Troy Camplin starts his recent article for The Freeman with the question, "What makes a city beautiful?" His conclusion is that "a city’s beauty comes from its life, from how its structures keep people teeming on the sidewalks and arterials — pulsing like blood through a body. “ I couldn’t agree more. The intermingling of white collar and blue collar, young and old, rich and poor, student and professional is what leads to the successful dynamics of city life. The variety of residents is what demands and sustains the variety of consumption opportunities. Only in cities can one find a dive bar next to upscale dining, both just down the street from a museum or opera house. Men in suits and women in evening dresses can be heading to five star restaurants, opera performances, or off-Broadway shows while college students pass them in shorts and sandals heading to a bar for $4 drink specials to celebrate the start of the weekend.
Over the last 50 years, however, many cities, especially in the Midwest and northeast, have been experiencing a hollowing out of their downtowns. The dynamic city life that once belonged to places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Baltimore disappeared. The baby-boomer generation desired more space for their larger families and the suburbs were the answer. Wealthier residents left the city, taking advantage of the relatively inexpensive suburban land and a new highway system that made it cheaper to travel by car. Businesses soon followed as many corporations relocated their offices out of downtowns and into the suburbs to be near their workforce.
The city, and especially the downtown, became a place to visit—a place people went to watch a sporting event, dine, see a play, or visit a museum. But few people lived or worked there. The only jobs were service-sector positions, and many of the downtown neighborhoods became dilapidated with the loss of their wealthier residents and the accompanying tax revenue. Cities became dangerous places with high crime rates, which made them even less attractive to many people. The dynamic, beautiful life that Camplin describes disappeared. Instead of the “fluidity and mobility of use” that urbanist Jane Jacobs said is necessary for a city to thrive, many cities became barren and stagnant. It appeared that the age of the city, with a few exceptions, was over.
But the trend seems to be reversing. Young people, particularly millennials, are once again demanding the dynamic lifestyle that can only come from the spontaneous order that is city living. Inner-city neighborhoods, particularly those with good public transportation and a walkable layout, are experiencing population growth. This is true even in a place like Baltimore, where the city population overall is still experiencing a decline. But for the first time in decades, cities like Baltimore have hope.
It is not entirely clear what is causing the renewed interest in city living, but it is likely a combination of several factors. First, more people, especially women, are going to college, and the monetary return of a college education is near a historic high. This means that the opportunity cost of settling down and starting a family is higher than it used to be for women. Today many of them want a career and a family but are willing to put their family desires on hold to get their careers off the ground. It is much easier for single people and couples without children to find affordable housing in cities.
Next, both males and females are staying single longer. The median age at first marriage for men and women is almost 29 and 27 respectively, up from 23 and 21 in 1974. Single people like being around other single people, and cities provide a plethora of opportunities to meet people who share the same interests and aspirations. Whether you are gay or straight, a video game enthusiast, an athlete, a policy wonk, or a carefree hippie, in a big city you can find people that share your passions.
Increased educational attainment leads to more labor specialization as well. Large cities have a plethora of employment opportunities for college graduates. This is especially important for couples in which both members are college graduates or advanced-degree holders, something that is becoming increasingly common. These power couples, as they are called in the economics literature, need to live in an area that can provide both of them with employment. Large, dynamic cites fit that criterion.
New services like Zipcar and technology advancements like public transportation apps on smartphones have also lowered the cost of navigating cities relative to the suburbs. Combine these new services and technologies with the increase in gas prices and it is easy to see why many millennials are rethinking the car-centric lifestyle. Transportation is an important cost of any living situation, and cities have become cheaper relative to the suburbs. When you lower the relative price of a good, more of it is consumed, and we are starting to see this occur.
All of the reasons just given are playing some role in the new movement toward city living. Perhaps the only thing that can hold cities back is government. As Camplin writes, “a free and vibrant city is a place of order and disorder, of unity and diversity, of competition and cooperation. It’s ordered chaos.” A government that attempts to plan a city through burdensome zoning and regulation will restrict it from reaching its full potential. Cities are spontaneous and exciting, familiar yet unpredictable. Attempts to centrally plan a city are attempts to mold a city to one person’s or a small group’s vision. A city belongs to all of its residents and should reflect something about each of them.
There is a bright future ahead for America’s big cities as long as the government stays out of the way. I hope that it does.