Interesting Trends in the Urban World

Knoxville Skyline


I run across a pretty constant stream of articles related to all things urban. Generally I bookmark them for later use. I’ve often used one or another as a basis for an article about something in Knoxville. For this round, I want to hit you with several. It’s a good way to spot trends and know what’s being talked about in various circles or what’s happening in other cities. So, let’s take a few in chronological order. Maybe you have others you’d like to share in a comment.

The oldest surviving article in my little archive has to do with the much discussed millennial generation. “Millennials Will Live in Cities Unlike Anything We’ve Ever Seen Before,” published by Gizmodo last April isn’t actually arguing what I first thought based on the title. I took it to mean in massive numbers, but the author suggests that the largest cities in the U.S. and a few others have become financially unattainable for millennials. So, they search for alternatives.

While searching beyond major cities, the author contends they are indeed looking for walkable, bikeable areas with a strong social context. It sounds a lot like a city. They are finding it in places they can afford – like urban nodes in suburban areas. An increasing trend is to contour suburbs or sections of suburbs into dense housing with services and retail readily available and with infrastructure – like sidewalks – included.

Knoxville Skyline
Knoxville Skyline

The other trend there is to search for more affordable cities, which means mid-sized or small cities. As much as downtown Knoxville seems to be expensive relative to our local prices, imagine how downtown Knoxville might feel to a young professional moving from New York, Chicago, San Francisco or other cities. While there are obviously trade-offs relative to those cities, Knoxville would seem startlingly inexpensive.

Ben Adler, writing for discusses increasing suburban poverty in his article, “The Best Show on TV Right Now is About Living Car-less in the Suburbs.” The show is Atlanta on FX. The focal point of the show is the near impossibility of living in the suburbs while working classs-to-poor, mostly because the location demands having a car. Mr. Adler notes several startling statistics: Atlanta has the second worst sprawl in the country, behind Hickory N.C.. They have experienced a surge in pedestrians being run over by cars. He details one such case in which a child was hit by an impaired driver and the mother of the child was charged.

He goes on to state something that is a recurring theme in articles I’m reading, “Although the poverty rate is much higher in U.S. cities, there are now more impoverished Americans living in the suburbs than in urban or rural areas. As The Atlantic noted last year: Between 2000 and 2011, Atlanta’s suburban poor population grew by 159 percent, and 88 percent of Atlanta’s poor live in the suburbs . . . Atlanta is what happens when a region grows without any coherent plan for affordably moving people around at all income levels. Atlanta lets us see what that means.”

Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and Knoxville Skyline, 2014
Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Knoxville Skyline, 2014 recently ran, “Suburbs House More Poor Americans Than ‘Inner-Cities‘,” by Safia Samee Ali which supported the above, but pointed out that it is a national trend driven at least in part by the high cost of living in the center cities now that they are attracting affluent populations. The poor are moving out of the urban core to places with more affordable rent – which is where they hit the paradox of lower rent paired with less opportunity to find employment and affordably reach it.

In “It’s No Accident Some Cities Have Higher Well-Being – It’s Because They Discourage Driving,” at, Ben Schiller discusses findings based on a health metric developed by Gallup and Healthways. They compared cities based on a “walk score, bike score, transit score and park score.” They found that the top five cities on this scale as compared to the bottom cities studied had, “19.3% higher physical well-being score, and plus-20% lower obesity and diabetes scores.”

While the relationship between building an infrastructure supporting walking and biking isn’t absolutely direct, it does increase the chances that the city has a healthier population. “Residents in the most active cities have lower rates of smoking, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and depression, and higher rates of exercise and healthy eating . . .” The bad news for us isn’t surprising, “The highest scoring metros were spread across the country. But Southern cities tended to have somewhat lower scores, reflecting less transit, walking, and biking availability.”

Night Skyline, Knoxville, April 2013
Night Skyline, Knoxville, April 2013

“Form based codes” are something you are likely to hear a lot about in the near future locally. Defined by as, “a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. A formbased code is a regulation, not a mere guideline, adopted into city, town, or county law,” they will be getting a close look by city officials in the coming months.

A recent article on, “A Code Transforms a Commerical Strip Corridor,” by Robert Steuteville relates the story of a section of Arlington, VA which is being transformed from, “an aging commercial strip stifled by outdated zoning regulations and 1950s-era development patterns,” to a dense, urban area. The transformation started with a design charrette in 2002 and the city’s resultant adoption of form-based codes. The article also notes that the city is tackling the issue of affordable house as they build, helping assure economic diversity.

Finally, an interesting article regarding the pedestrian/automobile dichotomy. Published a few months back in the New York Times, “New York’s Sidewalks are So Packed, Pedestrians are Taking to the Streets,” by Winnie Hu followed the increasing trend, particularly in Manhattan in which pedestrians are simply walking in the streets as the sidewalks become hopelessly jammed. It’s forcing the city to expand sidewalks and turn some areas into pedestrian-only plazas. She makes the point that we all use the sidewalks, no matter how we arrive downtown, so they are a critical piece of the commuting infrastructure.

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