April 8, 2014

The revitalization of American central cities: fact or fiction?

We're grateful to our smart and thoughtful readers for pointing out our errors in assembling these data. We've posted amended text, charts, and conclusions immediately below. The original post appears at the bottom for those who wish to compare the changes. Our apologies. 

Despite the damage wrought by the mortgage crisis of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession, the general narrative has been that an increasing number of young, educated, and (largely) white people are moving back into urban neighborhoods, bringing their tastes, lifestyles, and salaries along with them. Cities as diverse as Los Angeles, DC, Houston, Atlanta, Seattle, and Detroit are in the process of building or planning new rail transport, while formerly blighted urban neighborhoods are seeing new investment, rising property values, and increasing numbers of white, educated residents.

Respectively called revitalization or gentrification, this trend is fraught with contention between those who applaud these changes, and those who see them as harmful to the older residents of the affected neighborhoods.

But is this narrative driven by a handful of hipsters in Brooklyn and San Francisco or by urban revitalization trends in multiple places?

To figure that out, we examined a few indicators of demographic change for a group of 10 mid- to large-sized cities in 2000 and 2012. We selected the cities based on their reputations for being vital or attractive places and for their geographic diversity.  A few—Austin for example—has drawn job seekers through a strong economy and thriving cultural scene.  Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is often seen as a strong example of economic revitalization in the rust belt. While they do not represent the country as a whole, these cities do provide a starting point for a discussion.

What we found was that, despite the popularity of the revitalization narrative, the city-level indicators presented here provide mixed evidence that gentrification on the neighborhood level is affecting demographics in these cities overall.

Pop

The number of people in the “hipster” or “young professional” age group of 20 to 35 has increased  in all 10 selected cities, although not as much as we may be inclined to believe. Charlotte and Washington, D.C. have seen the highest levels of growth, with increases of 27.5% and 20.3% respectively in the 20-35 cohort.

Both of these cities have relatively resilient economies based on large government, academic, and commercial employers. However, other economic draw locations such as Atlanta and Denver have seen increases by relatively modest 5.4% and 7.8% respectively.

The college-educated population in cities is going upBA The broad increase in the number of college-educated people in these cities lends some support to the notion that “professionals” are moving into (or staying in) cities. If this is true, they could be pushing out other residents at a higher rate due to increased housing costs and a demand for more living space. While the sheer numbers of college-educated people are increasing, they continue to represent a minority in cities.

Are more families with children living in cities? Families Key to the discussion of neighborhood change and sustainability is the number of families with children choosing to live in central cities. While table 3 does show a decline in the number of families with children in half the selected cities, the other half shows growth, including a remarkable 21.5 percent increase in Austin and 38.3 percent in Charlotte. 

However, this indicator on its own does not point to educated families choosing the city. In their recent article, William Sander and William A. Testa found that, despite a relatively high number of parents with school-aged kids living in the central cities, college-educated parents overwhelmingly choose the suburbs.

Gentrification isn’t the only trend shaping cities

We know that revitalization is happening in the neighborhoods of many American cities. But what the numbers here tell us is that gentrification is not the only change these cities are seeing, and in many cases, may not be the dominant trend, even in healthy cities.

In any case, population increases, decreases, and compositional changes are likely to have important implications for neighborhood amenities and community institutions. It may be that increases in college-educated residents result in increasing demands for better or different educational opportunities for children in central cities or that quality schools encourage college-educated residents to settle down in central cities. _____________________________________________________________________________________

Thanks to the sharp eye of one of our readers, we've become aware of a technical error in our calculations for this post.  We are updating the numbers now, and some of the conclusions will change.  An updated version of this post appears above.

Despite the damage wrought by the mortgage crisis of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession, the general narrative has been that an increasing number of young, educated, and (largely) white people are moving back into urban neighborhoods, bringing their tastes, lifestyles, and salaries along with them. Cities as diverse as Los Angeles, DC, Houston, Atlanta, Seattle, and Detroit are in the process of building or planning new rail transport, while formerly blighted urban neighborhoods are seeing new investment, rising property values, and increasing numbers of white, educated residents.

This trend, whether it’s known as revitalization or gentrification, is fraught with contention between those who applaud these changes, and those who see them as harmful to the older residents of the affected neighborhoods.

But is this narrative driven by a handful of hipsters in Brooklyn and San Francisco or by urban revitalization trends in multiple places?

To figure that out, we examined a few indicators of demographic change for a group of 10 mid- to large-sized cities in 2000 and 2012. We selected the cities based on their reputations for being vital or attractive places and for their geographic diversity.  A few—Austin for example—has drawn job seekers through a strong economy and thriving cultural scene.  Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is often seen as a strong example of economic revitalization in the rust belt. While they do not represent the country as a whole, these cities do provide a starting point for a discussion.

What we found was that, despite the popularity of the revitalization narrative, the city-level indicators presented here provide little evidence that gentrification on the neighborhood level is affecting demographics in these cities overall.

More young adults are moving out than moving in

Population Surprisingly, the number of people in the “hipster” or “young professional” age group of 20 to 35 has declined in 8 of the 10 selected cities. While some young people certainly are moving into urban neighborhoods, more are leaving. They may be moving to the generally more affordable suburbs or farther afield.

Cities that have seen growth in this cohort—Washington, DC, and Charlotte—both have relatively resilient economies based on large government, academic, and commercial employers. However, the population of young professionals in Austin, another economic draw location, has declined.

The college-educated population in cities is going up

Education The broad increase in the number of college-educated people in these cities lends some support to the notion that “professionals” are moving into (or staying in) cities. If this is true, they could be pushing out other residents at a higher rate due to increased housing costs and a demand for more living space, accounting for the overall decline in young adults. While the sheer numbers of college-educated people are increasing, they continue to represent a minority in cities.

Are more families with children living in cities?

Families

Key to the discussion of neighborhood change and sustainability is the number of families with children choosing to live in central cities. While table 3 does show a decline in the number of families with children in half the selected cities, the other half shows growth, including a remarkable 21.5 percent increase in Austin and 38.3 percent in Charlotte.

However, this indicator on its own does not point to educated families choosing the city. In their recent article, William Sander and William A. Testa found that, despite a relatively high number of parents with school-aged kids living in the central cities, college-educated parents overwhelmingly choose the suburbs.

Gentrification isn’t the only trend shaping cities

We know that revitalization is happening in the neighborhoods of many American cities. But what the numbers here tell us is that gentrification is not the only change these cities are seeing, and in many cases, may not be the dominant trend, even in healthy cities.

In any case, population increases, decreases, and compositional changes are likely to have important implications for neighborhood amenities and community institutions. It may be that increases in college-educated residents result in increasing demands for better or different educational opportunities for children in central cities or that quality schools encourage college-educated residents to settle down in central cities.

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Comments

I can't seem to get my numbers to match yours. Could you give more details to back up your claim that the number of 20-35 year olds in 8 of ten major US cities has declined over the past 12 years? I checked Boston, Philadelphia, and Austin on the Census Bureau's website and from what I can see, all 3 cities had increases in the number of 20-35 year olds living there over that 12 year time period.

Thank you for making your corrections. Please note that the tag line for your first graph, "Percent Change in Population Ages 20-35," appears now to be wrong. Unless I'm reading it wrong, the graph no longer shows that "More young adults are moving out than moving in." Indeed, it seems to show the opposite.

"college-educated parents overwhelmingly choose the suburbs."

This is misleading. This is what the article actually says:

"Overall, having either a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree has a negative effect on families with school-age kids living in a city, although there are a few cases where the effect is positive. Having very high levels of educational attainment (a professional degree or a Ph.D.) is negatively associated with living in a city only in a few cases, suggesting that parents with the highest levels of educational attainment tend to have a greater preference for living in cities than other college-educated parents."

this runs counter to your argument - some cities are actually seeing an increase among parents with bachelors and masters, and "professionals" are actually preferring to raise children in the city across the board. and for those places with negative correlation - we don't know just how negative this is, and if this is trending the other way.

What wasn't controlled for in the first graph was total population changes. Yes it provides a counter to the "urban millenials" narrative anyway, but many cities (my home of St. Louis for example) are still losing overall population. This is simply bad for the urban core. Full stop. But I do wonder if, controlling for total population change, there is a difference in the number of young people leaving/staying versus older generations.

So very ridiculous. The entirety of your supportive data for this questioning of city revitalization is:

"The number of people...20 to 35 has declined in 8 of the 10 selected cities."

But you offer no data that shows where these young people moved TO. They could very well have moved to one of the many other central cities not in your selected group of 10. We don't know. Without this data, you have no factual basis for stating:

"While some young people certainly are moving into urban neighborhoods, more are leaving." This generalization is completely unsupported.

Thanks to the sharp eye of one of our readers, we've become aware of a technical error in our calculations for this post. We are updating the numbers now, and some of the conclusions will change. Please stay tuned for a follow-up.

I am pretty sure Boston's population of 20-35 year olds increased over that period.

and I recall seeing that while the overall number of children in Boston has declined - the number of households with children have remained pretty similar, and the number of "affluent" households with children has actually increased.

In fact, twentysomethings are much more likely to move to cities than thirtysomethings. (For verification look at most urban counties at http://www.netmigration.wisc.edu ... ). So to make a generalization about 20-35 year olds as a group makes about as much sense as making a generalization about "New York baseball teams" by lumping the Mets and the Yankees together.
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