City Journal

Mario Polèse
Why (Some) Downtowns Are Back
Lessons from the urban resurgence
Winter 2014
New York&'s High Line Park
LANDON NORDEMAN/REDUX
New York’s High Line Park

Not so long ago, most urbanists were predicting the demise of downtowns. The data, after all, pointed unambiguously to declining central-city populations and expanding suburban ones in nearly every American metropolitan area between 1950 and 1980. Manhattan lost a quarter of its residents, for example, and Boston nearly a third. The exodus wasn’t confined to the United States. The population of inner London fell by more than a million residents during the same period, and my hometown, Montreal, watched the central borough of Ville-Marie hemorrhage half its population between 1966 and 1991. Businesses were fleeing, the urbanists noted. Central business districts were becoming vestigial organs, legacies of a bygone era before the automobile and the truck liberated us from the tyranny of proximity and brought us the suburban shopping mall.

But downtowns didn’t go the way of the dinosaur. In fact, most of them have begun to grow again. Of the 50 largest central cities in America, all but five saw their populations grow between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, and only two exhibited declines after 2010. For some, the turnaround came in the 1980s; for others, in the 1990s; and for still others, more recently. The title of Alan Ehrenhalt’s recent book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, reflects the nature of this shift—which, again, isn’t limited to the United States. But why are downtowns coming back? And how can we account for the holdouts?

The modern history of the central city is a story of three consecutive waves. The first began during the decades following World War II, though its full impact on urban economies became apparent only later. It involved a structural change sometimes called “deindustrialization” or “tertiarization”: a massive shift from manufacturing to services. The principal beneficiary of this shift was the “business services” sector, which includes finance, insurance, real estate, engineering, management consulting, advertising, publishing, and legal services.

All these business services sought out locations offering a high potential for personal interaction. The objects of exchange weren’t goods but information; human relations were the glue that held the sector together. Unlike manufacturing, business services required little floor space to generate income. Office towers allowed numerous firms to inhabit small spaces, producing correspondingly high property values. In the downtowns of large cities, such industries as manufacturing and warehousing, which demanded a lot of space, were unable to afford the rising cost. They began to decamp for less expensive locales. Meantime, the development of standardized containerization meant that trucks could now carry cargo from ships directly to factories and warehouses. Manufacturers and wholesalers no longer needed to be adjacent to ports and railheads in cities like New York and Montreal, giving these businesses more flexibility in choosing their locations.

So over time, business services replaced manufacturing as the principal economic base of large cities. You might define the tipping point as the moment when combined employment in the three main industry classes that constituted business services—finance, insurance, and real estate; professional, scientific, and technical services; and administrative support services—surpassed employment in manufacturing. In New York, that moment arrived in 1980. Manufacturing still accounted for a quarter of the city’s employment in 1970; today, it has fallen to well below 10 percent. The tipping point came in 1988 in Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis, and some 15 years later in runner-up Montreal.

Until the late 1980s (or later, depending on the city), business services hadn’t grown enough to undo employment and land-use patterns that downtowns had inherited from the industrial era. Heavily polluted brownfields were left vacant, as were unused docks, empty warehouses, and factory shells. But many of these industrial sites have since been transformed. In Montreal’s old port, for instance, one abandoned dock now houses a science museum; a second has become a popular entertainment venue.

The growth of business services irreversibly altered not only the appearance of most big-city central neighborhoods but also their employment profile. This brings me to the second wave, which we might think of as the residential counterpart of the first. It was a turnaround in the population decline of central neighborhoods.

To see why it happened, we need to understand the forces that had previously been driving households away from the center: rising incomes, growing ownership of cars, the postwar baby boom, and high crime. A general rule of housing economics is that as incomes rise, households demand more floor space per person. As they prospered during the postwar years, families aspired to better, bigger homes, perhaps with a garden and even a pool. They found the space they sought in the suburbs, where land was cheap and plentiful. Automobile ownership also rises systematically with incomes, and it enabled numerous households to move to those spacious suburbs. And the baby boom, of course, meant more households with children, which demand more space than childless households do. Over the four decades following World War II, these trends produced ideal conditions for urban flight and suburban growth, especially when combined with the growing urban crime and disorder that marked the era.

But eventually, the lure of the suburban dream began to diminish. Starting in the 1990s, incomes rose less rapidly than in the past, slowing the demand for housing space. Automobile ownership stopped rising, stabilizing at about 800 cars per 1,000 people, according to the World Bank. Single-person and childless households accounted for an increasing share of the American population. The suburbs kept growing, but the great era of rapid suburban expansion seemed to have ended.

It can be argued, too, that tastes and preferences changed. The car is no longer the status symbol that it once was, having been replaced, among today’s youth, by concert tickets or the latest smartphone. As America’s infatuation with the car wanes, owning a two-garage split-level house becomes less glamorous. In an article published in Urban Studies in 2006, City Journal contributing editor Edward Glaeser and Joshua Gottlieb convincingly demonstrated Americans’ change in preferences toward urban living. Before 1990, the larger the city, the higher the average wages paid there, even after accounting for cost of living. After 1990, that relationship reversed itself, meaning that workers now accept lower wages for the privilege of living in big cities. They must be receiving something in return, the authors argue—specifically, access to the amenities and pleasures that central big-city living offers, from restaurants and museums to concerts and learning institutions. I’m inclined to agree with Glaeser and Gottlieb that the fall in urban crime rates since the 1980s explains only part of the new taste for urban living, but it, too, was important.

But the most powerful reason for the second wave was the first wave, which produced well-paying jobs downtown. That is, the main reason households began to return to the center was that the best jobs were there. New Yorkers have long since grown familiar with gentrification, the replacement of poorer, generally blue-collar, populations by wealthier, professional ones. But the phenomenon took place in downtowns all over North America.

The two waves that I’ve just described reshaped central neighborhoods, making them magnets for rising cohorts of entrepreneurs in digital firms. This is the third wave, currently in full motion: high-tech start-ups seeking out central neighborhoods. Downtowns are the new battlegrounds of the digital economy.

True, Silicon Valley remains the top player in that economy, whether you’re measuring the number of high-tech start-ups per year or the amount of venture capital invested. That isn’t about to change; few places can match the Valley’s buzz, its location near two top engineering schools, its superb scenery, and its local supply of risk-tolerant venture capitalists—not to mention the entrepreneurial spirit that California, despite its dysfunction, seems to bring out in people. Nevertheless, smaller clusters of high-tech start-ups are springing up in many central cities. New York’s cluster has (predictably) been dubbed Silicon Alley (see “Net Gains,”); London’s, Silicon Roundabout. San Francisco’s South of Market area, or SOMA, is an emerging hub of high-tech activity. Following a multibillion-dollar cleanup, the South Boston waterfront area, a short walk from the financial district, is also becoming a high-tech hub, attracting firms from nearby Route 128 and Cambridge.

To understand what’s happening, take a closer look at the neighborhoods being colonized. New York’s tech cluster is located chiefly in lower Manhattan—specifically, the Flatiron district, Tribeca, Chelsea, and nearby neighborhoods that have completed the transition from warehousing and manufacturing to residential and nonmanufacturing commercial uses. In London, the heart of the cluster is Shoreditch, an old blue-collar neighborhood to the northeast of the financial district. South Boston is also an old warehousing district with recycled rail yards and docks. These areas’ distinguishing feature is that each is within walking distance of the central business district. If the second wave took place because of housing, the primary factor here is proximity to other firms.

And not just other digital firms: as the tech industry moves away from simply making hardware and software and begins producing computer-accessible content—from music and video games to news and broadcasts—it finds value in being located near the entertainment, publishing, and broadcasting industries, traditional foundations of large-city downtown economies. Proximity to financial institutions, another traditional downtown pillar, is also helpful: meeting a rich banker or an eager venture capitalist is easier in lower Manhattan than in the New Jersey suburbs.

There are cultural reasons for the third wave as well. Asked on TV why his large computer-animation firm, Ubisoft, decided to locate in downtown Montreal, a founding shareholder pointed out that the company’s employees worked at all hours. They wanted to be able to walk across the street for coffee or a sandwich at midnight—or, alternately, to visit a bar at noon. Few wanted to commute, he added, and of those who did, many biked. Is it any surprise that such firms want to be in 24-hour cities, rather than in suburban districts that empty out after 5 PM? And that such employees are choosing to repopulate center-city neighborhoods, rather than drive in from afar? The symbiosis of workplace and residence is further strengthened by a growing construction trend in which condos occupy upper floors, offices occupy lower ones, and retail stores occupy the ground floor, creating a new generation of mixed-used neighborhoods.

It’s also the case that high-tech companies, like the business services of the postwar years, require relatively little floor space. Many need nothing more than a few laptops and desks and can consequently pay those downtown rents. And in some downtowns, third-wave firms can recruit graduates of nearby engineering or tech schools, such as Montreal’s McGill University and École de Technologie Supérieure. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was hoping to accelerate just this kind of symbiosis when he announced plans for an ultramodern technological campus on Roosevelt Island, across from Manhattan, to be run by Cornell University and the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology.

In several big American cities, though, the downtown resurgence hasn’t taken place; the areas continue to struggle and deteriorate. In most cities, the average office rent per square foot is higher downtown than in the suburbs—in New York, downtown rents are twice as high. But in Cleveland, according to data from the major real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, office space is no more expensive downtown than in the suburbs, and in St. Louis, it’s actually cheaper. Office-based firms in those cities don’t see downtown as a valued location and aren’t willing to pay more to locate there. Data for downtown Detroit are unavailable from Cushman, probably because demand from prospective clients is so tiny that there aren’t enough properties on the market for information to be produced.

An economic geographer would call this phenomenon a loss of “centrality,” which refers to the geographic point with the highest market potential for firms. It’s highly unusual for a big city to lose centrality. Even during the height of the population exodus—the 1960s and 1970s—the central business districts of New York, Boston, San Francisco, and most other cities never lost it. Why have Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis?

No simple answer exists to that question, though part of the explanation involves successive badly run city administrations, white middle-class flight, and a shrinking tax base, things that create a downward spiral of deteriorating services and rising taxes. And just as the reasons that some big-city downtowns have failed to revive are various, so are the solutions. No magic pill—be it a sports stadium, a convention center, or a shopping mall—can single-handedly bring back a moribund big-city downtown (see “Urban-Development Legends,” Autumn 2011).

Still, these troubled areas could learn a few lessons from the success of many of their peers across the nation. For one thing, the key to downtown resurgence is jobs—chiefly, jobs in business services. If finance firms, consultancies, head offices, advertising companies, and so on flee to the suburbs, the task of reviving a downtown will prove far more difficult.

Also, successful downtowns are mixed-use centers that are busy around the clock, not just from nine to five. A 24-hour downtown isn’t built overnight, so to speak. But it’s true that teaching institutions can sometimes bring in clienteles with a taste for 24-hour living. It wasn’t a coincidence that New York’s first gentrified neighborhood—long before the word “gentrification” came into fashion—was Greenwich Village, near New York University.

Another lesson is that you can’t separate the health of a downtown from that of the wider metropolitan area. Cities with resurgent central neighborhoods also have strong metropolitan economies. This means, for one thing, that strong national or regional corporate centers will find it easier to maintain strong downtowns; by contrast, smaller cities whose downtowns are largely dependent on retail have a harder row to hoe. It also means that revitalization initiatives can’t be limited to the central city. Some level of cooperation between city and metropolitan area is necessary—if only to ensure that they effectively share the cost of metro-wide infrastructure, such as public transit.

A related lesson: strong downtowns and suburbanization are not mutually exclusive, as anyone who has driven through the sprawling suburbs of Washington, D.C., or New York can testify. An exodus from the center can occur for two diametrically opposed reasons. Suburban office parks can spring up because a downtown is too strong (and therefore expensive) or because it’s too weak. Firms leaving Manhattan for cheaper office rents in New Jersey are the sign of a growing downtown; firms leaving central Detroit for the safer, cleaner suburbs are the sign of a dying one.

Finally, the many current policies that restrict real-estate supply downtown—rent control, restrictions on building heights, and so forth—are a luxury that only cities with solid, growing downtowns can afford because they drive up prices in the center and discourage people and businesses from settling there. How far we’ve come since the 1970s, when downtowns seemed doomed and governments were concerned with revitalizing them! Today, those governments are doing the opposite, restricting growth in downtown areas and, in too many cases, turning them into coveted prizes occupied by a lucky few. Abandoning these misguided policies would reinforce the gratifying shift that cities all over the country and the world are witnessing: a return to the center.

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