Public Policy Forum Blog

Are people really moving back to the city?

According to a popular theory, Americans – and particularly millenials – are increasingly choosing to live in cities rather than small towns and suburbs. A new study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Progress tests that theory by examining U.S. Census data on where Americans with college degrees lived and moved between 2000 and 2012. The data suggest that a national increase in urban living indeed exists, but the trend is primarily limited to younger generations and is benefiting some cities more than others.

Milwaukee appears to be performing fairly well in attracting young adults, but continues to lose ground among those ages 35 and over. The study looked at the population of college-educated individuals in four age categories in 2000 and 2012 to determine whether cities grew those populations at faster or slower rates than the states in which they are located. Between 2000 and 2012, Milwaukee attracted 25-34 year olds at 1.38 times the rate of Wisconsin as a whole, resulting in the city having more than its share of Wisconsin’s college-educated 25-34 year olds in 2012.

Among older generations, however, Milwaukee actually lost ground during the 2000-2012 period. The city attracted just 77% of its share of the state’s growth in college-educated 35-44 year olds, 43% of its share of 45-64 year olds, and 21% of its share of those ages 65 and over between 2000 and 2012. The 2012 snapshots show that Milwaukee currently has significantly less than its share of Wisconsin’s college-educated adults in all three of those older generations.

Milwaukee’s experience is not unique, particularly among its peer cities. In fact, one of the key findings of the report is that so-called “legacy cities,” such as Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, have attracted people in all age categories at generally lower rates relative to their states, as compared with “magnet cities,” such as Austin, Chicago, and Seattle.

Another key finding of the report is that while most cities outperformed their states in attracting younger generations, relatively few did so among older generations. Among the 24 cities included in the study, Milwaukee is one of 18 cities that outperformed their states in attracting college-educated 25-34 year olds, but was not among the 17 cities that outperformed their states in attracting those ages 35 to 44. Only five of the 24 cities – and none of Milwaukee’s peer rust belt cities – attracted people ages 45 and older at higher rates than their states.

Of course, whether people choose to live in the city, the suburbs, or elsewhere in the state has major implications for numerous public policy issues, from the demands for housing, to transportation infrastructure needs, to the fiscal implications for local governments and school districts throughout the region.

We now know that young adults are indeed choosing Milwaukee at higher rates than the state as a whole. But since the city continues to struggle to attract and retain older generations, the question on city leaders’ minds should be, what will it take for the millennials to stay?

Joe Peterangelo