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What makes a city integrated?

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Posted at 11:15 AM, Nov 01, 2022

June Waller grew up in a mostly Black neighborhood and went to a mostly white Catholic high school in New York. But her home today features a much better blend.

She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. According to a study out of Berkeley that measured America’s largest cities for racial integration, Colorado Springs was the most integrated city in the country.

Stephen Menendian authored the study. He compared cities in 2019 with how they looked in 1990. He found that 80% of them had, in that time, become more segregated.

“We really are a Balkanized society. We're really separate. We're really separated. In all of our lives,” Menendian said.

Most cities and regions are heavily divided. Different races populate different neighborhoods. But in Colorado Springs, affordable housing and traditional housing flow seamlessly around each other. That’s by design, which Waller helped the city create nearly five decades ago.

“We didn’t want to have families stacked on top of each other," he said. "We didn’t want to have more than two houses on a block."

By “houses,” she means homes subsidized by the government.

“So, we need to open up opportunities and open up neighborhoods to people who would be otherwise excluded. So, it's about distribution of affordable housing stock and making sure that we're just not continuing to put low-income housing and highly segregated neighborhoods because then the government is actually reinforcing what the private market and government 100 years ago created,” Menendian said.

There’s another element here— one that connects Colorado Springs with the only other American city Menendian labeled as integrated: Port St. Lucie, Florida. Both are home to thousands of servicemembers and families of the military.

“The military truly is one of our most diverse institutions,” Menendian said, “So, any city or municipality that has a large military footprint as a proportion of its population, is going to be more integrated than American society as a whole.”

To be sure, an American city without a military presence can still find ways to connect its residents. For Menendian and Waller, it’s about intentional decisions to bring people together. Waller helped make those decisions in Colorado Springs. Those decisions, she says, are why Colorado Springs feels far different from how she grew up.