Comeback Cities


The Brookings Institution is out with its encyclopedic report, The State of Metropolitan America, which details recent trends in population, income, education, etc. in the nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas. The report documents something that has been apparent now – at least anecdotally – for several years, which is that America’s cities (some of them, anyway) are in the midst of a renaissance.

Across the country, two-thirds of the primary cities in the top 100 metro areas gained population between 2000 to 2008, with the trend toward city living accelerating following the housing crash. In cities such as Philadelphia, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland, Oregon, population is growing nearly as fast in the central city as it is in the suburbs, while in Atlanta, it’s actually growing faster. The long-term trend of “white flight” from central cities has been reversed in cities like Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

That’s all good news. We need vibrant, livable cities if we are going to reduce our need for cars and the oil consumption and pollution that come with them. (Indeed, Brookings also notes that the share of people commuting via transit has increased, and the share of people driving alone to work decreased, during the 2000s for the first time since World War II.)

But it also raises some important questions. The first is how we create more of the high-quality urban spaces that are so obviously in high demand. Transit-oriented development (highlighted in our recent report in Maryland) is one option. But so too is finding ways to reinvent and reclaim urban areas that have been on the wane. My own home town of Pittsburgh, which has been losing population for decades, is one of many with room to grow.

The other major issue is where the urban renaissance leaves the suburbs. The Brookings report notes that America’s suburbs are poorer, older and more diverse, on average, than previously. There are, of course, many types of suburbs – from traditional neighborhoods in older inner-ring suburbs to sprawling McMansionvilles on the extreme suburban fringe – all with different challenges. Bringing a little bit of the city to the suburbs in the form of quality mixed-use developments, or bringing the suburbs a little closer to the city through improvements in public transportation, are among the options not only for addressing transportation and environmental challenges, but also for making the suburbs better places to live.

The Brookings report provides a lot of information to chew on. Let’s hope that it continues to break down the stereotypes and pre-conceived notions about America’s cities and where they’re headed in the 21st century.