Smart Growth Needs Immigrants; Immigrants Need Smart Growth in New York

"The Town That Loves Refugees" : A small American town, Asian freedom fighters, Somali ÔslavesÕ and survivors of the Ôkilling fieldsÕ

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The City of Utica has seen population growth as a place of new opportunity for immigrants and refugees like these women from Somalia.  Photo courtesy: 

“We are a state of immigrants. While other states build walls to keep people out, we open our arms and we invite people in.”

–New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his 2012 State of the State address

“The anticipated rapid growth of U.S. immigrant populations in the coming decades, coupled with their movement into mid-size metro areas, has the potential to transform communities.”

–Dr. Gary Painter, University of Southern California, Dept. of Planning and Development (2010)

(September 6, 2012)  Immigrants are changing the face of upstate New York.  According to the US Census, since 2000, foreign born New Yorkers are among our fastest growing groups.  In the six largest upstate regions, their numbers are up by 59,000.  This demographic now makes up 6.1% of these regions’ combined populations.   These immigrants and refugees help to counter Rust Belt out-migration and youth flight, while helping to spark revitalization in our distressed cities.  Smart growth advocates applaud this trend.

There is potential for immigration to work in concert with smart growth goals: the economic revitalization of cities, inner suburbs, and villages while finding the balance between preservation and development in our rural communities.  Immigration also brings new energy, ideas and values — a diversity that all healthy systems require.  Immigration can mean density and location efficiency as well, utilizing the built environment, our expensive and  sometimes underutilized public infrastructure, to sustainably and more efficiently accommodate more people.  Greater densities, as regionally-appropriate, allow for scale economies and increasing prosperity.

Immigrants are too often stereotyped; to many, they are farm workers or restaurant owners or workers — legal or illegal.  While New York has some of all of the above — they make essential contributions to our economies and food systems– they are just one face of immigration today in America. Many foreign-born are coming to upstate highly educated and skilled: for example, 46% of immigrants to the Buffalo-Niagara region have undergraduate or graduate degrees.  Meanwhile, in the region as a whole, 28.3% of  those 25 years and older have a bachelor’s degree of higher.

The dynamics of immigration are shifting as well as the demographics.   Today, already, immigrants comprise an astonishing 40% of the country’s recent population growth. Yet the trend of immigrants settling in large “gateway cities” such as New York and Miami is slowing, with more immigrants now favoring suburbs of major cities and the mid-sized cities across the country.  Cities such as Scranton and Little Rock grew their foreign-born populations by over 100% in just in the last ten years.  Mount Kisco in Westchester County (population 11,000), grew ten percent from 2000 to 2010, mostly from an influx of Guatemalan immigrants.

Utica is a mid-sized city that hemorrhaged over half its population since its peak 50 years ago,  but has become a model for immigrant integration and community support.  Today, Utica is a melting pot with resettled refugees from 31 countries. These immigrants have bought houses–many formerly vacant–and have started businesses, reversing the decline of long downtrodden neighborhoods such as Cornhill.  Remarkably, the City of Utica’s 2010 population grew by 2,000 between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, attributable almost completely to the number of new foreign-born residents (1,910) that moved in during that decade.  Foreign born now comprise 12% of the city’s population. Forty percent of these are from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Once predominantly Italian, the Grant St. Neighborhood has become enriched by the arrival of newcomers from Puerto Rico, Somalia, Sudan, Burma, among other places. Photo courtesy: Push Buffalo.

The immigrants of today, aspiring to be homeowners as well as business owners, are transforming America’s housing markets, neighborhoods, and business districts.  In beleaguered Buffalo, two of the three census tracts that recorded population growth in the last Census are considered refugee neighborhoods.  Buffalo’s foreign-born population is 7% and rising.  Exemplifying the significant entrepreneurial nature of these foreign-born, streets in some hard-luck Buffalo commercial districts such as Grant Street are seeing a rise in retail, restaurant, and other businesses launched by immigrants and refugees.

A United States Small Business Administration study revealed that across the nation, immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start businesses than non-immigrants. And a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (2007) illuminated in great detail the ways that immigrants contribute importantly to upstate’s human capital and economic development.

New York’s immigrants are important contributors, incredibly resourceful and resilient. But they do need support to actualize their potential. In 2009, 29% of foreign-born workers were making less than $25,000 per year, higher than the 23% figure for the state as a whole.  Many don’t speak English, and are unfamiliar with business practices and regulations and have little or no access to credit.  Upstate cities do offer strong nonprofit services and resources for immigrant populations such as Utica’s Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees and Rochester’s Refugee Resettlement Services, but assistance must extend to support from government and economic development entities, venture capitalists, and others investors in the current and future economy.

While immigrants help to revitalize our existing communities, they also benefit from  smart growth to succeed.  They need accessible and affordable housing and transportation in mixed-use neighborhoods, with walkable commercial areas and  good choice for goods and services, and high quality education opportunities for the whole family.  The location efficiency afforded by smart growth design best serves the immigrant population, allowing them to be independent of the high costs of an automobile-dependent life.

by Evan Lowenstein
Evan is a co-founder of  and consultant to Empire State Future.

2 Responses to “Smart Growth Needs Immigrants; Immigrants Need Smart Growth in New York”

  1. mercadeo

    The median household income of foreign born households was $46,224 while native households made $50,541.

  2. RaChaCha

    Hey Evan, right on point! Here on Buffalo’s west side, immigrant and refugee families are almost always initially — and sometimes long-term — carless. To make things work for them, vital services and institutions need to be located within the community or close by. But that benefits the rest of us, as well. If the people who make land use, facilities, and transportation decisions would put themselves into the shoes of a refugee family for even a day, we’d all be much better off!