Young at Heart: Finding The Key Demographic Needed To Revitalize America's Inner Cities

Economist Joe Cortright and Carol Coletta, host of Smart City Radio and CEO of CEOs for Cities, outline findings in their recent report, "The Young and the Restless in a Knowledge Economy". Just how important are young people to the revitalization of inner cities, or more precisely defined "close-in neighborhoods"? What can cities do to capitalize on demographic opportunities and stay competitive?

 Joe Cortright Carol Coletta

One of the burning questions about the future of the American city is who will lead the revitalization of urban neighborhoods. In our recent study, "The Young and the Restless in a Knowledge Economy," we think we've uncovered a big part of the answer: today's young adults. In the past decade alone, the relative preference of young adults for central city living has increased dramatically. Compared to other Americans, 25- to 34-year-olds are now 34 percent more likely to live in "close-in" neighborhoods, up from about 12 percent a decade ago.

Close-in neighborhoods are those neighborhoods within three miles of the central business district of a metropolitan area. This three-mile circle generally corresponds to the commercial heart and densest neighborhoods in each city. In the top 50 metropolitan areas, the median population of these close-in neighborhoods is 150,000.

To understand the role age plays in neighborhood selection, we looked at the relative concentrations of young adults compared to all other citizens within three miles of the center of each metropolitan area and found that young adults were about 34 percent more likely than other metropolitan residents to live in close-in neighborhoods.

This represents a huge increase in the relative attractiveness of central neighborhoods to young adults during the 1990s. In 1980, in the aggregate, 25- to 34-year-olds were about 10 percent more likely than other Americans to live in a close-in neighborhood, and in 1990, 12 percent more likely. But by 2000, they were 34 percent more likely to live in these close-in neighborhoods. And this trend was pervasive. Between 1990 and 2000, the relative likelihood that a 25- to 34-year-old would live close-in (within the three-mile circle) increased in every single one of the top 50 metro areas.

It is plain to see that young adults tend to be disproportionately located in the center of metropolitan areas and that this pattern has intensified over the past decade.

Strikingly, there is substantial evidence linking a metropolitan area's overall level of education and the attractiveness of its close-in neighborhoods to well-educated young adults. Simply put, the metropolitan areas with the highest levels of educational attainment are chiefly those with the highest rates of young adult college attainment in their close-in neighborhoods -- cities attractive to young people, like Seattle, Boston, Chicago, and New York.

This is very good news for cities. In today's Knowledge Economy -- where prosperity hinges on the ability to invent new ideas -- cities must be magnets for these well-educated young workers. The creativity and talent inherent in a city's workforce will shape its economic opportunities. And with labor shortages looming as boomers retire, educational attainment levels flatten, and women's workforce participation rates level off, a city's ability to develop, attract, and retain young talent can mean the difference between economic success and failure.

Improving the close-in neighborhoods to which young people are already attracted is clearly one key to enticing educated young workers to come and stay. What makes close-in neighborhoods appealing? In focus groups we conducted in seven U.S. cities, we found strong preferences among young adults for dense, vibrant neighborhoods served by transit with mixed uses and active street life. They want neighborhoods where they can "stumble on the fun," as one young man put it, and find other young people like themselves, with plenty of options for things to do and people to meet.

Those cities that build the most vibrant close-in urban neighborhoods will be the ones that are most successful in attracting the most talented young workers -- an essential step for cities and regions wishing to remain competitive in today's Knowledge Economy.

Joe Cortright, an economist with Impresa, Inc., is the author of "The Young and Restless in a Knowledge Economy", published by CEOs for Cities.

Carol Coletta is president and CEO of CEOs for Cities. This report is available here (740 KB PDF file).




This isn't particularly pathbreaking. Center cities, for the most part, have been abandoned. The people that find urban living attractive are excited by opportunities. Such people can be creative along the lines of the Florida creative class thesis. Or they can be incredibly entrepreneurial and motivated, but not necessarily creative in the same way, such as immigrants who as a group (and individually) often achieve critical mass and generate incredble revitalization energy.

Once a good deal of the safety objectives have been met, center cities are also attractive to older people who are afficionados of arts and culture, and the plethora of venues, museums, etc., that are offered in the city but not the suburbs. These kinds of issues are discussed in great length throughout my blog. A number of recent entries have concerned "loft living" in places like Detroit and Hartford, and are directly relevant.

Of course, this would represent the same center city at a different state of revitalization -- transitioning rather than emerging.

Persuasive and Decisive Research

This is the most thorough research on the demographic that are doing so much to divide America's cities into the winners and losers. The report puts meat on the bones of anecdotal information and corrects conventional wisdom, and it's an asset to those of us who care about our cities. Thanks for the direction and the clarity, which is so helpful in shaping public policy.

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