Alon Levy on the Suburbanization of Poverty

Over at Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy has a typically well-written and researched post on the gentrification of poverty. He explores the well-researched trend that low-income Americans are increasingly moving to the suburbs as gentrification is driving up rents in inner cities. He hypothesizes that this “current” trend has really been happening for the past fifty years:

Both the inner and the outer limits of poverty are pushed outward. What we saw last decade was just a tipping point in which the expansion of the gentrified core was by itself enough to offset the wealth loss coming from the expansion of the ghetto.

Levy suggests that this trend is largely due to the typical pattern of poverty moving outward in a “donut” pattern, but today the center of the donut is in the suburbs. He writes:

In general, a similar story played out in the first-ring suburbs of many Rust Belt cities, especially in ill-favored quarters: the places that people used to flee the city to are now cities that people flee.

His post sparked two thoughts:

1) Could part of the reason that wealthy and middle income residents are moving to inner cities have to do with the demand for time? As we as a society are becoming wealthier, the value of time — the ultimate finite resource — is increasing. So as the price of free time rises, people may be moving to places where their commute times are shorter. In many cases, they are trading off quality of public schools and public safety to enjoy shorter commutes. When they move to Jacobian mixed-use neighborhoods, they could enjoy the added benefit of shorter travel time when running errands and seeking out entertainment. I think this pull toward inner cities helps explain gentrification, in addition to the push away from suburbs that are no longer as desirable as they used to be.

2) In DC with its uniquely terrible height restriction, the city has never achieved the typical inner city growth pattern with the tallest buildings and densest office space is in the center. Instead, skyscrapers have to be built in parts of Silver Spring, Roslyn, Tysons, and other suburbs. Is this development pattern shaping gentrification in these areas?

  • Alex B.

    Height and density are not synonymous terms.

    I’m not a huge fan of the height limit either, but let’s still get things straight – the tallest buildings within DC are downtown.  
    Likewise, despite taller structures in places like Rosslyn and Tysons and Silver Spring, none of those places are nearly as dense as Downtown DC is.  For example, max density in Rosslyn is (I believe) 10 FAR.  There are plenty of much larger areas of DC that match or exceed that.  Certainly, on a broader scale, downtown is more dense than any of those other submarkets listed.  Greater Downtown DC covers a much larger area with buildings that occupy all of their respective lots. 

  • Alon Levy

    What do you mean when you say “The center of the donut is in the suburbs”? The center of the concentric circles is of course the CBD. I presume you mean that the circle of maximum poverty is now in the suburbs, which is so far not yet true either, but getting there.

    In response to your two questions:

    1. It could be, I didn’t think about it. The Mad Men-era executives willingly traded longer commutes for the suburban lifestyle, but they’re no longer willing to accept them. On the other hand, even in the 1960s and 70s, they moved corporate headquarters to the favored-quarter suburbs – e.g. IBM’s Armonk move and GE’s Fairfield move were both motivated in part by moving closer to where the executives lived. (Though GE’s move was also motivated by a general belief that cities were vulnerable targets to a Soviet attack and it would be better to spread everything around.) They no longer can do so, which suggests that maybe the professional workers are no longer willing to live next to just one workplace.

    2. Not knowing much about DC, I’d guess the answer is yes, but it’s a matter of degree and not kind. The general trend of suburbanization of poverty happens in both NY and DC, but in DC the distribution of jobs is not as clean with density falling toward the edges, but rather has huge edge cities. Charlie Gardner and many other people who share his view on tall buildings note that height limits can cause CBD functions to spread out, only in DC the spreading out has been to auto-oriented edge cities and so the negative consequences are much clearer.

  • Charlie Gardner

    In regards to 1), I’ve seen on quite a few occasions people voluntarily taking longer commutes to live in dense, mixed-use neighborhoods — in particular, reverse commutes from New York City to Fairfield and Westchester Counties.  Ideally one might like to have both, but there may be a substantial minority who, if forced to choose between a shorter commute and an urban neighborhood, will take the latter.  That would be an even more favorable trend for a city like New York, which I’d think has a greater proportion of the “Jacobian” neighborhoods in the region than it does jobs.

  • Alex B.


    DC’s ‘spreading out’ of core office uses isn’t really about edge cities like Tysons, but the sprawling of the actual CBD itself.  That broad ‘downtown’ area where there is substantial commercial development and many traditional CBD office uses now covers quite a large area of DC’s central city, including the NoMA area near the infill New York Avenue Metro station, spreading all the way across to the edge of Georgetown, and southward to the Navy Yard area. 

  • Emily Washington

    Alon – Thanks, that is a clearer way to explain the donut pattern of demographics than my wording. As far as the change in commuting preferences we are seeing over time, I wonder if it may have to do with the increase of two-income households. I’m not sure how this could relate to Charlie’s point though, which I have certainly observed here in DC as well.

    Alex – I can’t find any other numbers on Rosslyn’s current FAR maximum, but I’m quite certain it is now over 10 and over anything permitted within DC. If that’s not currently the case, the completion a 35-story building should make it so: Not to say that Rosslyn has more office space than DC, just that the most dense parts of Rosslyn are denser than then most dense parts of DC.

  • Alex B.


    Arlington County’s approval page for 1812 North Moore is here:

    Height can be deceptive.  Add up those SF numbers, and you’ll find a total of 601,790 SF of stuff (mostly office) on a site of 60,179 SF – in other words, exactly 10 FAR. So, despite the 25 stories, that’s the same density you’re going to find in most of downtown DC. Now, the footprint of the tower itself is smaller than that, obviously (which means that the ‘site’ is larger, as indicated by the Arlington County website linked above), but the zoning isn’t substantially different in terms of density.  The rest of that site is there somewhere, and it’s not being built on. DC’s densest zoning (C-5) allows FARs up to 12.

  • Emily Washington

    Thanks for the correction – fixed above.

  • Anonymous

    There seems to be a significant number of people living in San Francisco who commute down to Silicon Valley.

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