Last month I wrote about how well-educated members of the millennial generation are moving in large numbers to the central cities, and how places like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and St. Louis are seeing dramatic increases in the number of college-educated 25 to 34 year olds.
There is no question that this is changing cities in some ways, but to me, the real question—which is where I ended last month—is whether it is just about downtown lofts, tapas bars and fitness centers, or are we seeing a fundamental change in the trajectory of American cities?
So far, with a few exceptions or outliers, not many people other than the millennials are marching to the cities. Urban in-migration drops dramatically as people get into their 30s, and keeps dropping with age. While the aging of the baby boomers is still unfolding, I have yet to hear a compelling argument why their housing choices as they grow older should be all that different from those of prior generations; a 2010 AARP survey found that nearly 3 out of 4 respondents aged 50 to 64 strongly agreed with the statement “what I’d really like to do is stay in my current residence as long as possible.”
Instead, as I read much of what is being written about demographic change and urban revival, I see a lot of urbanist wishful thinking, along the same lines as the scenarios some pundits paint of exurban McMansions turning into slums and squatter colonies, as their former residents flee the suburbs for the cities like the residents of Pompeii fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius. Is it possible? Yes, but the evidence is not there.
The other question is whether millennials will stay in the cities as they move into marriage and child-rearing—as most will—and the appeal of all those bars and restaurants down the block begins to pall. If, as preference surveys show, most will ultimately look for a single-family house in which to raise their children, will they opt for a Philadelphia row house or a St. Louis Victorian, or will they move to the suburbs?
It will be a while before we have a clear picture, but there is little evidence to point to a long-term millennial commitment to cities as a place to remain, settle down and raise families. Joel Kotkin not unreasonably chastises writers who, with little or no evidence to back them up, confidently assume that they will do so. While the jury is still out, there is no compelling evidence of anything resembling the fundamental shift in values and attitudes on the part of millennials that would lead to most of them behaving that differently from earlier generations, and—to the extent that their means permit—buying suburban houses in which to raise their children, and, as often as not, commuting to work in the city in their Priuses.
Either way, though, what impact is this likely to have on the rest of the city? It’s a complicated question with a complicated answer, but if we think of cities not just as downtowns and a few nearby millennial playgrounds, but as the entire area within the city’s boundaries, the answer is often less than meets the eye. In most cases, most parts of most cities are not affected much by the changes taking place. Downtowns may be blooming, but little of that change is trickling down to the rest of the city; as Aaron Renn, one of my favorite bloggers, writes, “the creative class doesn’t have much in the way of coattails.”
There may be a handful of exceptions. In a few cities, like Washington, San Francisco, and perhaps Boston, the strength of the regional economy and the growing demand for urban living—not necessarily limited to the millennial generation – may be reaching levels where neighborhoods some distance from downtown or the major universities are being gentrified, and lower income families are finding it harder and harder to stay in the city. In most American cities, like Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, this is not happening. Instead, the thriving pockets and the rest of these cities almost seem to exist in parallel universes, one thriving and growing, the other still shrinking and declining, and the gap between the two steadily widening. Is this these cities’ future, or is today’s march of the millennials a harbinger of more far-reaching change?
While growth in college-educated twentysomethings can change a few areas, it will take far more to change entire cities. Under either scenario, though—the San Francisco one or the Baltimore one—what happens to the people who are not young, single, well-educated and (usually) white and to the neighborhoods where they live? The problem may be one of displacement in Washington or New York, or one of continued neighborhood decline and lack of opportunity in St. Louis or Cincinnati, but either way there’s not much evidence that lower income communities and people of color are sharing in whatever new investment, growth and opportunity is coming into the cities, or will as either scenario continues to unfold.
I enjoy my grande skinny latte as much as the next guy, but this is not an urban future that I find either just or appealing. Yes, cities should be places where aging baby boomers want to live, and where millennials will want to raise their children, but that is not the answer. The real challenge is how to think differently about what a city needs to be, and how we can build the kind of cities that work for everybody.
(Photo by Jasperdo CC BY-NC-ND)