The popularity of cities is self evident these days. Millennials and empty nesters are flocking to downtowns across American, attracted by culture, ubiquitous dining options, and the ability to reduce or eliminate their reliance on the automobile. Some cities exhibit so much gravity that high prices and gentrification are real problems. But there is another, related trend of equal importance. This is the growing popularity of so-called “surban” living.
The term surban was coined by John Burns, a real estate consultant in California who studies shifting housing preferences. He catalogued an offshoot of the popularity of cities driven largely by millennials who were getting married and having kids. This cohort loves city living, but also looks for the additional room families require, better schools suburbs often offer, and good transit to them to jobs in the city. Burns looked at this trend is the context of larger cities like Chicago or San Francisco, where folks seeking surban living are drawn to walkable suburbs such as Naperville in the Chicago area or Walnut Creek east of San Francisco. These suburbs offer many of the characteristics of downtown, but on a smaller scale, and allow for the house and yard growing families seek.
Larger metropolitan areas are well served by surban communities. These larger metros have suburbs with historic downtowns that have the form and density to provide the attributes surban wannabes seek. Smaller city metros, characterized in the census as micropolitan areas, often lack natural surban areas and therefore only have sprawl to offer those not willing or able to live in the central city. These regions have to work harder to encourage development that attracts surbanites.
Creating new urban areas (a.k.a. surban areas) requires vision, planning, and leadership. Left to its own devices, development usually comes in the form of suburban sprawl. This is not because there is not market demand for surbia, there is as Mr. Burns found out. Sprawl happens because conventional zoning and transportation policy encourages it, and often outlaws more urban development.
Regions must understand their demographics and the housing preferences of their citizenry. Once understood, making sure preferred development is permitted and encouraged is critical to assuring the newly identified need can be met. If your citizens are demanding surban development, you must be sure you have a good plan in place to surbanize!
Love watching the Olympics! - especially the winter version. Though USA is not doing as well as expected, its no less fun to watch the games. The Olympics have brought tens of thousands of visitors to Pyeongchang, who are taking in Korean culture and seeing the attractions. Hosting the Olympics brings a great sense of pride to the host community. But does it result in economic gain?
The Olympic debate has been raging for years and is especially interesting because of the high cost of hosting. South Korea is spending around $13 billion, significantly higher than the original $7 billion budget. Ticket sales have been light, perhaps due in part to the recent rancor between North Korea and the U.S. South Korea will not recoup its investment from event revenues and visitor spending during the games, and studies of previous Olympics do not bode well for lasting economic benefit from Pyeongchang 2018.
Some cities are grappling with this same question: are large events worth the cost and effort of putting them on? Besides the monetary cost, which sometimes is borne by the city, there are inconveniences caused by increased traffic and limited access to otherwise public spaces. A New York Times Magazine article on the subject noted how traffic was down at the popular Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End and the British Museum in 2012, the same year that city hosted the summer Olympics.
Large events, whether they are the once in a lifetime Olympics or World Cup variety, or those that occur annually, can enhance the brand of a community. Besides brand, the same studies that show the dismal economic impact of the Olympics, can’t deny the psychological benefit to the citizens of the cities that host them. It makes them proud of their city, and happier.
Large events are like parties, you may not make money on them, but everybody has fun.
Downtowns have lives like you and me. Some downtowns are young and growing, others are in the prime of life, firing on all cylinders. Some are like teenagers still figuring out what they want to be when they grow up. Where your downtown is in its life dictates what it needs to get to its next stage of growth.
Young downtowns, like teenagers, need direction and focus. Some teens feel lost and wonder about their place in the world. Downtowns are no different. Some downtowns may have had success, but watched it wane in the face or market changes. Others are new and have never found their way. They need to figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are, and develop a plan for success.
Downtowns that are successful can celebrate their prosperity. But no downtown should rest on its laurels. Just like a professional in the prime of her life cannot rely on yesterday’s victories to guarantee more of the same tomorrow. The professional will take stock of her skills and relationships, and work to improve and evolve as the world around her evolves. Great downtowns too must understand that they need to continually transform to remain great.
Where is your downtown in its life?
Rob Bacigalupi helped build one of the premier downtowns in the Midwest