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An Interesting Theory On Why Cities Are Gentrifying So Quickly

Hint: it involves all those long hours you’re working!


Imagine you take a new job. You get a boost in pay, but are now working longer hours. How do you adjust?

If you live out in the suburbs, you might put that extra income toward housing that’s closer to your place of work. Shortening your commute can compensate for some of the extra time logged at the office, and you spend about the same time at home as you did before.

Now think about this scenario playing out on a nation-wide scale. Longer hours for skilled and professional workers are driving gentrification in inner cities across the U.S. as people with more money squeeze a little bit more leisure from their otherwise high-stress, demanding work routine.

That’s the basic theory put forward by Lena Edlund, Cecilia Machado and Michaela Sviatchi in a recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. This mass movement of monied people, they explain, generates a feedback loop that causes rents to go up the closer you get to the center of a city:

One of the simplest ways to control commuting is to live close to work, which for skilled workers may mean the city center. There, by definition, land is scarce and higher demand translates into higher land rents. In time, local amenities adjust, boosting the attractiveness of the locality, further fueling the gentrification process.

The data basically confirm this theory. For instance, the authors write that between 2000 and 2010, Manhattan and Brooklyn poverty rates dropped by 10%, but grew on Staten Island (the most suburban of New York City’s five boroughs). Even more noteworthy, poverty has been increasing more quickly in suburbs than city centers since the 1980s. Significantly, Staten Island does not have any quick connections to Manhattan, where most workers in the New York City area have jobs. The only way to get into this job core is via a 30-minute ferry ride, or a long drive that spans at least two bridges.

But the question is not only a matter of lengthening the work week. The researchers have proposed that women’s increasing focus on their career is another big factor. In the 1950s and 1960s, when men with steady jobs generally had a wife at home with the kids, commuting to the suburbs wasn’t a really big deal. If dad got kept late at work, or wanted to hang out in the city for cocktails after hours, mom was there at home to watch the kids. Today things have changed: it’s more likely that both parents work, which makes it more important for home to be in close proximity to work.

The authors also discovered that skilled workers had a higher incidence of working in the central business district of a city, while “unskilled jobs” were generally more dispersed. The poor, displaced by climbing rents, are shipping off to the suburbs. Some manage to land jobs there, but a significant percent are stuck with the commutes that wealthier workers have rejected.

Thus the common story of our time is about time: Skilled workers, somewhat ironically, are working more hours than their unskilled counterparts. Thus gentrification becomes a matter of moving in an attempt to maximize the leisure hours that remain in the fraction life left when one isn’t stuck at the office.

At the same time, this is also a story about transportation and density, two things that U.S. cities are disgracefully bad at managing. If we focus more on building our cities vertically, a greater number of people could live closer to work for less money. By that same token, designing better public transportation from the urban core would mean less need for folks with all the money to crowd into the city centers.

The authors suggest this might be why Japan and South Korea, despite facing many of the same working conditions, haven’t experienced much urban gentrification.

Then again, maybe the solution to gentrification is just for everyone to demand less work hours!

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Emery Reddy