Interesting Trends in the Urban World


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.


  1. Kenneth Moffett says

    Robert Steuteville, blogger, author and prolific spokesman for the Congress for the New Urbanism, has tirelessly promoted and reported on what makes livable cities. An online search for his writings would be an excellent way to learn more about this subject.

  2. ‘“Form based codes” are something you are likely to hear a lot about in the near future locally. ‘ I just want to make sure that your readers know that Knoxville has, in fact, been using form based development codes for a number of years. The guiding land use document for South Waterfront is the form based development code (2007). Our other major application is the form based code that governs development of Cumberland Avenue (2013). The links for the City web page to these codes and their updates can be accessed below.

    The South Waterfront code was singled out by EPA in its listing of codes that support smart growth.

    Thanks for bringing attention to these important trends and referencing areas where Knoxville is playing a leadership role in smart growth.

  3. Excellent article Urban Guy! I would love to see more walkability all over Knoxville. Big dream…but one that we need to see happen. Knoxville doesn’t have to have the low health scores that other Southerners own. We live in Fountain City on a direct route from downtown, a place bustling with close retail, schools, etc. We need sidewalks and safe crossings. Even though we’re close to a lot of businesses, it isn’t safe to walk. Everything seems to be built for vehicles.

    • We have a similar situation in South Knoxville. There are areas designated for outdoor activities, but it is unsafe to walk or ride a bike to get there. Sidewalks futher out on Chapman Highway would be welcomed.

  4. Great article!
    Check out a 7 minute PechaKucha presentation I did on walkability. So important going forward.

    • I want to echo Bobbie Crews’ comments, as I also live in Fountain City on a busy street with heavy traffic (often speeding) and fairly heavy foot traffic. There are no sidewalks and I often see young mothers pushing a stroller, and an occasional small child trailing her. There are places where it is almost impossible to get off the pavement quickly, and there are no shoulders. I spoke with our Mayor last year and she suggested I email her in order to get our street on the “list” for sidewalks. I did, but there was no response.

  5. Smart growth, new urbanism, pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, walkability. These need to become common lexicon in American politics. We as a nation have been lulled into a false economic reality over the last decade.

    Many will remember 2008 when fuel prices hit record highs above $4 per gallon. The price of fuel has not surpassed $3 per gallon since late 2013. Currently, the average family spends between $2,000 – $2,700 on fuel costs per year, according to Pew Research. What happens when fuel prices, inevitably, double in a fiscal year?

    As KnoxUrbanGuy cites above, the suburbs are now housing more poor Americans than inner cities. How will this effect our city? This should be concerning to our politicians (local, state, and federal). We have incentivized unsustainable development for decades and must continue to focus our efforts on fostering urban renewal and smart growth. I hope that efforts made by our city leaders are enough to curb/offset some of the major issue we may face if/when hard economic times are upon us again.

    Not trying to be a complete pessimist, because I see so many positive developments here in downtown Knoxville.

  6. Urban Guy, another interesting source for articles on these topics is Granola Shotgun. The author offers well thought out views and illustrates with photos from his travels around the nation. One of his many good posts:

  7. Caroline Cooley says

    Thank you Urban Guy for an excellent summary of new urbanism and the relationship of the built environment and health. More and more health literature data shows that if individuals do not have access to walkable, bikeable and transit transportation options they are more likely to have adverse health outcomes. A Knox County team recently created a video on walkability and the challenges we face:

  8. It’s interesting (and very important!) to note that based on back-of-envelope math, we need a property to generate 10000 City tax dollars per year per acre to meet life-cycle road and other budgetary costs. For Knoxville’s property tax rates this yields a value of 1,000,000/acre for commercial property and 1,800,000/acre for residential property.

    One can see that dense areas like downtown can accomplish this easily–think of property values on Gay Street–but it’s really difficult to accomplish this number in most parts of a horizontally-sprawled city.

    This means, in the end, that the piper must be paid somehow–when the infrastructure serving low-density development wears out and needs replacing, we (as a municipal society) will either have to raise taxes, draw more debt, or allow unsustainable areas to go away. And there are only two ways to make it ‘go away’–allow it to lie fallow and unusable, or work to make the property-values go up to a level that can sustain the infrastructure.

    And that means intensification of development, and right-sizing of infrastructure, and a focus on value and desireability–we need to work to create denser places that provide what people need in order to want to live in them.

    • Very well-thought-out comment. Today’s post made me think of another blog post from November 2015 that discusses similar points to those that you have made in your comment. Here’s the link:

      As both a millennial and a city-dweller, I am simultaneously concerned about rising housing costs being an economic barrier for my generation (and the larger economic effects of that) AND concerned about potential future effects that falling property values (a/k/a falling housing costs) can have on the ability of local taxing jurisdictions to serve their residents. The simplest way I see to avoid both concerns is–in your words–“intensification of development” and “denser places.”

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Nice to see you back on here, Just John. Great points

    • Great points on this blog topic, as usual. Thanks for keeping this topic “hot” Urban Guy. And, yes, it’s good to see a new post from Just John.

  9. Very insightful. Thank you for sharing this information.

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