Public Policy Forum Blog

Are services and cultural amenities powering downtown revival?

Why did a majority of young, college-educated Americans choose to live in downtown areas rather than suburbs between 2000 and 2010? A new study by researchers at UC-Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania finds that an increased desire to live near a variety of retail and cultural amenities was the primary factor. Those amenities include bars, restaurants, music venues, theaters, and gyms. According to the study, which is discussed in depth in a recent CityLab article, this shift in preferences was the most influential factor driving the return of younger college-educated people to downtown areas – more so even than job locations, family formation, and crime rates.

We found this study’s findings particularly interesting in light of our recent survey of metro Milwaukee millennials. Our survey similarly found that among 18- to 34-year-olds in the four-county Milwaukee area, access to restaurants and cafes, cultural and entertainment amenities, and nightlife is highly valued. For example, roughly two-thirds (68%) of respondents said cultural and educational attractions were important to their decision to live in metro Milwaukee. In addition, when we asked what individuals like best about Milwaukee, by far the most common response was the city’s “variety of entertainment and activities.” Yet, our survey results diverged from the study by showing that crime and jobs exceeded cultural amenities in influencing millennials’ decisions regarding whether to live in the city or the suburbs.

There are several major differences between the population included in our survey and the one studied by Victor Couture of UC-Berkeley and Jessie Handbury of U-Penn. First, Couture and Handbury analyzed the 100 largest U.S. metro areas and focused exclusively on college-educated individuals, whereas our survey included individuals of all educational levels. Second, while our survey was designed to gauge the current opinions and preferences of metro Milwaukee millennials, the Berkeley-Penn study offers perspective on actual trends that occurred across multiple generations nationwide during the last decade. 

Interestingly, Couture and Handbury found that the trend toward downtown living was not initiated by the millennial generation. In fact, while the vast majority of college-educated 25-34 year olds chose downtowns over suburbs during the 2000-2010 period, a clear majority of 35-44 year olds did so as well. That finding runs counter to the common perception that individuals in their 30s – who are more likely to have children – typically choose suburban living.

Finally, Couture and Handbury’s research strikes an optimistic chord for the continued strength of downtowns that could bode well for downtown Milwaukee. They found that the revival of downtown areas was not driven by the growth of retail and cultural amenities; those amenities actually grew at a faster rate in suburban areas than downtowns during the last decade. Downtowns retain the greatest concentration of those amenities, however, which makes them more easily accessible to area residents. As the CityLab article states, there appears to have been a “broad cultural shift” toward living near those amenities “that could make urban revival more durable.”

Joe Peterangelo