 60s. Demographics on U.S. mayors are a little harder to come by, but I’d guess the typical mayor is a little more likely to be something other than a white male and a little younger. So in their lifetime, the nation has changed.

Let’s start with an even narrower timeline. In 1970, it was pretty fair to say that the typical household was a white, middle-class married couple living in a detached single-family home with at least three bedrooms. The head of the household had likely graduated from high school and drove a car to work and back for about 44 minutes a day. If there were kids in the home, mom was just as likely to stay at home as to work. In today’s dollars, this household brought in about $46,000 a year and likely from one income.

Already a lot of shifts that have impacted the American household were taking underway, even if we hadn’t really started paying attention to them yet.

In a way, the suburbs then made a lot of sense. Suburbs appealed to the car-centric, family-centric homogeneity that dominated the demographic and, therefore, the physical landscape.

If you look at the table, you’ll see the percent changes for a series of key demographic indicators.

We’re way more likely to have two or more cars (and all the associated costs) and spend more time in them each day. We drive to a larger home with fewer people in it, but fewer of those homes are detached single-family. Most strikingly fewer of the occupants are getting married, fewer have kids, fewer were born here, fewer are white, more are living alone. Those who are getting married and having kids are doing so later and later in life.

In other words, it’s an entirely new nation out there. Today, it’s hard to find such a thing as “one” typical household.

Unpack some of these stats, and even more interesting results pop. In 1970, for instance, 47 percent of single-person households were people over 65. Today, that has dropped to 35 percent. Or, while the percent of foreign-born Americans has increased since 1970, it now is at a level much like that of the turn of the 1900s. That rate had decreased through the middle of the 20th century before starting to climb again in recent decades.

Or take the number of people with at least a bachelor’s degree, which has nearly tripled since 1970.

All of this adds up to the need for a changing look to our cities. It’s not just that tastes have shifted among the same cohorts of people. It’s that there are now so many competing tastes to cater to and support.

That’s one of the guiding principles of our Livability 100 list: choice. We want to celebrate cities that work (or are at least trying to work) for everyone. Will you thrive as a renter as well as an owner? Or a biker as well as a driver? Or a single-person. Or a senior-citizen.

These are things that mayors and city leaders are grappling with throughout the U.S. How they deal with zoning, housing development – especially affordable housing because that income chart isn’t pretty – and economic development will clearly shape the future of their cities.

In The Responsive City , authors Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford talk about how cities are using big data to operate more efficiently, often to the benefit of small businesses that have less red tape to wade through. In a recent Fast Company article, Chicago’s tech scene was compared to  its small business retail climate . One, which tends to feed the Creative Class, is the source of vast investment in money and human capital from the city and private industry. One, which feeds the middle class, is the subject of much less attention and investment.

The cities that can provide opportunities, tools, community and investment for both of these groups are the cities that will thrive as this century of demographic change continues to unfold.

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