The successes of New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Denver, Houston, Chicago, and Minneapolis have led to some curious consequences. More than ever, small cities* such as Columbus, Omaha, Tucsan, Birmingham, Allentown, Hartford, and even Des Moines are seeing unprecedented growth in their downtown areas, and new demand resulting in increased development. Only a few decades ago, these cities’ primary marketing tool was cost differential. Put simply, they were cheaper places to live. That suggestion, in turn, excused the lack of big city excitement available to residents. Today, these cities have changed their perspectives, looking to their larger counterparts for inspiration and ideas. The outcome is already evident: their reputations are no longer about living cheaply, but about having identities people embrace and opportunities people enjoy and write home about.
*Small City: There is certainly no agreed-upon definition of city, but for the purposes of this piece, a small city has a metropolitan area of between 500,000 and 2 million people. These cities are usually characterized as the cities of secondary or tertiary economic and cultural importance in their respective larger sections of the United States, serving as regional, rather than national centers. They also tend to lack certain amenities of large and medium-sized cities such as airport hubs, world-renowned museums, and multiple major league professional sports teams. They are, however, large enough to be a self-sustaining economic center with diverse industries, high quality institutions of higher education, and city-focused transportation systems and infrastructure.
Over the past 25 years, America’s largest cities have undergone grand redevelopments. Perhaps due to shifts in economic sectors and market demand, or perhaps due to the influence of Kurt Russell’s dystopian 1981 in the hit film, Escape from New York…
…cities gained a determination to invest in and reinvent themselves. Cities from Washington to San Francisco have seen an unprecedented and – by 1981 standards – almost unprecedented demand in downtown-area housing and entertainment. These new residents have brought significant positive benefit to the urban core, but have overwhelmed city infrastructure. Housing is in short supply and prices have skyrocketed. These issues are now leading the nation’s young professionals to choose between a rock and a hard place; to either live in a smaller-than-you-would-like, more-expensive-than-you-would-like apartment with access to some of the world’s best cultural institutions, restaurants, parks, and entertainment but no suitable living space (or disposable income) to spread out or start a family, or:
Live in a place where the cost of life is more affordable.
The problem with this decision has always been, in part, that the latter option required giving up everything that a big city offers. It meant moving to a car-dependent single-family home in the suburbs with no nightlife, no nearby entertainment venues, no top-notch parks, nothing aside from chain restaurants, and certainly no decent museums or professional theaters. However, with Millennials demanding to live in a place with these opportunities but no longer able to afford Manhattan or Haight-Ashbury (at least not in the long-term), some smaller cities saw an opportunity. First, it was Portland, Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake, Nashville, and Charlotte. Now, even smaller cities are getting in on the action. This is not just a trickle-down effect. This is about a fundamental change in culture, desires, and planning concepts.
The era of the totally car-dependent city, or at least the successful and car-dependent city, is over. Millennials want options, even if they need a car to get some places. This is an important distinction. A single light-rail line, or bus rapid transit corridor, or bike lane network, will not rid most residents of the need for a personal vehicle. Meeting this goal would require many rail lines, a vast and frequent bus network, and development at levels that would support such a lifestyle change. This is a worthy goal, but this does not need to be completed in order to attract young professionals. The reason? Placemaking.
Small cities have learned lessons from the trials and errors of their fellow, larger cities. First, placing a transit line in a suburban, car-oriented environment without improvements to the surrounding area with amenities such as sidewalks, with appropriate zoning, crosswalks, and with low-speed pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly streets is a recipe for failure. If there is not a critical mass of residences or businesses near the transit line, it will fail. If people cannot safely and comfortably access the stations and surrounding neighborhoods, the service will fail. Second, a transit line won’t see overwhelming ridership in its first year, or its fifth year. To that end, neither will a new highway if it doesn’t connect appropriately into a larger, already-robust system. This is okay, as these investments spur development over the course of one or two decades. Third, the overall approach has to be about the specific districts or neighborhoods along its route, not the corridor. An east-west transit line needs north-south connections at its stations. It needs a network of bicycle lanes and complete streets. Failure to make appropriate improvements would be similar to constructing a superhighway but providing local connections only via dirt roads. Most importantly, though, and contrary to the popular belief only a few years ago, small cities have learned that transit and bicycling can be not only popular but highly successful.
If these trends toward progressive planning and smart growth continue, the next era of American development could be that of the small city right alongside the continued success of America’s great large cities. As these small cities harbor and grow their own, new cultural identities and institutions, they can grow to become truly dynamic urban centers.