Director's Column

Is "Back to the City" a Myth?

Download Main Street Now PDF 2010/07_08

People’s preferences have changed. Suburbs are “out” − a relic of an automobile culture where high-speed auto access defined every transition of our day-to-day life, from home-to-school-to-work-to-stores and back, all accomplished on four wheels in a climate-controlled environment. No more.  Cities are “in,” right?  Everyone wants to “live-where-you-work” and walk to shops, entertainment, and – in general – to all the best things in life. That’s the great promise of the “Back to the City” movement. Except it didn’t happen the way we predicted.

According to Joel Kotkin, author of the New Geography, the great migration back to the city hasn’t occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased! Contrary to predictions of people like “Creative Class” guru Richard Florida and respected organizations like the Urban Land Institute, Kotkin thinks “this movement has crashed” and that “downtown areas, stuffed with new condos, have suffered some of the worst housing busts in the nation.”

What’s behind this story? Again, Kotkin thinks that the opinions of “experts” simply haven’t matched people’s stated preferences. It turns out that virtually every survey of opinion, including one by Smart Growth America, found that only 13 percent of Americans prefer to live in an urban environment while 33 percent prefer suburbs, and another 18 percent like exurbs. I guess the other 36 percent live somewhere else or have no preference at all! Apparently, these patterns have not really changed over the last several decades.

So is “Back to the City” an urban myth? And what does it mean for our downtowns? I find Kotkin’s challenge of popular thinking refreshing, and it is certainly time to take a hard look at the numbers behind the story. But whether people are flooding back to the cities, or not, misses the point that we really should be making. From my point of view, I see three things:

1.  The “city vs. suburb” dichotomy is dated, nor is it very useful in understanding or describing the current conditions or future trends in our communities. We have plenty of hard data − and anecdotal evidence − that our downtowns are on a long, sustained march back to vitality. Our annual Main Street Reinvestment Statistics demonstrate that persuasively, (check the latest statistics online at

2.  The current economic climate has skewed the data used by analysts to identify trends. Yes, downtown real estate (commercial and residential) is suffering right now. But the pain of the downturn is being felt pretty uniformly, and many sprawled-out urban areas have some of the worst vacancy rates in the nation.

3.  Main Street’s future is mixed, and that’s a good thing. Downtown and neighborhood center vitality is not solely dependent on whether “Back to the City” residents will transform our districts. As we’ve long said, our fate will be determined by a mix of uses and community priorities for commerce, entrepreneurship, arts and leisure, civic institutions, transportation, and, yes, housing. That mix always has − and always will − keep us diversified, and able to survive economic downturns.

So rather than debate a limited-pie scenario, where we “steal” prosperity from our neighborhoods, Main Street demonstrates a different way of looking at community development, where revitalization can create more and better choices for live/work locations and sustainable development.