Categorizing the Pathways of Urban Change in America



The new Whole Foods in Harlem, widely seen as a harbinger of gentrification.
Kathy Willens/ AP

Research identifies seven pathways of urban change. The most common one is very little change at all.

Gentrification and the rise of suburban poverty, the decline of the Rustbelt and the comeback of Pittsburgh and Detroit: If there is one constant in urban life it would seem to be the ongoing process of urban and neighborhood change. Yet a majority of neighborhoods are staying much the same, according to a new study by the geographer Elizabeth Delmelle.


The study takes a detailed, data-driven look at precisely how American cities and neighborhoods have changed in recent decades. It identifies the basic types of American neighborhoods, the main contours of their change, and the kinds of metros where different types of neighborhoods predominate.


To get at these issues, the study uses advanced clustering and mapping algorithms to group American neighborhoods by type in the 50 largest US metros. The study examines 18 key variables driving neighborhood change between 1980 and 2010, including race, housing type, and other socioeconomic conditions.



Strikingly, the most common neighborhood type, comprising over half of the census tracts studied, is neighborhoods that have experienced limited change. But such stable places tend to attract less attention than neighborhoods undergoing dramatic change, such as those which are gentrifying rapidly. It’s interesting how a few prominent examples of neighborhoods undergoing major transformations can skew our perception of urban change more generally.


The study also matches types of neighborhoods to specific metros across the country. While every large metro contains many, if not all, of the basic neighborhood types, many metros are dominated by a particular type of neighborhood, or a particular combination of types. In some cases, these metro groups are in the same region, as the map below shows. But in other cases, metros with similar trajectories of change would seem to have little in common, appearing in groups with surprising peers.


The study ultimately identifies seven groups of metros based on the dimensions and trajectories of their neighborhood change.


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Stability: The first group is comprised of metros whose neighborhoods have changed relatively little over the past three decades. These neighborhoods have experienced relatively low levels of densification and tend to be divided into either wealthy white neighborhoods or poor black neighborhoods, indicating the intergenerational transmission of race and class based advantage and disadvantage. They are most prevalent in old metros in the Northeast and Midwest, including Boston, Hartford, Buffalo, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.



New South: The second group is made up of Sunbelt metros like Nashville, Orlando, Tampa, Charlotte, and Las Vegas. These fast-growing metros have a relatively high proportion of single family home neighborhoods, but also include many neighborhoods that have transitioned from single family to multi-family neighborhoods in recent years. These diverse, densifying neighborhoods reflect a growing preference for urban living, particularly among more educated households.


Hispanic Destinations: These metros lining the southern border, including Miami, Tucson, and San Diego, have attracted large numbers of Hispanics during the study period. They include many poor Hispanic neighborhoods, some of which have shifted from mixed black and Hispanic to mainly Hispanic in recent years.


Emerging Multi-Ethnic: The fourth type of metro is made up of neighborhoods that are transitioning from being predominantly white, Hispanic or Asian—including both blue-collar and wealthier neighborhoods—to more mixed-race, multi-ethnic places. These neighborhoods are located in metros like Denver, Portland, and Dallas with strong regional economies. This trend follows research indicating that predominantly Hispanic and Asian neighborhoods are more likely than black neighborhoods to be racially integrated.


Persistent Poverty: The fifth metro type consists of a high concentration of neighborhoods where African Americans have been persistently disadvantaged and poor. These are the kinds of neighborhoods William Julius Wilson chronicled in his book The Truly Disadvantaged and where the sociologist Patrick Sharkey observed generations of families essentially “stuck in place.”  These neighborhoods are found in Rustbelt metros like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and St. Louis as well as New Orleans, with long histories of racial segregation. As the study puts it, “Except for New Orleans, these cities were all destinations of the great migration and the patterns of racial segregation that were carved out during that period have proved durable through time.”



Immigrant and Educated: This unlikely grouping of metros includes Salt Lake City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Raleigh and Grand Rapids. What these metros share in common is a high concentration of neighborhoods populated by high-skill recent immigrants. While these neighborhoods have changed a great deal due to the newcomers, other neighborhoods in these cities contain stable, wealthy white neighborhoods and stable low-income neighborhoods.


New Old South: The last group of metros is characterized by stark divides between wealthier white neighborhoods, black high poverty neighborhoods, and older suburbs than have become more diverse and poorer. These neighborhoods are most common in larger, older metros like Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Memphis, and Richmond.



These categories are of course broad generalizations about race and socioeconomics that gloss over the multiplicity of demographics that inhabit cities, including rich blacks, poor whites, and middle-income Hispanics, among so many others. Nonetheless, this study helps us better understand the predominant trends shaping America’s large metros. In particular, concentrations of wealthy whites and poor blacks or Hispanics persist, signaling the perpetuation of clusters of concentrated racial advantage and disadvantage.


The study cuts through many of the most persistent memes of contemporary urbanism to show the many different types of neighborhoods and the many faceted nature of urban change. Some places have become more diverse, while others have remained highly segregated over a long period of time. Some have become gentrified, and many others have stayed persistently poor. Some suburbs have become poorer, more diverse and infused with a large share of immigrants; others have gotten whiter and richer. When all is said and done, our dominant narratives of neighborhood transformation appear to be based on relatively small numbers of outliers. Indeed, for all the ink spilled on this subject, the reality is that the majority of American neighborhoods have not changed much at all in the past few decades.


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