9 Things We Learned About Cities in 2015


Andrew Keatts | December 29, 2015With 2015 in the books, we revisit the most intriguing findings from Kinder Institute researchers this year.

Sam Houston statue at Hermann Park

With 2015 in the books, we revisit the most intriguing findings from Kinder Institute researchers this year.

We produced a large quantity of groundbreaking research throughout the year at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, so you’re forgiven if you’ve missed any of it. But now that you have some time off for the holidays, it may be a good time to curl up on the couch by the fire with a great white paper.

As 2015 winds down, we thought we’d go over some of the biggest findings our researchers made this year. Here’s nine of them. Click the links to view the full reports.

1. In Houston, people mostly use bike-share for play, not work

The entity that operates bike-share systems in Denver, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth handed over its data to Kinder Institute researchers Kyle Shelton and Kelsey Walker in hopes of learning more about how people use the transportation service.

The researchers categorized trips into those most likely used for traveling to work and those most likely to be for fun. Turns out, in Houston and Fort Worth, just a third of the trips were the kind most likely used for commuting. But in the bigger systems in Austin and Denver, more than half of trips were likely to be for work.

It seems if you want people to commute with bike-share, you need a robust and dynamic system. Expect additional reports on the bike-share data in the future.

2. Food insecurity changes how kids behave

As families become poor and students lose reliable access to food, the transition doesn’t have a major impact on academics – but it is associated with a slow of behavioral problems that teachers documented.

The findings were made by from Kinder Institute researchers Rachel T. Kimbro and Justin T. Denney, in a study published in HealthAffairs, The results underscore the need for schools to try to understand why some students may be showing behavioral changes.

3. White and black people react the same way when you build highways through their neighborhoods

When highways went up in their neighborhoods, two very different Houston communities in the 1970s reacted the same way. Shelton, in a study published in the Journal of Urban History, found residents of the wealthy, white Courtlandt Place neighborhood and the mostly black and lower-class Third Ward had a similar response to the proposed changes in their communities.

Shelton coins the reaction “infrastructural citizenship.” The groups opposed the projects with letter-writing campaigns, lobbying, protests, and their own alternative planning reports. They argued the city’s infrastructure needs were infringing on their rights as citizens.

The effects of highway widening on low-income neighborhoods are well established. Shelton demonstrated that there’s nothing about race or income that dictates those reactions.

4. Danes and Houstonians have divergent views on transportation, pollution, and immigration

In his second annual survey on public opinion among Copenhagen residents, Kinder Institute researcher Michael Emerson picked up on a number of sharply different views, compared to those of Houston residents.

For instance, Copenhagen residents prefer living in dense urban areas, rather than neighborhoods of single-family homes, by a three-to-one margin. Houstonians were roughly split on that issue. And 90 percent of people in Copenhagen own a bike, dwarfing Houston’s share.

Meanwhile, just 13 percent of Copenhagen residents said they were very worried about air pollution, compared to 40 percent of Houstonians.

Yet Danes aren’t so liberal when it comes to immigration. Fifty-two percent of Copenhagen residents said immigration “threatened their culture,” compared to just 37 percent of Houstonians.

5. Houston’s Rice Village has plenty of parking, but it’s poorly managed

“No one goes there anymore. It’s too hard to find parking.” That Yogi Berra-ism, it turns out, doesn’t hold water when it comes to Houston’s popular shopping district, Rice Village.

Even during the busiest periods, there were at least 1,000 unused parking spots in the area, according to another study authored by Shelton this year. The problem with Rice Village isn’t that it lacks enough parking spaces – as many residents assume – but that those spaces are often difficult or impossible to access.

Shelton argues that the area could improve the experience for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike by instituting a parking management district and using the funds the new entity generates to improve roads and other improvements.

6. Where a pregnant woman lives can determine how likely she is to smoke while pregnant

Women living in poorer neighborhoods, and neighborhoods where smoking is more socially accepted, are more likely to smoke when they’re pregnant.

In a study published in Social Science & Medicine, Kinder Institute researcher Heather O’Connell dug through 2005-2009 census data and found that women living in counties that are higher on the socioeconomic scale have lower odds of smoking while pregnant; likewise, her chances of smoking while pregnant increase if she lives in counties where other people already do so.

7. Southern schools are still feeling the effects of slavery

By examining the relationship between the historical slave concentrations in certain southern counties, and the current ratio between black and white students at schools in the U.S. south, O’Connell, in a study published in Sociology of Race & Ethnicity, tries to quantify the lasting effects of slavery on the American education system.

The study suggests the legacy of slavery continues to play out through social structures that lead to white divestment in local school systems.

8. The Voting Rights Act increased Latino representation on local school boards

Parts of the Voting Rights Act that provided language assistance to people who aren’t strong English resulted in increased representation among Latinos on local school boards, according to a study co-authored by Kinder Institute researcher Melissa Marschall that appeared in the American Journal of Political Science.

It’s a big effect, and there's a relatively easy way to see it. Some districts instituted the language provisions of the law from its onset, while others took longer to get onboard. Districts covered constantly were 43 percent more likely to have a Latino on the board than those that weren’t.

9. Living in Dangerous Neighborhoods Makes You More Likely to Kill Yourself

People who live in disadvantaged communities or places where fewer families remain intact are more likely to commit suicide, according to a study in Social Science Quarterly in which the Kinder Institute’s Justin Denney was the lead author.

His team's findings support existing sociological understanding that suicide isn’t the sole result of personal factors, but is actually influenced heavily by a person’s surroundings.

The first part of the study showed a correlation between neighborhoods with a higher share of family households and a low suicide risk. The study also examined neighborhood characteristics like educational attainment, income, and employment and showed a correlation between areas with socio-economic disadvantages and those with high risk of suicide.

Andrew Keatts
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