Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cities losing out? I think not

Perhaps you've recently seen articles with early reports of census results, some of which show that suburbs continue to grow at a faster pace than inner cities. I've yet to find the statistics, but I think it's a bit premature to say that Americans are not moving back to urban cores just because the population figures don't show it. Besides the obvious reason, that suburbs have a lot more capacity than cities to expand, these census reports ignore the details of what kind of growth is occurring among which demographic. In reality, one cannot ignore the renewed interest cities are getting among the media, film, and young people desperate for interesting living environments. 

These reports ignore the likely population shifts happening in cities as a result of gentrification. For example, a low income multi-unit townhouse being bought out and converted to a single family home. Within one restoration, a building such as this can go from being occupied by several people to as little as one. A few dozen, or hundreds of such situations, and of course the population of the neighborhood goes down. A bad thing? Not necessarily. Gentrification can be a powerful force in revitalizing neighborhoods, especially if it results in greater diversity among inhabitants. A mixed use, mixed income neighborhood is the social ideal. I hope the young professionals who have been rehabilitating American cities find the experience to be what they'd hoped, and will continue to preach the benefits of city life.

Other reports are suggesting that college graduates are not flocking to trendy urban coastal cities such as San Francisco, New York, or Seattle but in fact to sun belt cities such as Austin or indeed to suburbs of unremarkable cities. Now, I think that's a pretty broad assessment. A lot of young Americans these days are getting college degrees, across the complete spectrum of the nation. To base any conclusions from such a simple generalization doesn't really say anything, not to mention it ignores the simple fact that young graduates gravitate towards jobs, not necessarily where they want to live. And as long as "bigger is better" prevails, there will be a certain reluctance to live in a small apartment when for the same price one can live in a large house in the suburbs. What I'm interested in is not where graduates are going, but where are the best graduates going? Not just the fancy public administration degrees, but the Harvard, Yale, and Columbia graduates? Young lawyers, bankers, and MBA's? In my opinion that would give a far better indication of the desires of the future generation of leaders. 

1770's Charleston mansion
I don't think I'm crazy for believing that most people, given the choice, would still prefer to live somewhere interesting, somewhere they know their neighbors and can choose among a host of residential options. A beautiful home in a charming part of town. Please, don't tell me a suburban McMansion or cookie-cutter home is beautiful. It isn't. A townhouse in Savannah or brownstone in Brooklyn, they are. Any day of any season. I would be disappointed in any individual who would look at them and still maintain that suburbs are a more pleasant living environment. Having lived in the suburbs for most of my life and recently in the city, I'm stumped by how often the convenience of a car is cited as a reason for living in the suburbs, sometimes above all other criteria. Beauty, however, is almost never cited as a deciding factor, if it is considered at all. I ask that homeowners do consider it, and choose to live somewhere truly special. Cities like Charleston are not just possible as a weekend getaway, but wholly possible to be a reality throughout the nation, if only there was the will.