The Downtown Renaissance Extends Its Reach

» In terms of residential growth, U.S. downtowns are coming back, even in the face of continued sprawl and trouble elsewhere in center cities.

For many inner cities in the United States, the ten years that opened the third millennium were not easy. In the face of declining employment and ever-increasing suburban sprawl, the populations of many of the nation’s largest cities — especially in the Midwest — declined. According to the U.S. government, which has begun to release data from the 2010 Census, the troubles for a number of municipalities that have not successfully transitioned from industrial-age employment paradigms to information age ones continue to mount.

On the face of it, the statistics are gloomy for this representative group of cities:

  • Baltimore lost 4.6% of its population since 2000
  • Chicago: -6.9%
  • Cincinnati: -10.4%
  • Cleveland: -17.1%
  • Pittsburgh: -8.6%
  • St. Louis: -8.3%

These data imply that the long-heralded re-invigoration of U.S. urban cores remains stilted at best; if major cities such as these continue to lose population, how can planners and politicians continue to repeat the argument that Americans are moving back to the city?

Indeed, even if some cities like New York are seeing their populations expand, the failure of many rust belt cities to keep up despite growth in their respective metropolitan area populations suggests that there is no unified “return to the city” movement.

Yet it would be difficult to go to the center of any of the cities listed above and not notice all the new construction that has occurred over the past ten years. Who lives in all of those buildings? Who is patronizing the redeveloped retail and restaurant districts that grace each of these towns?

Other Census data tell a different, more polished, story about some of these same cities, requiring a very different explanation:

Thus, even as citywide population declined in these cities, downtown population increased — in some cases quite dramatically. This points to both an increasing demand for downtown living in cities nationwide and growing problems in the parts of central cities located outside of the downtown. After all, if downtowns grew significantly, then other parts of these cities lost an even higher percentage of their population then their citywide population changes listed above indicates.

How do these performances compare to those of downtowns in cities that have grown over the past ten years? Consider the following growing cities, all of which relied on densification alone, not annexation,* to provide for population growth:

  • Los Angeles added 2.6% to its citywide population since 2000 (reaching a historic peak)
  • Newark: +1.3% (first gain in a decennial census since 1950)
  • New Haven: +5.0%
  • Philadelphia: +0.6% (first gain since 1950)
  • Portland: +10.3% (historic peak)
  • San Francisco: +3.7% (historic peak)
  • Seattle: +8.0% (historic peak)

Among many of these cities, too, downtown growth significantly outpaced overall citywide increases, which means that in some cases even these growing cities may have lost population outside of their downtowns.

  • Los Angeles‘ downtown, once assumed to be dead for good, grew from 35,884 to 51,329 in the number of people calling it home.
  • Philadelphia‘s Center City District increased in population from 60,000 in 2000 to more than 70,000 in 2010, accounting for more than the entire city’s growth during that period (which was about 8,600).
  • San Francisco‘s South of Market Mission district, adjoining downtown, increased in population massively.
  • Seattle‘s downtown and the adjacent South Lake Union neighborhood expanded from around 16,000 to more than 23,000 people.

How can we process this information?

Clearly, there is a strong and increasing interest in living downtown, whether in the winds of Chicago or the fog of San Francisco. This downtown growth falls closely in line with the narrative that Americans are moving back to the city — it’s just that in many cases they’re only moving to a specific part of it: The high-density downtown. Thanks both to public and private sector investments, these built-up cores offer the amenities people think of when they imagine living in the city: The ability to walk to and from retail, easy access to public transit, and more.

The problem is that other sections of major cities provide few of those attractions. While Philadelphia and St. Louis may have once had vibrant, walkable neighborhoods throughout, too many of those communities have been degraded over time and now offer their residents almost nothing in terms of livability. Moreover, the physical form of these areas is frequently very similar to that of safer, sometimes less-expensive suburbs — which may explain why an exodus from many cities continues at the municipal level. You cannot beat the suburbs at their own game.

The message for planners is straight-forward: The most successful sections of America’s center cities are their downtowns, which feature high densities and a mix of uses. In order to restore growth in struggling cities, emphasizing public policies that encourage the extension and growth of such areas is the right move.

* Unlike, for instance, Columbus, Ohio or Raleigh, North Carolina, both of which gained significant population between 2000 and 2010, but mostly because each “city” includes areas that are not fully developed. Image above: Downtown St. Louis, from Flickr user camphellview13 (cc)

Update, 24 March: The New York Times has updated its mapping system, showing population change in American cities between 2000 and 2010. In the maps below taken from that site (all at the same scale), note the significant growth (shown in blue) in downtowns and decreases in population outside of them (in yellows and browns).

Baltimore San Francisco Bay Philadelphia
Washington Cleveland Twin Cities
Los Angeles Chicago St. Louis
64 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Danny

    I would posit that the difference between a city that is losing its core and a city that is gaining in its core is very simple: Sidewalks.

    I have just spent a few weekends walking around a few completely different cities. Guess what…the ones that had zero residential neighborhoods were the ones where the sidewalks were a place for utility companies to put their equipment or were a place for municipal plows to locate their unwanted snow.

    The cities where people live, with condos and apartments everywhere, were the places where the sidewalks were just as well designed and dignified as the roads…and sometimes more.

  • AlexB

    It seems like the future of vibrant downtowns will look nothing like the past. In the past, these were commercial cores, with people living nearby. Now, the jobs are leaving and these downtowns are becoming playgrounds for people who enjoy an urban lifestyle with cultural amenities. If there is any sort of geographic order to where the majority of people live and work, I’m not sure what it is anymore.

    Even if some people are choosing their location based on lifestyle, 95% are basing it on the cost of living/housing, crime, and the quality of nearby services – much more functional and mundane things. Having a museum and a theater nearby are only important for a small minority. For the majority, are they living in scattered subdivisions and office parks connected by highways and arterials, or is there a new geometry to this organization that isn’t or is rarely discussed?

    The talk of urban and suburban areas is non-applicable any more. The inner suburbs are so old and have seen so many different waves of people, they have more in common with most inner cities than they do with the exurbs. I think it’s a misnomer to call areas like Tyson’s Corner suburban, even though it’s designed for the car and is new. Downtowns themselves have lost so much density and jobs, the only thing that makes them different is their taller buildings, concentration of government services and cultural attractions. This post is really not about anything more than identifying a trend among a small subset of the population. A few thousand people moved into downtown St Louis in the last 10 years? Big deal. That’s not ever going to have much of an effect on anything. People are not en masse choosing a denser lifestyle based more on transit. Until that happens, I don’t really care about a handful of empty nesters and yuppies creating a slight illusion that land use trends in the US have changed based on some sort of cultural shift.

    • This may play out into what some call the “network city” ~ those locales that can create a local urban density and can also gain convenient transport links into the primary downtown are likely to be better positioned to benefit from spillover from downtown development than just any inner suburb that experiences local congestion without the walkability of urban organization and density and has bus access to downtown at best.

      If so, a key for a suburb of any sort is to get (1) that access, and (2) that urban density core ~ even if it is just a quarter square mile radius suburban village around a train station.

  • Austin’s a good anectdote. Downtown population skyrocketing, but most of the urban core census tracts actually lost population – see Austin Contrarian’s post here. Reason? NIMBYs infesting the core preventing both larger houses AND infill apartments – meaning that downtown has become the ONLY place we can get any increase in density here. If this trend continues unabated, it’s going to be a very weird look.

  • In St. Louis, the question becomes then how do you retain the increased population? The perspective widely shared amongst urbanists here is that the young come to enjoy the city but have to leave when it’s time for kids, since the city schools are just terrible. The empty nesters will come, but in trickles still, until the crime (or perception of crime – it varies greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood) improves. So it’s not just good planning, a variety of uses, and walkability; people have to be able to go about their day-to-day business as well.

  • David Keddie

    The greatest challenge to the development of public transportation is the decentralization of jobs away from downtown. How does a wheel and spoke rail and bus system provide mobility superior to the point-to-point convenience of the automobile?

  • BBnet3000

    Its “South of Market” in San Francisco, btw.

    While I don’t like to see jobs leaving downtown (hopefully they are staying in the cities themselves, but i doubt that), I definitely welcome the decline of the single-use CBD. Richer, multiuse downtowns will ultimately attract more people into the city and benefit the outlying neighborhoods.

    • Given San Francisco is a peninsula it is well suited for density. Commerical development projects are favoring mixed use downtown. Infill development from Market Street is extending southwards along the Third Street corridor.

      Caltrain electrification by 2014, Transbay Transit Center opening in 2017 and California HSR to the Transbay Transit Center opening by 2019-end are going to have huge tourism impact. Additionally, as SF adds more Muni light rail, anticipate the city adding 100,000 residents by 2025.

  • Amongst the states that I believe will have data released this week are Minnesota, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. So we’ll get to see how Atlanta, Louisville, and Minneapolis did, amongst others.

  • Leo

    I just visited some friends in Cleveland. One of them described the Cleveland downtown as being surrounded by a “donut of deadness”, where it’s nice on both sides but not in the ring itself.

    • Bob

      My recent experience in Cleveland (as a visitor) suggested that the west side (across the river — Ohio City, Tremont, etc.) is very nice and the Euclid corridor (to the SE?) is showing signs of significant improvement. The inner ring to the east appeared to be in significant decline.

      While large portions of Cleveland are clearly in decline the city has an urban fabric and infrastructure that many sunbelt cities envy.

  • Glen

    Clevelands infrastructure and downtown sized buildings appear to be a city of over 1 million people.. its true population size is some suburban Sunbelt towns.. even at its peak there was only 800,000.. It was classic urban density with lots of transit basically a city.. before the car boom and rush to the suburbs. The mindset is so different in the Midwest when it comes to living in dense urban cities.. this causes the population of the inner-city lower population and generally income and lower quality schools… which your yuppie sprawl types dislik hime

    • Drewski

      900k at peak (1950). County population is roughly 1.2+ mill, where it was in 1950, but 500k have left the county entirely. Regional population has been stagnant since 1980 census.

      Ohio has a long history of fights over school funding. Unlike Maryland, Florida, or Tennessee, where schools are typically a county function, Ohio school districts are legally considered to be municipalities. This is a major factor in the amazing differences between school districts, even in similar areas, which helps exacerbate and perpetuate urban failure in every corner of the state.

      Kasich has started an ugly experiment–school funding is being cut by 15% in the state budget; state money ranges from 5-70% of total district spending. Poor districts get to be turned over to charter operations, and Ohio charter schools do NOT attract educated professional parents. However, thanks to Gov Kasich, we’re about to see just how many otherwise-solid inner-suburban schools are about to go into receivership (state control), which will only speed the flow of residents and tax money.

      This is a major reason why Ohio has so many cities–not just Cleveland, but Dayton, Canton, Youngstown and others–where it’s all but impossible to envison any return to urban health. Foreclosure, tax liens, collapsing schools–we get no help from the state. None.

  • Federico

    I haven’t seen much discussion on household size as a factor, now or even back in 2000. To be sure, some areas of cities that declined undoubtedly lost population and employment by any measure; these types of areas (e.g. the south and west sides of Chicago) have long faced significant social problems and were more recently among the hardest hit in the real estate and foreclosure crisis. But many other non-downtown neighborhoods appear more vibrant than ever, with a greater level of household wealth and prosperity; it’s just happening with more of a fixed supply of housing than in downtowns (which, as previous posters have pointed out, have a greater tolerance for high densities) and fewer people to occupy it.

    On the flipside, at least two cities with notoriously high housing costs (NYC and SF) saw increases in population and, at least in San Francisco’s case, did not see massive amounts of new residential construction. Perhaps this is due in part to increasing household size through unmarried or unrelated persons living together as roommates to reduce personal housing costs.

    I agree with Yonah’s general direction, but I’m not sure that the answer to decline is always more density. It’s in finding a way to balance (and appropriately scale) public investment so that areas that are experiencing renewed vitality can keep it (regardless of the density of population or employment) and that areas that need a boost or need help in other ways get it.

    • Glen

      San Francisco had a lot of building construction over the last 10 years in many areas of the city..and not all at market rates. Its very popular to live in SF.. the naysayers of SF aside, There is not many empty run down building/sections of town and you can tell when the weekend is here as all the drive in types flood the streets with their cars and SUVs.The city has the energy and feel of what all big American cites had before the mid 1950s

    • FG

      You keep hearing talk in Chicago about how much of the decline is due to destruction of public housing and the forcing out of the poorest into suburban areas. I’m not sure how much of that is true however.

      Household size is important – one or two people in a dwelling built and occupied for years by three or more makes a huge change. Middle income fertility is low, hence declining populations is some areas with little household turnover. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Chicago….

  • CycleInstead

    The New 64 (highway expansion) eliminated many homes and destroyed walkability in St Louis. In some areas along 64, shops that were in easy walking distance became destinations that require autos. Stores that are only 500 feet away now requires driving 1.8 miles one way. Truly ugly now with more noise from semis, more air and light pollution, but who cares- – it allows quicker access to the ‘burbs.

    • CycleInstead, the New I-64 did remove some homes, but your comment about distance and walkability is false. If anything, the project made “minor” improvements in select areas. Regardless, the project end is 4 miles from downtown and had zero effect on the downtown population.

  • Eric

    Good article. I think an important issue with the renewed popularity of downtowns though is that low income people, who most need public services, get pushed out to the less accessible, less safe parts of the city, like the European model.

  • Chris L

    I’m a resident of Downtown LA. The difference here in even just the last couple years is amazing. New shops, new adaptive reuse projects, and new condo highrises. DTLA has to be one of the downtowns that was furthest gone, so the fact that its coming back now, and coming back so rapidly is a bellwether. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.

    • That’s right Downtown LA is bouncing back fast. Have to give a shout out to AEG for investing in LA LIVE and Staples Center. If they build the football stadium next, it will be off the chain.

      • Downtown Los Angeles is seriously going to be sick in the next few years. It already is, but with the new stadium, the new Wilshire grand, and the countless renovations, its going to be a nicely blended mixture of the past and a city of the future.

  • tom murphy

    So, if I read these #’s correctly, the population moved in two directions in these cities. Some moved closer to the center but more went in the opposite direction. Needs to be studied.
    There should now be vast areas(not core and not exurb) that emptied out. Identify those thinned-out areas close in to the core and invest in public transit and amenities. Have I got it right?

    • Wad

      Tom, those communities in the middle may not necessarily have been “emptied out,” as in vacated.

      Filtering in housing markets is very common. A neighborhood with its original inhabitants has older, smaller homes that are priced less than newer, larger homes.

      A lower-income community may move in and replace the residents who have moved out.

    • It happens in both cities and suburbs. The trend in some gentrifying city regions is that the inner suburbs’ populations are stagnant, while the exurbs’ are booming. New construction is relatively easy downtown, where city leaders welcome high-income condos, and in the exurbs, beyond the built-up area; it’s harder in NIMBY-strewn outer-urban and inner-suburban communities, and does not happen in declining inner-city ghettos.

      One big difference is that for the most part, said inner suburbs and outer-urban neighborhoods have never really depopulated, unlike the inner cities. For example, Westchester County’s population is growing at about 0.3% a year, even less than New York City, but it’s at its population peak, and even a not-nice inner suburb like Yonkers is near its historic 1970 peak. It’s not at all like the South Bronx.

  • eldondre

    in a lot of ways this is simply a return to the way downtowns were before the cities exploded in population and homes were torn down for offices. in Philadelphia, today’s office district was at one time the suburbs and commerce was crowded by the river. At any rate, poor city services is a huge factor working against the cities and depressing growth rates. If cities can fix or at least improve the schools and parks they will see more middle class people choosing to live there.

  • Probably cities should try to create more than one activity center, to get that pressure of downtown and spread more evenly throughout the city.

    Development encouraging families to live in the cities would probably a good idea as well. Kids and young families should be able to live in a city, and are a sign of a healthy one, just like certain rare bird species in some forests.

    With all the primary and secondary education talk these days, maybe the country should rethink they way it finances its school districts. Right now it seems that poor districts have poor schools; not the way to go.

  • Kevin

    How can you not mention Miami? It’s city population has grown from 362,000 in 2000 to 433,000 in 2009. Not to mention, Downtown Miami has grown dramatically with many new high-rises increasing Downtown’s population from 40,000 in 2000 to over 70,000 in 2009. If anything, it’s one of the most dramatic urbanization change in the U.S.

    • The Census 2010 data for Florida has not yet been released. Perhaps I will return to discuss Miami once it is!

    • Federico

      Miami came in lower than its estimate as well… it grew, but not by as much as the estimates were suggesting. I’ve made a couple of posts on this thread about possible reasons for the results that are coming out, although I suspect different factors may be at play in Miami– most notably, an extreme level of speculation and perceived investment opportunity driving the development of downtown housing as opposed to actual housing demand. One need only look at the scores of dark towers on the skyline at night to know that projections based on a level of development were highly unlikely to result in an actual growth in population on the same level.

  • Ted King

    Re : Cleveland – Possible typo – please morph Kilo to Tango as follows – s/census tracks/census tracts/ .

  • Sean

    AlexB, how can people choose a “lifestyle based on transit” when it is not available to a large extent in most cities?

  • laldm

    The funny thing is that, despite the statistics, Chicago feels like it’s growing pretty fast (or did, until the recession.) New construction is everywhere that is fashionable – primarily downtown and the north side. However, these areas make up only about a third of the city’s land area and maybe 40% of its population. These parts of the city are dense and transit-oriented and staying that way. The other 60% of the city feels like a neglected rust-belt city, however, with old infrastructure, substandard transit, and few neighborhood amenities and it is from those areas that the population is being lost. I think the demolition of public housing and the decanting of their populations to the suburbs and central Illinois is part of the reason, to an extent, but part of it is that even middle-income blacks are moving to the burbs because of lack of opportunities and lack of reasons to stay in their declining city neighborhoods. If you look at the statistics, an overwhelming majority of its population loss was blacks. The white population was fairly stable, and number of hispanics grew significantly, so that kind of suggests a generational ethnic preference right now for blacks to move to the burbs, having been trapped in inner-city neighborhoods for several generations, whereas whites are doing the opposite, spearheading the “back-to-the-city” movement. Obviously, this is grossly overgeneralizing, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

    • Adirondacker12800

      It’s just the normal cycle of immigrants being in the cheap neighborhoods when they first arrive and then moving to suburbs once they are established.

  • My interpretation of this, including the racial gaps, is that it’s just the beginning of the next phase of human living: rural, urban, suburban, and now gentrified-urban. Just as the richest regions and social groups were the first to urbanize in the 19th century and the first to suburbanize in the 20th century, now they’re the first to return to the city, giving it an upper-class flavor. That’s why we’re seeing New York City and San Francisco outgrow their suburbs, but not cities that suburbanized later, such as Atlanta. That’s also why blacks are still suburbanizing: they’re just suburbanizing later than whites did, reflecting lower incomes.

    Given a generation or two, more social groups than just the upper middle class will get bored with the single-use suburban form, romanticize the city as an alternative, and decamp to gentrified cities that look nothing like Jane Jacobs-style neighborhoods. To serve them, the government will build more LRT and HSR, with a large cost multiplier over rest-of-world costs, and the same steamrolling practices we’ve been accustomed to from the Interstate boondoggle. For a while, far-flung auto-dominated exurbs will keep growing, but eventually they’ll be as tapped out as the inner suburbs are today. Social inequality will be every bit as bad as it is today – and if it’s not, it will be for reasons other than the urban form – leading to the same school district inequality we see today.

  • Rob

    Downtown Los Angeles is reinventing itself. We are lucky because the working population during the day is 450,000 as opposed to a city like San Diego where 75,000 people work. Unlike San Francisco, there are still many buildings left to rehab and parking lots to fill with development. Though the recession slowed development, we should see more and more residents attracted to DTLA over the next decade as Santa Monica will finally be connected to the Central City via light rail.

  • Buckeyeman

    Perhaps what may eventually happen is that these downtowns that are growing the way they are will eventually need to speadd their surging populations out from their cores and into other inner city areas. One issue that does need to be dealt with is how to take care of lower income people to make sure that their needs for decent housing and services are met.

  • sacj

    I appreciate that in pure numbers, the Philly statistics look good, I think they actually point to a serious issue. That Center City is carrying the rest of the city by that much just means the rest of the city is continuing its decline. This sort of favored quarter development can’t be healthy in the long run.

    On the other side of the equation, Milwaukee has just come out with a 0.4% decrease in population, which, in the current environment, is actually in many ways a good sign. Despite major cuts in transit and quality of life services, the city has been committed to working on stabilizing the older, walkable, transit accessible inner-city neighborhoods outside of downtown, with a lot of success. I think this sort of focus has to be a lot more efficient in the long run than waiting for some spillover from multi-million downtown projects.

    • Jim

      Center City isn’t carrying the city. The largest population increase was in Oxford Circle (along with other big gains in neighborhoods in the northeast). There were also big gains in Fishtown and Northern Liberties. South Philly added about 8000 people. Actually, half of the census tracts in Philly gained population. They may have been small gains but they were gains nonetheless. It’s true that Center City is attracting the well heeled in large numbers but, as it is everywhere else in the country, the population stability/growth here is just as much driven by immigration.

  • Allen

    I’m curious what the source(s) are for the claims on increasing demand for housing in downtowns. I think it’s safe to say there is demand for housing downtown. But when we’re seeing condos unsold and auctioned off in downtowns like Minneapolis that have traditionally had a strong, large residential component, I have a hard time believe the demand is increasing.

    http://bit.ly/f0nHA9

    With property values plummeting and inventories of unsold homes piling up, real estate auctions have become a popular way for lenders to unload properties that have gone through foreclosure. This situation was different. The Skyscape units are new, and sales of condos in the building have been relatively steady since a partnership controlled by Twin Cities-based Opportunity Advisors acquired nearly 30 percent of the building’s 248 units early last year.

    Many existing Skyscape homeowners were furious about what the auction might do to the value of their units.

    “It’s already a struggling market, and this will by no means make it better,” said Andrew Branham, a Skyscape resident who didn’t go to the auction, but said he will closely monitor how the sales affect values.

  • Steve Strauss

    One missing piece of data is average household size. The folks moving back into urban areas tend to be singles, young couples with no children and empty nesters so all of those new buildings have smaller households than say an apartment building on West End Avenue in New York City had in 1963 or 1973. New York City differs from the norm of other U.S. cities in that it has families sticking around or returning in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

    • simple

      It will be good to see the more detailed demographic Census data, but at least in Chicago there are a heckuva lot of kids in the gentrified neighborhoods too — at least judging by who’s using the parks and playgrounds afterschool. Look in any South Loop, West Loop, Near North, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, etc. playground on a nice day and they’re just teeming with kids/parents/nannys… (and these aren’t Millennium Park tourists!)

  • Federico

    If Atlanta’s numbers are correct (and I agree with your twitter post that they’re most likely not), it would be another case to support your argument: detailed geography figures are not yet available, but Midtown and the eastern side of the Beltline corridor have added substantial residential population where there was previously no housing while (presumably) neighborhoods south of I-20 and west of Northside Drive have continued to empty out. It’s hard to look at all of the high-rise and mid-rise infill around the city and not have significant population gain, but then again the south and west neighborhoods have long been troubled with disinvestment and poverty and took a disproportionate hit in the mortgage crisis.

    I’m also beginning to wonder how public housing plays into things: the biggest disappointments nationwide appear to be in places that did most of their converting public housing stock to Section 8 and mixed-income through the 2000s (Chicago lost 200K; Cleveland lost 80K and is now below 400K total, probably removing it from the top 50). I’d put Atlanta in that category– AHA churned through dismantling much of its inventory in the last 10 years, undoubtedly resulting in significant resident displacement out of the city (and a unit replacement ratio far less than 1-to-1 if they did want to come back).

    Conversely, the biggest gainers in the census appear to be consolidated city-county governments and places that can annex easily. Not only are they more likely to see what is essentially new suburban development (and the larger households that tends to attract), many of them are also newer places without the same established levels of public housing tenancy to risk losing.

    • Drewski

      Cleveland didn’t “convert” public housing to Section 8 because Cleveland already had something like a 7 to 8 year waiting list for Section 8. The housing authority, CMHA, spent the 2000s rebuilding existing projects, which was a consequence of glacial to nonexistent maintenance. (CMHA was generally considered the worst-run housing authority in the US during at least part of the ’90s.) Partial demolition of 100-plus units at the Riverview estate, in Ohio City, was supposed to be followed by a Hope VI project: 100-120 housing authority units, plus 400 or more market-rate rental and sale units. Ohio City has dozens of acres of vacant land, yet the local NIMBYs managed to torpedo EVERY configuration of this project. (There is now a farm on the site of the demolished units, with a prime view of downtown, and there are no buildings because a spring on the site was buried decades ago. Instead of uncovering the spring, prime urban land goes fallow because it’s “unstable.” Seriously.) Had this project gone through, it could’ve made a major positive impact, but then there would be the question of how many of those units would be in foreclosure now.

      At the north end of Ohio City, there’s another housing project, Lakeview Terrace. Lakeview is historically significant, both for its architecture and because Eleanor Roosevelt came to town for the groundbreaking. Twenty years ago, a developer offered to buy the entire estate from the housing authority, plus pay for replacement scatter-site housing in new or renovated properties. The housing authority refused, allegedly based on the notion that it was racist and classist/elitist to sell off a housing project for gentrification. As I mentioned, CMHA was known at this time for being phenomenally mismanaged.

      I like your mention of consolidated governments. Nashville hasn’t just grown, it’s seen a significant amount of infill development. Sure, there’s been more sprawl, but the city has a clear vision of the need for denser, pedestrian/transit-friendly neighborhoods. There is action to achieve that vision. Nashville can afford it because it doesn’t have the distraction of fragmented government. In Cleveland, by contrast, a county with 450 square miles has something like 120 different units of government. There can’t be any focus when there are so many people insistent on maintaining their piece of turf. Where Cleveland and many other urban areas look for ways to move toward inconsistent consolidation of services, Nashville has been able to manage the continued existence of other incorporated cities within Metro because Metro provides virtually all services. It’s a county-based service model, much like that seen in Virginia or Maryland. Cleveland’s problems are reflected in every population center in Ohio, because Ohio law does virtually everything possible to discourage government consolidation. Ohio has been under GOP control for the last 20 years, and the whole GOP rant about less government would seem to result in a state more willing to align services to identifiable geographical units, rather than fixating on “local control” with huge inconsistencies in services. Nashville gets to become more urban, where Cleveland falls apart because every asset is burned up by parochialism and entrenched racism.

  • Jane

    What is interesting about New Haven, CT is that it is located in a state that for years saw nearly flat population growth.

    Should be noted that New Haven was not idle at all during the booming economy of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was engaged heavily in urban renewal as so many old industrial cities were.

  • Jonathan Parker

    The gains in places like central St. Louis and Baltimore are all that much more impressive considering the overall population loss of those cities as a whole. It makes one wonder what the gains would be if the metro areas were growing more rapidly (or at all).

  • DingDong

    “there is a strong and increasing interest in living downtown, whether in the winds of Chicago or the fog of San Francisco”

    Sorry, but I have to point it out: downtown (including SOMA) is one of the few neighborhoods that is NOT foggy.

  • francis

    Why are there no people in that picture? It’s almost kind of creepy.

  • Jonathan

    Restoring growth in large, declining cities such as Cleveland can’t be done by only increasing densities in downtown through “return to the city” efforts; a “stay in the city” approach is also needed. Population gains in and around downtown haven’t and won’t ever offset the huge exoduses occurring in large parts of these declining cities. Growing cities prevent sprawl (at the regional level) and/or attract immigrants to stabilize the entire city while their downtowns grow.

  • Brian

    I wonder how much topology of a metropolitan area matters to this observation. One of the characteristics that seems to separate – but not completely – is whether the metropolitan area is fairly flat and contiguous (no major bodies of water incising the metro area a la San Francisco Bay Area). I would think this would make building in greenfields and other undeveloped land more desirable.

  • Richard Wakeford

    Two things. First, from my studies I observed that the boundaries between cities and their suburbs are determined by political history – so, growth of Phila was stopped long before Cleveland’s annexation. So, care is needed in comparing cities without reference to where the boundaries sit within the overall SMSA. Second, looking forward, what will be the impact of higher gas prices on auto dependent outer suburbs. The inner rings may look increasingly economically attractive, enabling the new residentially driven downtowns to merge rather more easily into the areas around.

  • John

    Maybe you should include Columbus as an example as well rather than a counterexample? Downtown Columbus also experienced significant growth thanks to Mayor Coleman’s efforts to add housing units downtown.

  • Very neat Yonah. Question: do you have any thoughts about how this trend relates to cars and mobility patterns and level of performance: both internal circualtion, but aslo getting there, getting out, and, where it exists, vehicles making their way through the city to some other destination. Danny’s good point on sidewalks as an indicator of well-being is certainly an important part of this larger puzzle.

  • Tim

    I realize this is long but I had to say it. Some people have made interesting points, such as households were larger back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. There were both adults and several children in the home, now today that still exists, but it’s to a lesser degree. People are indeed returning to cities but many without kids -there may be one or two people occupying a unit as oppose to four or five people several decades ago. When this is practiced over much of the city, that weighs down the population of the city. Developers tend to build mostly studios, 1 bedroom, or 2 bedroom units in a building. Developers need to be required to build more 3 and 4 bedrooms units into their buildings. In other words, every, say, 7th unit must be a 3 bedroom, and every 10th unit must be a 4 bedroom. There are some buildings that are put up that are several stories tall, with very few 3 or 4 bedroom units included, if any. Developers want to sell smaller units at roughly high prices to increase profit margins, but they could care less about the effects this housing stock has on the city as a whole. That’s not their job. That’s when the city must step in and do what’s best for the city. Larger units, over time, will encourage people to stay in the city or move back into the city with their children as there will be a much larger supply of larger apartment units. Units this size are just as large as houses. This in turn means a price of a 3 or 4 bedroom could drop from what it currently costs to buy or rent one because there will be more of them. Someone also made a point about how Chicago’s Downtown and North Side were, well, glimmery and shiny, while the West Side and South Side felt like a rust belt city with older infrastructure. However, this doesn’t has a big effect on the population drop, I’ll tell you why. If that were a description of the entire city itself, maybe. But that is not descriptive of the Downtown and North/Northwest Sides of Chicago, and indeed not all of the South Side which has several upscale parts. Older areas on the West or South Side of Chicago are no different than the large older run-down areas and infrastructure of New York City in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. And look at Los Angeles’ South Central, practically devastating; the palm trees and weather just make it look better. But yet these two cities, NY and LA, continue to grow in population. The fact is, there are many aspects that determine whether a city will lose or gain population. Here are some observations: Chicago has all the amenities that NYC or LA offer; in fact they are the three American cities where everything can be found. Chicago also costs significantly less cost than NY or L.A., that’s a huge plus. So why did Chicago just experience a drop in population and they grew? Well, first, number of people living in a unit definitely plays a part of it as previously mentioned. Many people wanting to return to the city are coming in as one or two people, not as many families as decades before. And second, land area. This observation kind of escapes many people. L.A. is 464 square miles; INSANELY large in area. NY is 300 square miles, not that small, but not as large as L.A. Chicago, although sizeable in land, is at 225 square miles. These other cities simply have more land to develop. If I as a buyer or renter find a nice and appealing place 12 miles from the downtown area or another happening part of the city, and decided to buy or rent there, chances are in Chicago that will put me OUTSIDE the city limits. In L.A. or New York, that SAME distance will still have me inside the city limits. So at census time, I get counted towards the metro population in Chicago, but I get counted towards both the city and metro population of L.A. or NY. Land size does play a part of a cities recorded growth or drop in population at census time. Look at Houston, a whopping 600 square miles. If someone doesn’t want to live near central Houston for whatever reason, crowds or housing stock not to their liking, and they move a whopping 20 miles away where they like it, they could still conceivably be within Houston. In Chicago, 20 miles to get away from crowds or put you into different housing stock than the core, will automatically place you in the suburbs, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Notice all the cities listed above that had gained population were varied, large and small cities in land area. But all the ones that lost popluation were all small in land area when compared to NY, L.A., Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Jacksonville, etc. In this instance, size does matter. Third, weather. Chicago’s weather isn’t as bad as some people try to make it out to be. It’s no different than most of our country experiences from Maine to Colorado. But lets face it, Los Angele’s nice year-round weather makes people flock there. L.A. has many things wrong with it and it has many problems, but the weather does helps people overlook it or accept it easier. Look at the massive illegal immigration problem in the city; the high cost of living; private beaches and oceanfront that the average person isn’t allowed to go to, rich people allowed on this beach only; the rolling blackouts; the earthquakes; the shaky race relations -all that overlooked due to the city’s beautiful weather and charming mountains. If Chicago or New York had THAT many problems, they would be losing population by the droves, because they don’t have the beautiful weather to take your mind off of it. And this is coming from someone who loves L.A. Fourth, alderman power. This seems to squeak by so many people’s radar. The fact is Chicago’s alderman hold too much power, pure and simple. They can kill a project with a stroke of a pen. Chicago easily builds high rises and tall buildings in its downtown / central core, but the NIMBYs virtually keep this from happening in the city outside of downtown. Whenever a developer wants to put up a 15, 20, or 30 story building outside of downtown, the NIMBYs fly out in full force. They give that ward’s particular alderman a hard time. The alderman, afraid of not being voted back into office next election, ends up telling the developer no. Or the alderman (with the community’s push and backing) put the developer through so much red tape and hurdles in the early planning stages of the project, that the developer eventually just walks away and doesn’t build the project -which is what the NIMBYs wanted in the first place. The power to kill a project like that needs to be taken out of the hands of aldermen. Instead of the developers having to go over a trillion hurdles from the alderman and the neighborhood and listing a thousand reasons why a project SHOULD be built, I say that the projects should be automatically approved from inception and that the alderman and community needs to jump through reasonable hurdles and list valid reasons why a project SHOULD NOT be built. Taking this out of aldermen hands means aldermen do not have to worry about angry voters at election time because they had no power to stop it. The alderman should only have a say in things like the available parking that will be provided for the building; or the design of the building, such as will it directly afront the sidewalk or will it be set back and have a small plaza area in front. And if the developer wants to go higher than the space is zoned for, then the developer should have to go to the city’s planning commission for approval. The planning commission will make a decision on if additional height is allowed after hearing all the arguments for and against and taking the alderman’s consideration into account -whether for or against additional height, but not necessarily siding with the alderman if a bigger and better project is warranted. And if the developer is denied additional height, well they are still free to make a structure within zoning laws -8, 15, 20, or 40 stories, whatever the case may be. This is how NY continues to add population. It doesn’t have the weather to compete with Los Angeles, so it squeezes in tall buildings wherever it can in Manhattan, and the city stills needs to hear a reason NOT to build a tall building outside of Manhattan, not a reason TO build one. Chicago is working the opposite, tall buildings need to be justified outside of the central area, and for NIMBYs, there is no justification. Chicago is going to have to undertake the approach it will rarely listen to NIMBYs and if you don’t like tall buildings, then don’t move to a city with tall buildings! Hopefully the new mayor Rahm Emmanuel will ring in some of the power these aldermen have and set the city on the course of growth. The latest census data shows the city has grown in population since 2010. I have traveled around quite a bit and Chicago is one of the world’s great cities. It baffles me how the alderman can kill high rise buildings in their ward all around the city (except downtown), and the previous mayors have let them do it, then everyone acts dumbfounded after the census is taken every 10 years and Chicago has lost population. Hello! for every action there’s a reaction!

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by Yonah Freemark

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