Tony Downs (1930-2021), an economist known for voting patterns and transportation, wrote about real estate. I thought it would be fun to dabble in his 1981 book Neighborhoods and Urban Development to see how the material holds up some forty years later. I must also point out that he matriculated from one of our best local schools, Carleton College, located in the bucolic town of Northfield about an hour south of the Cities.
In the beginning pages of the book, the author tackles delimiting what is meant by a neighborhood. I suppose to set off balance anyone who thinks a locale is simply a set of buildings, stale structures set upon parcels of land, he claims that neighborhoods are awash with the constant motion of resources.
Three aspects of urban development are fundamental to that understanding. One is the dynamic nature of urban neighborhoods (urban includes both city and suburbs). Each neighborhood experiences constant inflows and outflows of residents, materials, and money. Consequently, neighborhood stability can be achieved only by balancing these opposite flows, rather than by stopping them.
I don’t think Downs would care for NIMBYs as they are transaction busters. Although he doesn’t call the influx of resources, and the outcome of what is done with those resources, transactions. No matter. The key concept is that groups of people are moving in and out of areas. Data describing snapshots in time provides little insight as it is the movement and progression of interactions over time that is informative.
As his second descriptor, Downs points out that there is a dual nature to neighborhoods. The first one concerns the dwelling as a place to live. This is a privately titled structure, cared for and accessible to its owner. Yet at the same time, each dwelling is linked to communal services like expressways. The activities imposed by the road system can put strains or add features to the various units of housing.
The second aspect is the dual nature of urban neighborhoods. They are not only places to live, valued for themselves, but units of urban development inextricably linked to all other city neighborhoods and to the entire metropolitan area. For example, a new expressway connecting downtown with the suburbs may cause multiple shifts of activities and people. Industrial and retail employment (including some displaced by the highway) moves to the suburbs; office employment grows mainly in the downtown area; low-income inner-city households displaced by the highway shift to neighborhoods farther out; households initially living in these neighborhoods emigrate to new suburbs. Thus a major transportation improvement affects the population and land use of dozens of neighborhoods, including many nowhere near the new highway itself.
To review, Downs describes a landscape where economic activity occurs in a dynamic manner across neighborhoods via interactions of people, resources and cash. In the process of these ongoing exchanges, there are effects to private property as well as the communal property that links them.
Note: The third aspect has to do with the split between city centers and suburbia. We seemed to have progressed past this rigid divide as metropolitan areas have grown and morphed to the point that thus rigid distinction has faded.