» 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:
- Baltimore‘s downtown residential population has grown by 11.6% since 2006 and now provides living space for more than 40,000 people.
- Chicago‘s Loop saw a 76% increase in inhabitants since 2000 and the Near South Side more than doubled in population over the same period (even as the number of jobs downtown declined by 60,000).
- Cleveland‘s most central census tracts
trackseach gained 20% or more in population between 2000 and 2010.
- St. Louis‘ central neighborhoods gained several thousand people in total. (Update: A new post from NextSTL provides more insight into changes in the city.)
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
Missiondistrict, 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).
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