posted on September 07, 2010 12:36
Editor's Note: This week we are fortunate to have our first guest blog from a staff member of the National Trust Main Street Center (NTMSC), and its none other than the NTMSC's Grand Poobah himself (not his actual title), Doug Loescher. Doug is taking the opportunity to share with readers of our blog a sneak peak of his upcoming Director's Column in Main Street Now. Enjoy!
Doug Loescher, Director
National Trust Main Street Center
People’s preferences have changed. Suburbs are “out”… a relic of an automobile culture where high-speed auto access defined every transition of our day-to-day life, (from home-to-school-to-work-to-stores, and back), and was accomplished on four wheels in a climate-controlled environment. No more. Cities are “in”, right? Everyone wants to “live-where-you-work”, and walk to shops, entertainment and – in general – all the best things in life. That’s the great promise of the “back-to-the-city” movement. Except it didn’t happen the way we predicted.
According to Joel Kotkin, author of the “New Geography”, the great migration back to the city hasn't occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased! Contrary to predictions of people like “Creative Class” guru Richard Florida and respected organizations like Urban Land Institute, Kotkin thinks “this movement has crashed”, and “Downtown areas, stuffed with new condos, have suffered some of the worst housing busts in the nation”.
What’s behind this story? Again, Kotkin thinks that the “experts” opinions simply have not matched people's stated preferences. It turns out that virtually every survey of opinion, including one by Smart Growth America, found that roughly 13% of Americans prefer to live in an urban environment while 33% prefer suburbs, and another 18% like exurbs. (I guess the other 36% live somewhere else or have no preference at all!) Apparently, these patterns have not really changed over the last several decades.
So is “Back-to-the-City” an urban myth? And what does this mean for our downtowns? I find Kotkin’s challenge of popular thinking refreshing, and it is certainly time to take a hard look at the numbers behind the story. But whether people are flooding back to the cities – or not – misses the point that we really should be making. From my point of view, I see three things:
1. The “city vs. suburb” dichotomy is dated, and not very useful to understand or describe the current conditions or future trends in our communities. We have plenty of hard data – and anecdotal evidence – that our downtowns are on a long, sustained march back to vitality. Our annual Main Street Reinvestment Statistics, (check the latest online at mainsteet.org), demonstrate that persuasively. With $49 billion channeled back into our downtowns, that has generated $27 dollars in each community for every dollar used to operate the local Main Street program. Not too shabby.
2. The current economic climate has skewed the data used by these analysts to identify trends. Yes, downtown real estate (commercial and residential) is suffering right now. But the pain of the downturn is being felt pretty uniformly, and some sprawled-out urban areas have some of the worst vacancy rates in the country.
3. Main Street’s future is mixed… and that’s a good thing. Downtown and neighborhood center vitality is not solely dependent on whether “back-to-the-city” residents will transform our districts. As we’ve long said, our fate will be determined by a mix of uses and community priorities for commerce, entrepreneurship, arts and leisure, civic institutions, transportation, and yes… housing. That mix always has – and always will – keep us diversified, and able to sustain through economic downturns.
So rather than debate a limited-pie scenario, where we “steal” prosperity from our neighborhoods, Main Street demonstrates a different way of looking at community development, where revitalization can create more and better choices for live/work locations and sustainable development.