In recent decades, an increasing proportion of the population of the United States has chosen to live in and near cities rather than in rural areas.
According to the Census Bureau from 2000 to 2010, the population in urban areas expanded by 12 percent, significantly outpacing the overall growth rate in the nation.
The urban area population, defined by the Census Bureau as those living in areas with at least 2,500 people, comprises more than 80 percent of the U.S. total population (as of 2010), and the proportion continues to rise. For some historical context, only a little over 50 percent of the nation’s population lived in urban areas in the 1920s, with 70 percent in the 1960s.
While the trend toward a more urban population has been ongoing for decades, most of the growth from the time of the widespread adoption of air conditioning in homes and cars until very recently has occurred outside of the areas traditionally viewed as downtown or the center city, although that is often what the term “urban” brings to mind.
The areas of early cities now recognized as downtowns were at one point virtually the entirety of a city, with a mix of residential, commercial, industrial, governmental, cultural, and religious buildings. Once cities began to grow and expand, however, specialized districts for residential, manufacturing, and other uses developed outside the original city center, leaving downtowns to become specialized commercial districts. In most cities, the population living in city centers shrank, and downtowns soon only housed the poor and working classes which could not afford to live in the new residential suburban neighborhoods.
Following World War II, mass produced housing increased the outflow to suburbs as families looked for more space to accommodate the “Baby Boomer” generation. In addition, the beginning widespread use of automobiles and the subsequent high-speed highways started to create new suburban centers offering housing, employment, retail, and entertainment. These new developments bled commercial business out of downtowns, which began to fall into decay.
Early “urban renewal” efforts, mostly sponsored by the federal government, fought against declining interest in downtowns but often led to the destruction of historic buildings in favor of new office and retail buildings. While these efforts had mixed success, they often hurt the character and culture of downtowns. Furthermore, these initial efforts to attract business back into the area were often insufficient to generate an adequate consumer base. Even if a downtown had attractive cultural or entertainment venues, consumers would come to the area for one purpose and depart once it was completed.
More recent movements for downtown revitalization have been led by private developers or public-private partnerships and have tried to take advantage of abandoned buildings and lower real estate values. Developers are now seeking to create communities where consumers can live, work, and play all in one location, resulting in revitalization efforts that are increasingly entertainment and housing driven. As the American population continues to grow more diverse, there is a greater demand for non-traditional housing such as condos and apartments with amenities. One survey performed by the American Planning Association found that less than ten percent of millennials and active baby boomers preferred to live in the traditional, auto-dependent suburb. The surge of downtown housing has been a major game changer for many communities.
There are numerous characteristics of downtowns that can make these areas an attractive place to live. Americans are increasingly drawn to communities where they can feel connected and that have easy access to amenities, convenient transportation options, and aesthetically pleasing public spaces. Since downtowns are mostly compact and dense by nature, they offer a walkable community for residents to enjoy. According to analysis by the Brookings Institute, people only want to walk up to 1500 feet before seeking another form of transportation. Walkable communities, or even areas with efficient public transportation, offer a convenience that can attract consumers to the area, whether to live or to spend an extended period of time. With increased traffic congestion in major cities, a downtown that is walkable and can be accessed with public transportation provides an attractive destination. Further investments in enjoyable public spaces, including parks and streetscape elements like crosswalks and bike lanes, also aid in building the local character and desirability of an area.
In order for any downtown revitalization effort to be successful, positive momentum must be created that can draw further development into the area. Downtown residents provide steady demand for the nearby businesses, which not only supports sustainable commerce but also provides a sense that something is “happening” in a downtown. Downtown areas, as opposed to the suburbs where space is desired, typically follow the mantra more is better. The more activity that happens in a downtown, both business and leisure, the more people will want to live, work, play, and interact there. The more people are drawn to an area, the more businesses will want to locate there, providing a “virtuous” cycle to maintain and increase economic development.
While earlier efforts sought to replace historic elements of downtowns in the pursuit of bringing life back to these communities, current revitalization projects are seeking out the unique aspects of these city centers in order to foster a unique identity and character that can set a community apart and, in many instances, amplify its heritage. Through efforts of many public-private partnerships, cities and developers are bringing culture and activity back to the long forgotten areas of American downtowns, restoring their purpose as a true city center.