NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 25, 2009

Among the media and academia and within planning circles, there's a generally standing answer to the question of what cities are the best, the most progressive and best role models for small and midsize cities.  The standard list includes Portland, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis and Denver, says Aaron M. Renn, and urban affairs thinker and writer.

In particular, Portland is held up as a paradigm, with its urban growth boundary, extensive transit system, excellent cycling culture and a pro-density policy.  These cities are frequently contrasted with those of the Rust Belt and South, which are found wanting, often even by locals, as "cool" urban places.   But look closely at these exemplars, and a curious fact emerges, says Renn.  If you take away the dominant Tier One cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- places no one expects the average U.S. city to be able to imitate - you will find that the "progressive" cities aren't red or blue, but another color entirely: white, says Renn.

In fact, not one of these "progressive" cities even reaches the national average for percentage of African-Americans in its core county.  Perhaps not progressiveness but whiteness is the defining characteristic of the group, says Renn:

  • The progressive paragon of Portland is the whitest on the list, with an African-American population less than half the national average.
  • It is America's ultimate White City; the contrast with other, supposedly less advanced cities is stark.

It is not just a regional thing, either, says Renn.  Even look just within the state of Texas, where Austin is held up as a bastion of right thinking urbanism next to sprawlvilles like Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston:

  • While Austin is far more diverse than a place like Portland, it is still much whiter than other major Texas cities, comparable only to Fort Worth.
  • And while its African-American population lags the national average, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston both exceed it.

The relative lack of diversity in places like Portland raises some tough questions the perennially PC urban boosters might not want to answer, says Renn.  For example, how can a city define itself as diverse or progressive while lacking in African-Americans, the traditional sine qua non of diversity, and often in immigrants as well?

Source: Aaron M. Renn, "Portland, America's ultimate White City," Dallas Morning News, November 22, 2009.


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