“Oh, my god, America has changed,” exclaimed Dr. Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology, University of Southern California, mock-shocked, at the E.P.A.’s Brownfield conference in Atlanta. And even more change is coming. By 2043, the U.S. will become like California, with whites in the minority and the majority minorities. Currently, white Americans make up 64 percent of the population. By 2050, they are expected to only make up 45 percent.
Over the past ten years, white people have had the lowest growth rates, while Latinos and Asian Americans have had the highest. Pastor said in the past decade the Latino population has grown 43 percent, Asian Pacific population 42 percent, African American population 12 percent, and whites — just 1 percent.
Interestingly, the fast growth in Latinos is not due to increased immigration. “Immigration is no longer defining demographic change.” Instead, it’s actually the rise of “the second generation, those born from immigrants.” Also, immigrants from Mexico may not be as high as many people think. “The Mexican economy is doing well so there’s actually negative immigration. People are moving back.”
The American Latino population is also rising in aggregate number, particularly among young people. “The number of young Latinos is up 4.8 million.” In comparison, there are 4 million fewer young whites than a decade ago. Pastor showed tables that also demonstrated how the white population is relatively older than other groups. The current median age for whites is 42, 35 for Asian, 32 for African Americans, 32 for Native Americans, and 27 for Latinos. The future is literally old white people and younger minorities.
But demographic change isn’t uniform across all parts of the country. “It’s happening most rapidly in America’s suburbs.” It’s also not as much about minorities moving into predominately white areas, but African Americans and Latinos coming into closer proximity. “Latinos are moving more into African American areas.”
Pastor raised a note of caution about the big demographic shifts that are about to occur, arguing that it could lead to broader societal conflict. From 1980 to 2000, when California was becoming non-majority white, “it was a turbulent time for race relations, with riots and conflicts around immigration. We’re just now coming to the end of this process.”
Environmental inequality is also a stubborn problem. Historically, wealthy white populations have received the most environmental benefits. “Brownfields are most often found in communities of color.” Pastor said cleaning up brownfields then wasn’t just about giving more people access to environment benefits, but also “dealing with environmental justice.”
Other sources of tension could be generational differences. It may be that the “older generation increasingly doesn’t see itself in the younger generation,” in part because the younger generations just superficially looks different. The younger generations coming up also faces a very different world. “The educational gap is really generational. The generation coming up has not been invested in as much.” And many aren’t very happy about this.
Beyond the moral issues in inter-race and inter-generational inequality though, Pastor argued that being more equitable and inclusive just pays. “Communities that aren’t inclusive don’t build a base for the economy over the long run.” Looking at the data, he believes that “the places that are more equitable and have less segregation grow more rapidly, sustainably over time.” Cleaning up those brownfields that predominately affect poorer neighborhoods of color then benefits everyone.
While the coming demographic and generational changes that will change the face of the U.S. could lead to increased tensions, Pastor was positive, viewing it as a “huge opportunity.”
He could have been speaking to the design professions and development community when he said new approaches were needed to adjust to a changing country. For example, he said the upcoming generation, which has lost out of many educational opportunities and is loaded with debt, “isn’t fundamentally angry, but aspirational.” They want a better world. He said this generation views “equity and inclusion as essential to any project, not just add-on benefits.” So environmental remediation isn’t viewed as just more economically sustainable over the long-term, but “transformational.”
Image credit: ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award Winner. Powell Street Promenade, San Francisco, CA, by Hood Design / Image credit: Marion Brenner and Beth Amann