The hot pursuit of young professionals has been at the core of American cities’ urban revival for more than a decade. It worked. They came, they played, they stayed.An urban renaissance unfolded as the number of people living in America’s downtowns soared, construction of condos and loft apartments boomed and once-derelict neighborhoods thrived. In many of the largest cities in the most-populous metropolitan areas, downtown populations grew at double-digit rates from 2000 to 2010, according to the Census.
Now, cities face a new demographic reality:
The young and single are ageing and having children. If the pattern of the past 50 years holds, they might soon set their sights on suburbia.
The stakes are high because the oldest of 86 million Millennials are turning 30 this year, a time when many marry and start families. This giant demographic wave is even larger than the 77 million-strong Baby Boomers that have dominated social and cultural trends for decades.
'This Millennial generation is the generation that decides where it's going to live before it decides what it's going to do,' says William Fulton, president of policy and research at Smart Growth America, a non-profit national coalition against suburban sprawl. 'The stakes are very high.'
'We know young people move the most,' says Richard Florida, whose book The Rise of the Creative Class published 10 years ago helped spark the wooing of young professionals to revive declining urban centres. 'So capturing people early on in their lives in a metro really matters. It's important to compete with suburbs for people once they get a little older and have children.'
The older they get, the less likely people are to live in cities, according to recent Census data. The peak age for urban living is 25 to 27, when 20 per cent of that age group are nestled in urban centres. By the age of 41, about a quarter have moved to the suburbs.
Cities endured decades of shrinking populations fuelled by an exodus of young and old who found refuge from crime, racial tension and poverty in suburbia. When cities began to invest in their neighborhoods with new housing and rail systems and lured entrepreneurs, the turnaround happened. Cities don't want to see the pattern reverse again.
'Cities began renewal efforts by offering a young adult-focused lifestyle,' says Robert Lang, urban affairs professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. 'It was like an extension of dorm life after college. Cities assumed that they would get to the business of improving schools and providing more family services later. Well, now it's later.'
The growing urban constituency of hipster parents is not timid about making itself heard.
Educated and in professional jobs, they are equipped to organise and galvanize.
'They make clear the kinds of things they want to see,' says Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, who created a Young Professionals Kitchen Cabinet when he took office in 2006.
'We've got to work fast. Think how accustomed they are to speed. ... They expect it. They also expect things within their community to transform at a much faster rate.'
Developers of traditional single-family subdivisions typical of suburbia are setting their sights on urban neighborhoods from Anaheim, Calif., and Denver to Dallas and Charlotte. Because space is at a premium, they're opting for townhouses and homes on small lots, new housing that can accommodate families.
'We are creating suburban housing environments within the city,' Cincinnati's Mallory says. Virginia Place, minutes from downtown, has a half-dozen new 3- and 4-bedroom homes but will eventually have more than 30. The city is offering a 10-year tax abatement for buyers. Homes built to meet energy standards get a 15-year tax abatement. 'It's a good entry point for families,' he says.
'We, as planners and decision-makers, have to focus on creating units that accommodate families,' Huizar says. 'We've got to make downtown more livable for families.'
The young have been flocking to cities partly because they can walk to work or take mass transit. They still want that, but it can be daunting when they have kids in tow and need to take a bus to the grocery store and a subway to the day care centre.
'The first thing to know is where the gaps are,' says Allison Brooks, chief of staff for Reconnecting America, a national organisation that works to link transportation and community development. She's co-author of the group's recent report, Are We There Yet? Creating Complete Communities for 21st Century America.
Brooks has worked with the city of Denver to map where day care centres, preschools, grocery stores and jobs are in relation to public transit stops. She has found more willingness among local leaders to cooperate in the face of this demographic transformation.
The availability of city data that are easily accessible to citizens has given residents everywhere more input in governing.
'There is more accountability and expectation of immediacy and responsiveness,' says Ben Hecht is CEO of Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative of 22 of the world's largest foundations and financial institutions that invests in cities.
'We have to help people live easier lifestyles, healthier lifestyles and more affordable lifestyles,' Brooks says. 'There is real interest in creating these environments. Cities want to keep these people. They spend money.'
The Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland opened in 2004 with a library, a charter school, a senior centre and housing near the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station and has become a national model for integrating transit and services.
Brooks, who lives in Oakland and has a 3-year-old, has no intention of leaving the city where 20 per cent of schools are charter, she says. 'I can walk to a BART station. I can ride my bike to downtown Oakland,' she says. 'Even if we decide to send her to private school, we're not going to move out.'
The challenges are huge but as urban residents transition from singles playgrounds to tot lots, the momentum is building.
Poor or unsafe schools can make it or break it for the most ardent urbanites. The swelling number of city dwellers on the verge of deciding whether they'll stay or go has become a vocal lobby for change.
New York's Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan was one of the first neighborhoods to go through this demographic transformation, Lang says. 'Within 10 years, people made requests for grammar schools,' he says. 'Cities are recognising that. They want to hold on to and stabilise the tax base.'
What Justin Fishman and his wife, Rachel, liked about their Philadelphia neighbourhood (he walks 20 minutes to his banking job) when they were younger and childless are the same things Justin and Rachel, now parents of 11-month-old twins, still cherish.
'A car isn't really part of our day-to-day routine,' says Fishman, who was born in Philadelphia, grew up in the suburbs but lived in big cities (Washington, New York) since college. They've seen the population of people their age double in their neighborhoods. Now, they dodge baby strollers as they navigate their own. 'But you don't see a ton of 5-year-olds,' he says.
To leave or not to leave dominates the chatter at Rachel's mothers' groups as parents struggle with the odds of getting their children into competitive magnet schools, paying for private school or fleeing to suburbia.
The Fishmans want to stay. They're not giving up yet because school enrollment is four years away, and they see new parents mobilizing to improve neighbourhood schools. They're moving to a bigger house, still in the city (his walk to work will be 35 minutes). When the children reach school age, they will make a final decision.
'I'm a believer it starts with the parents, and someone taking an active interest in a child's education will make a school better,' says Justin, 30. 'As long as the city fosters the ability of both the schools and parents to work together and improve education, that's where I'd like to see my kids go.'
A group of parents is campaigning to open a charter school in downtown Los Angeles, says Councilman Jose Huizar, 'because the younger people in the area are looking for good schools.'
The number of residents living downtown -- defined as an area within a 2-mile radius of City Hall -- has quintupled in 10 years to more than 50,000, he says.
In the face of this surge, some city leaders have shown more willingness to endorse school choice such as charter schools, Fulton says.
Oklahoma City launched a massive overhaul of its school system the past decade, rebuilding and refurbishing more than 70 schools. A new grade school is slated to open downtown in 2014, an area booming with residential construction. Downtown's population has increased about 24 per cent to 5,568 since 2010.
'There is tremendous demand, and the demand is from those highly educated 20-somethings who want that urban environment,' says Mayor Mick Cornett, who lives downtown. 'I assume some will leave, but we try to create a downtown that can compete with suburbia.'
When there are no back or front yards where kids can play, public parks become a hot commodity. Los Angeles' Grand Park, a $56 million, 12-acre park with botanical gardens and hundreds of new trees, opened in October in the heart of downtown.
Oklahoma City is building a 70-acre downtown park to serve its growing residential base. The city is investing almost $1 billion over 10 years in 'quality-of-life infrastructure projects' -- including pedestrian- and bike-friendly street designs and a streetcar system.
A public-private partnership in Houston developed Discovery Green, a 12-acre urban park next to the city's convention centre. The Green has become an anchor for downtown development since it opened in 2008. It has spurred the building of a hotel, office tower and a 346-unit residential high-rise.
There are still plenty of young and childless professionals for cities to pursue (the youngest Millennials are in their teens), but as the oldest move to another life stage, cities face a balancing act: Provide adult fun and culture and trendy lofts, but build family-friendly homes and child care centres at the same time.
Even with all the changes cities are making, many Millennials will head to the suburbs leave cities when they start a family -- but probably not as many as in previous decades, Florida says.
'Before, 90 per cent to 95 per cent would've moved, and I would see it more as 60 per cent or 70 per cent now,' he says, based on research and observations. 'My hunch is many will move to a close-in suburb that's walkable, near transit.'
Florida says he's surprised by how mainstream the urban lifestyle is now, to the point of becoming a steady staple of TV shows. 'Not having a car is kind of chic,' Florida says.
It also saves money in gas, insurance and loan payments -- something that mass-transit advocates say can help deter the cost of more expensive urban housing or private schools. Homeowners and renters are spending less of their income on transportation, according to the Bureau of labour Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey. The amount spent on transportation fell more than 20 per cent from 1986 to 2010.
'We have professionals come and go, singles come and go,' Huizar says. 'But you build for families, and they're here to stay.'
Cities recognise this looming challenge and are bracing for the maturing of a generation that sought out coffeehouses, hip entertainment venues and small flats but now is starting to demand soccer fields, good schools and roomy homes.
Hanging on to residents as they age, make more money and have kids is a plus for cities because it strengthens and stabilizes the tax base while creating an involved constituency. Plus, it's a return on the investment they made to woo young people in the first place -- concert halls, sports arenas, bike trails and more.