(UPDATED) Upzoning Older SEPA Cities and Suburbs is the Key to Long-Run Democratic Statewide Dominance

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Upzoning for infill construction of mixed-use housing and retail – market rate and subsidized – is great for all kinds of reasons, on the policy merits.

– It helps local budgets because the tax yield per acre from mixed-use attached buildings is higher than single-family detached homes and shopping centers.

– It makes your town more walkable and enlarges the population to support more neighborhood retail, restaurants, and boutique stores.

– And it supports the kind of lifestyle that Millennials and empty-nesters increasingly want, where they can walk or bike or take transit from home to nearby jobs. Locating more of the new housing around transit stations also can improve ridership, and create the political imperative for transit service upgrades.

But it’s also a great long-run electoral strategy for Pennsylvania progressives, and municipal-level Democratic elected officials need to get on board. Check it out:

Southeast PA has lots of older small cities and suburbs – dubbed “Classic Towns” by DVRPC – who would benefit from becoming more walkable and inviting in more new mixed-use construction. Many of them made bad auto-oriented planning choices in the 60’s-90’s like everyone did, and they have a lot of sprawl development not far from their walkable downtowns.

Those crappy places with the bad planning are where the conservatives like to live, according to the excellent new Pew report on polarization, and if you stop making them, or do sprawl repair and densify them a bit, conservative votes will be diluted with new liberal votes.

The chart above shows that conservatives don’t like living in walkable mixed-use areas. So if you aim to grow the part of your town that’s walkable, actively seeking population growth and new housing construction in and around the walkable downtowns, and suppressing population growth in the more suburban areas, you’ll change the voting base of your area over time.

The magic number that municipal-level Democrats need to be trying to hit is 800 people per square mile. 800 people per square mile is the tipping point at which places tip from red to blue, according to Richard Florida’s research.

We have written a great deal about the role of density in metropolitan voting patterns, highlighting the remarkably consistent and robust political red-to-blue tipping point that occurs when a metro reaches a density of roughly 800 residents per square mile. I took a deeper look at our emerging political geography in a recent feature for Politico magazine, where I argued that the suburbs have become the key turf in American politics today […]

“[A] pervasive divide separates the Republican low density areas of metropolitan peripheries from the Democratic urban centres and minority suburbs.” At the broad metropolitan level, votes follow the same red/blue, rich/poor pattern identified by Larry Bartels and Andrew Gelman at the state level. Sellers found that municipalities with educated and affluent voters tended to vote with their state’s winners – they voted more Republican in red states and more Democratic in blue states.

With these bases locked down, the key political footballs – the new “swing states,” so to speak – are the swelling ranks of economically distressed suburbs, where poverty has been growing and where the economic crisis hit especially hard […]

It’s the distress ‘burbs – poor non-minority and the middle-class suburbs – in the middle of the graph, with a near even split in votes for Republican and Democrat candidates.

The good news for PA Democrats is that PA has tons and tons of these “distress burbs” in swing areas that can densify a bit and flip to blue.

As I pointed out in an earlier post on this, 800 people per square mile is not a very high density at all. Bethlehem – no one’s idea of the much-feared Bladerunner Urbanism – has a population density of 3,885 people per square mile, or about 5 times the density of the Democratic tipping point. South Whitehall Township outside Allentown has a population density of 1,115 people per square mile. It’s sprawling like crazy, but they still have a Democratic Mayor, Ed Hozza.

So you don’t need Center City Philadelphia population density (which is, for the record, not very dense). You just need somewhat smaller lot sizes, and a bit more infill construction to get the job done.

And to be clear, the argument isn’t that you should upzone your Distress Burb purely based on statewide political considerations. You should upzone it for all the reasons at the start of this post, but you should feel extra good about doing it because you’re doing your part to ensure we don’t ever get another monster like Tom Corbett or Pat Toomey elected to statewide office.

UPDATE: No doubt the Geeting oppo research gnomes have screen-grabbed the original post for posterity, which is fine – saying mean stuff about conservatives won’t hurt me in Philly politics. But after going back and forth with Republicans all day about some of this stuff, I decided to remove the partisan cheap shots at Republican living preferences because they were distracting from the analysis/prescription, which I think is right. 


This entry was posted in Elections, Governor, Land Use, Transportation.

5 Responses to (UPDATED) Upzoning Older SEPA Cities and Suburbs is the Key to Long-Run Democratic Statewide Dominance

  1. Ken says:

    What a completely shitty article. The assumptions it makes in not-veiled-at-all attacks belong on the playground. If you want someone to take you seriously you don’t need to degrade your position and yourself with petty little spiteful comments. Make your case clean without distraction and don’t think you need to make yourself or your position seem better by trying to find common emotional grounding with your audience for you only seem more desperate for doing so.

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