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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Why the 'Back to the City' Movement is not a Choice but a Necessity

Census data this week revealed how population growth in town and city centers outpaced that of suburbs for the first time in more than two decades. The timeliness of this news given the fact that the National Main Street Center held their Main Street Conference this week in Baltimore - where advocates from across the country got together to discuss strategies for revitalizing historic downtown areas - is an irony not easily lost on some.

Over the past three decades in communities of varying sizes throughout the U.S., volunteer and grassroots efforts through programs like Main Street have emphasized the importance of historic city centers, and the need to have strategies for their revitalization that include a historic preservation component. While Main Street had its origins in small and medium sized places, it is not purely a small town phenomena. At the Main Street conference this week a special Urban Summit was held, highlighting the success of "Urban Main Street" programs in Baltimore, DC, Boston, Detroit, and nearly 80 other places.

I would argue that the historic preservation movement, in general, and the Main Street program in particular, are at the vanguard of the 'Back to the City Movement.' And, wherever these preservation-led approaches are present and well established, that the conditions are right for attracting people back from the suburbs, and turning the tide on unchecked suburban development over the last six decades and more.

Now, it could be that preservationists are incredibly humble people (which I've often found to be the case) and they do not want to capitalize on the incredibly good news about a return of population to traditional cities and towns. I would further argue, however, that this is a missed opportunity of major proportions. Consider this fact. Within hours of the news being released Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America, issued a press statement that included this line:
“Our organization has long advocated for walkable neighborhoods with smart growth features, and this news confirms that they’re even more popular than we realized,”
As of Saturday morning none of the major national preservation organizations had issued a similar statement of their own. This speaks to a fundamental need within the larger preservation movement of having a stronger marketing and public relations apparatus, that helps to shape and influence the public perception of preservationists being drivers of the positive changes happening in our small towns, cities, states, and our nation.

Naturally, it leads me to speculate why is it that we don't have such marketing efforts in place right now? Could it be that we don't believe what we say as a movement about the importance of historic preservation to downtown and neighborhood revitalization? Do we feel that elected officials, other organizations, and other people deserve more of the credit than we do? Perhaps.

What is more plausible to me, however, is that for many people in preservation we feel like we've been here before, only to later be disappointed by forces which we have no control over. After all, people have been talking about a 'back to the city' movement since at least the 1970's when the modern-day preservation movement took hold. During this same time many major cities and small towns have seen large scale population decline in favor of the suburbs, with a few exceptions (such as New York where population continues to surge thanks in large part to immigration). Almost a year ago in April 2011, Aaron Renn writing about some of the same 2010 Census data that more recent studies analyzed, said:
"Despite claims of an urban renaissance, the 2000s actually turned out to beworse than the 1990s for central cities.  The one bright spot was downtowns, which showed strong gains, albeit from a low base.  The resurgence of the city story seemed largely fueled by intra-census estimates by the government that proved to be wildly inflated when the actual 2010 count was performed."
Renn cited other data showing how major cities experienced significant population loss outside of downtown, and, concluded that "the justification for much of the 'back to the city' story reflected bad estimates."

In the 2000's and before, suburban growth was artificially subsidized with cheap gasoline, easy access to loans for construction and unprecedented low rates for home mortgages. This made it very hard for small towns, downtown areas, and traditional neighborhoods to compete. Now that $5 a gallon gasoline is increasingly becoming a reality for some, lending has dried up, and high unemployment along with lack of growth of household income as adjusted for inflation, our national binge on suburban development appears to have reached an end.

Over a century ago people were attracted to cities in the first place, as traditional small towns were languishing. Cities were seen as places of opportunity, where there was innovation, industry, and, most importantly, jobs. Fast forward to today, who could have anticipated and expected how over a hundred years after the growth of many great American cities began, that today it is not a small town to big city move, but rather a suburbs to cities and appropriately positioned small towns move that is taking hold.

I would pose that the 'back to the city' movement rather than being a 'choice' as it was before, is today a 'necessity'. Advocates of cities, traditional neighborhoods, and downtown areas would be savvy to find ways to identify and serve the needs of their fellow citizens in search of "new ways of living," and rehabilitate existing buildings and do sensitive infill development in existing cities and downtown areas to provide the sort of affordability, proximity, and connections to rich community and personal networks that is so desperately needed and being sought after today.

Sources Cited

Madrecki, Tom. Declining suburban growth shows need to adapt policies to market trends. April 5, 2012.


National Trust for Historic Preservation, Main Street Center.

Renn, Aaron M. Rethinking Urban Dynamics: Lessons from the Census. newgeography. April 28, 2011. http://www.newgeography.com/content/002202-rethinking-urban-dynamics-lessons-census