2015: A University of Toronto study sheds light on hidden inequity and the problems of the booming new economy in Columbus.

It's hard to pin down the exact year—sometime around the swagger and the riverfront revival and the artisan ice cream—when Columbus started earning a reputation as an ascendant Midwestern town. The city became known as creative, youthful, inclusive and affluent, and it clung to this long-sought identity.

Then, in 2015, the University of Toronto released the “Segregated City” study, which examined how U.S. residents had become separated within cities by income, education and occupation. Researchers ranked Columbus second in economic segregation among metro areas with more than 1 million people, eclipsed only by Austin.

It ran directly counter to the city's newfound image. After the recession, Columbus' development and progress masked simultaneous growth in poverty and pronounced differences in the quality of life among neighborhoods, says Jason Reece, an Ohio State assistant professor of city and regional planning who was the associate director of the university's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in 2015. The study confirmed years of his research into the city's inequality—it was entrenched and getting worse.

Read the rest of Columbus Monthly's Defining Decade series.

Ninety years of policy led to that disparity, says Matt Habash, president and CEO of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. How it happened is familiar by now: racial segregation, restrictive covenants, redlining, urban highway construction, failed attempts at renewal, white flight, expansive suburban growth and zoning regulations against density and affordable housing, especially outside city limits.

In Columbus, the 21st century economy made economic segregation worse, Reece says. It favors intellectual, highly skilled, tech-based workers—the so-called creative class. The Toronto study found that segregation was more intense in cities with a large share of college graduates and a robust creative class. While creative sectors thrived, other post-recession employment growth was primarily in low-wage jobs without benefits. The working class shrank, and the affluent segregated themselves in exclusive enclaves, with a hot housing market stoking the divide. It was no coincidence that sprawling, prosperous cities with large universities topped the segregation index—Austin and Columbus were built for it.

Such separation erodes community identity. The city's corporate leaders have few reasons to go into low-income areas, creating disconnection that undermines empathy, says Reece. “We have less common interaction and experience between folks of differing economic circumstances, and that can create a very polarized community.”

The new segregation has intensified the effects of income inequality in areas that were already isolated from opportunity. Residents have poor amenities, poor housing stock, low-quality schools and a lack of jobs, safety and security, says Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board. When poverty is concentrated in areas of historical racial segregation, the two become further entangled. “If you want to end poverty, you've got to end institutional racism,” Habash says.

Heritage, Habash and Reece offer strategies for chipping away at economic segregation: raising wages, building more mixed-income and affordable housing, changing zoning policy and approaching it as one region rather than individual communities. All three experts point to signs of increasing recognition of the problem, and perhaps even progress from local governments, businesses and nonprofits. But it took nearly a century to develop, and solutions won't be quick or easy.

“Columbus is by nature a collaborative town,” Habash says. “The question is, can we move the collaboration to collective impact? And I think that's the challenge.”

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