The hot pursuit of young professionals has been at the core of
American cities' urban revival for more than a decade. It worked. They
came, they played, they stayed.
An urban renaissance unfolded as
the number of people living in America's downtowns soared, construction
of condos and loft apartments boomed and once-derelict neighborhoods
thrived. In many of the largest cities in the most-populous metropolitan
areas, downtown populations grew at double-digit rates from 2000 to
2010, according to the Census.
Now, cities face a new demographic
reality: The young and single are aging and having children. If the
pattern of the past 50 years holds, they might soon set their sights on
"We know young people move the most," says Richard Florida, whose book The Rise of the Creative Class
published 10 years ago helped spark the wooing of young professionals
to revive declining urban centers. "So capturing people early on in
their lives in a metro really matters. It's important to compete with
suburbs for people once they get a little older and have children."
older they get, the less likely people are to live in cities, according
to recent Census data. The peak age for urban living is 25 to 27, when
20% of that age group are nestled in urban centers. By the age of 41,
about a quarter have moved to the suburbs.
Cities recognize this
looming challenge and are bracing for the maturing of a generation that
sought out coffeehouses, hip entertainment venues and small flats but
now is starting to demand soccer fields, good schools and roomy homes.
on to residents as they age, make more money and have kids is a plus
for cities because it strengthens and stabilizes the tax base while
creating an involved constituency. Plus, it's a return on the investment
they made to woo young people in the first place - concert halls,
sports arenas, bike trails and more.
The stakes are high because
the oldest of 86 million Millennials are turning 30 this year, a time
when many marry and start families. This giant demographic wave is even
larger than the 77 million-strong Baby Boomers that have dominated
social and cultural trends for decades.
generation is the generation that decides where it's going to live
before it decides what it's going to do," says William Fulton, president
of policy and research at Smart Growth America, a non-profit national
coalition against suburban sprawl. "The stakes are very high. ... There
are two big quality-of-life things that become important when you have
kids: schools and recreational activities."
And there's safety,
housing, child care and outdoor space. "It's an enormous topic of
conversation for city planners and politicians even if their
constituents are older, because they're concerned about where their kids
and grandchildren are going to live," Fulton says. "The question isn't
so much getting families out of the suburbs into cities but getting them
to stay in the cities."
'An extension of dorm life'
endured decades of shrinking populations fueled by an exodus of young
and old who found refuge from crime, racial tension and poverty in
suburbia. When cities began to invest in their neighborhoods with new
housing and rail systems and lured entrepreneurs, the turnaround
happened. Cities don't want to see the pattern reverse again.
began renewal efforts by offering a young adult-focused lifestyle,"
says Robert Lang, urban affairs professor at the University of
Nevada-Las Vegas. "It was like an extension of dorm life after college.
Cities assumed that they would get to the business of improving schools
and providing more family services later. Well, now it's later."
growing urban constituency of hipster parents is not timid about making
itself heard. Educated and in professional jobs, they are equipped to
organize and galvanize.
"They make clear the kinds of things they
want to see," says Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, who created a Young
Professionals Kitchen Cabinet when he took office in 2006. "We've got to
work fast. Think how accustomed they are to speed. ... They expect it.
They also expect things within their community to transform at a much
The challenges are huge but as urban residents transition from singles playgrounds to tot lots, the momentum is building:
Poor or unsafe schools can make it or break it for the most ardent
urbanites. The swelling number of city dwellers on the verge of deciding
whether they'll stay or go has become a vocal lobby for change.
York's Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan was one of the first
neighborhoods to go through this demographic transformation, Lang says.
"Within 10 years, people made requests for grammar schools," he says.
"Cities are recognizing that. They want to hold on to and stabilize the
What Justin Fishman and his wife, Rachel, liked about
their Philadelphia neighborhood (he walks 20 minutes to his banking job)
when they were younger and childless are the same things Justin and
Rachel, now parents of 11-month-old twins, still cherish.
isn't really part of our day-to-day routine," says Fishman, who was born
in Philadelphia, grew up in the suburbs but lived in big cities
(Washington, New York) since college. They've seen the population of
people their age double in their neighborhoods. Now, they dodge baby
strollers as they navigate their own. "But you don't see a ton of
5-year-olds," he says.
To leave or not to leave dominates the
chatter at Rachel's mothers' groups as parents struggle with the odds of
getting their children into competitive magnet schools, paying for
private school or fleeing to suburbia.
The Fishmans want to stay.
They're not giving up yet because school enrollment is four years away,
and they see new parents mobilizing to improve neighborhood schools.
They're moving to a bigger house, still in the city (his walk to work
will be 35 minutes). When the children reach school age, they will make a
"I'm a believer it starts with the parents, and
someone taking an active interest in a child's education will make a
school better," says Justin, 30. "As long as the city fosters the
ability of both the schools and parents to work together and improve
education, that's where I'd like to see my kids go."
A group of
parents is campaigning to open a charter school in downtown Los Angeles,
says Councilman Jose Huizar, "because the younger people in the area
are looking for good schools."
The number of residents living
downtown - defined as an area within a 2-mile radius of City Hall - has
quintupled in 10 years to more than 50,000, he says.
In the face
of this surge, some city leaders have shown more willingness to endorse
school choice such as charter schools, Fulton says.
launched a massive overhaul of its school system the past decade,
rebuilding and refurbishing more than 70 schools. A new grade school is
slated to open downtown in 2014, an area booming with residential
construction. Downtown's population has increased about 24% to 5,568
"There is tremendous demand, and the demand is from
those highly educated 20-somethings who want that urban environment,"
says Mayor Mick Cornett, who lives downtown. "I assume some will leave,
but we try to create a downtown that can compete with suburbia."
Not just flats, lofts and condos.
Developers of traditional single-family subdivisions typical of
suburbia are setting their sights on urban neighborhoods from Anaheim,
Calif., and Denver to Dallas and Charlotte. Because space is at a
premium, they're opting for townhouses and homes on small lots, new
housing that can accommodate families.
"We are creating suburban
housing environments within the city," Cincinnati's Mallory says.
Virginia Place, minutes from downtown, has a half-dozen new 3- and
4-bedroom homes but will eventually have more than 30. The city is
offering a 10-year tax abatement for buyers. Homes built to meet energy
standards get a 15-year tax abatement. "It's a good entry point for
families," he says.
"We, as planners and decision-makers, have to
focus on creating units that accommodate families," Huizar says. "We've
got to make downtown more livable for families."
Grocery stores, child care and other services near transit.
The young have been flocking to cities partly because they can walk to
work or take mass transit. They still want that, but it can be daunting
when they have kids in tow and need to take a bus to the grocery store
and a subway to the day care center.
"The first thing to know is
where the gaps are," says Allison Brooks, chief of staff for
Reconnecting America, a national organization that works to link
transportation and community development. She's co-author of the group's
recent report, Are We There Yet? Creating Complete Communities for 21st Century America.
has worked with the city of Denver to map where day care centers,
preschools, grocery stores and jobs are in relation to public transit
stops. She has found more willingness among local leaders to cooperate
in the face of this demographic transformation.
The availability of city data that are easily accessible to citizens has given residents everywhere more input in governing.
is more accountability and expectation of immediacy and
responsiveness," says Ben Hecht is CEO of Living Cities, a philanthropic
collaborative of 22 of the world's largest foundations and financial
institutions that invests in cities.
"We have to help people live
easier lifestyles, healthier lifestyles and more affordable lifestyles,"
Brooks says. "There is real interest in creating these environments.
Cities want to keep these people. They spend money."
Transit Village in Oakland opened in 2004 with a library, a charter
school, a senior center and housing near the Bay Area Rapid Transit
(BART) station and has become a national model for integrating transit
Brooks, who lives in Oakland and has a 3-year-old,
has no intention of leaving the city where 20% of schools are charter,
she says. "I can walk to a BART station. I can ride my bike to downtown
Oakland," she says. "Even if we decide to send her to private school,
we're not going to move out."
More open space. When
there are no back or front yards where kids can play, public parks
become a hot commodity. Los Angeles' Grand Park, a $56 million, 12-acre
park with botanical gardens and hundreds of new trees, opened in October
in the heart of downtown.
Oklahoma City is building a 70-acre
downtown park to serve its growing residential base. The city is
investing almost $1 billion over 10 years in "quality-of-life
infrastructure projects" - including pedestrian- and bike-friendly
street designs and a streetcar system.
partnership in Houston developed Discovery Green, a 12-acre urban park
next to the city's convention center. The Green has become an anchor
for downtown development since it opened in 2008. It has spurred the
building of a hotel, office tower and a 346-unit residential high-rise.
Seeking a balance
are still plenty of young and childless professionals for cities to
pursue (the youngest Millennials are in their teens), but as the oldest
move to another life stage, cities face a balancing act: Provide adult
fun and culture and trendy lofts, but build family-friendly homes and
child care centers at the same time.
Even with all the changes
cities are making, many Millennials will head to the suburbs leave
cities when they start a family - but probably not as many as in
previous decades, Florida says.
"Before, 90% to 95% would've
moved, and I would see it more as 60% or 70% now," he says, based on
research and observations. "My hunch is many will move to a close-in
suburb that's walkable, near transit."
Florida says he's surprised
by how mainstream the urban lifestyle is now, to the point of becoming a
steady staple of TV shows. "Not having a car is kind of chic," Florida
It also saves money in gas, insurance and loan payments -
something that mass-transit advocates say can help deter the cost of
more expensive urban housing or private schools. Homeowners and renters
are spending less of their income on transportation, according to the
Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey. The amount
spent on transportation fell more than 20% from 1986 to 2010.
"We have professionals come and go, singles come and go," Huizar says. "But you build for families, and they're here to stay."