The Most Prosperous Downtowns of the 21st Century (Part 1 of 3)

This is the first in a series of three entries on thriving downtowns in the largest 100 U.S. cities.  This post focuses on growth rates of downtown population and jobs. The second post looks at the growth of downtown jobs and population in each city, but will focus on absolute numbers instead of percentages.  The third post focuses on each downtown’s importance to its respective urban region.

The Importance of Downtown

Almost always, downtowns are the most important part of cities and urban regions.  The primary Central Business District (CBD) of an urban region typically contains the highest concentration of that region’s jobs, entertainment venues, and unique cultural assets.

Downtown Growth Rates Since 2000

A quick glance at the CBD of a given urban region is often the best way to get a pulse on the overall economic strength and future prospects of the entire region.  This blog post measures the level of recent success (since 2000) in the downtowns of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. by measuring population growth and job growth in each city’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods within a 1-mile radius and a 3-mile radius.  We measure six variables:

  1. Percent Job Growth in CBD (2002-2011)
  2. Percent Job Growth in CBD + 1-Mile Radius (2002-2011)
  3. Percent Job Growth in CBD + 3-Mile Radius (2002-2011)
  4. Percent Population Growth in CBD (2000-2010)
  5. Percent Population Growth in CBD + 1-Mile Radius (2000-2010)
  6. Percent Population Growth in CBD + 3-Mile Radius (2000-2010)

urbanSCALE’s forthcoming eBook – The Ten Traits of VIBRANT Cities – will go into more detail on the factors of success for strong downtowns, but for now, we will keep things simple by looking solely at downtown growth rates over the last decade.  It’s pretty much a universal truth: vibrant cities have growing downtowns and stagnating cities have declining downtowns.  It is very difficult for a city to achieve overall success and become a more vibrant community if its downtown is bleeding jobs and residents.  Likewise, a city that has a booming downtown is likely to benefit from waves of prosperity and growth that originate in the city’s center and spread throughout the entire region.

Cities with Thriving Downtowns

When we look at the downtowns of the 100 largest U.S. cities (actually 95 of them, since 5 of the 100 do not have recognized downtown districts)*, we find that 20 of them experienced growth in each of the six variables listed above.  These 20 cities have growing downtowns, and thriving neighborhoods surrounding their downtown:

Top 20 Most Prosperous Downtowns Map

You can see the full list of downtown growth rates for all of the cities at the end of this post.

Most Downtowns Are Gaining Residents

The good news: 75 cities gained downtown residents from 2000 to 2010, while only 20 cities lost downtown residents.  Surprisingly, there were many cities (15 out of 95, to be exact) that gained downtown residents despite experiencing declines in the other five variables.  It is clear that downtown population growth is a national trend.

When we expand our horizons a bit to look at the CBD + 1-mile radius (essentially the downtown and its immediate surrounding neighborhoods), the picture is quite different.  In this zone, only 51 cities gained residents from 2000 to 2010, while 44 cities lost residents.  This means that many of the cities that gained residents inside of their CBD actually experienced a population decline in the greater downtown area.  When we zoom out yet again, this time to the CBD + 3-mile radius (basically what most people would classify as the “inner city”), we see a nearly identical situation.  In this zone, 50 cities gained residents and 45 cities lost residents.

Job Growth is a Mixed Bag

From 2002 to 2011, 46 downtowns gained jobs, while 49 downtowns lost jobs.  Expanding our area of analysis to the zone that includes each city’s CBD + 1-mile radius yields a near equal mix of cities that are gaining jobs (48 cities) and losing jobs (47 cities).  When we look at the CBD + 3-mile radius of each city, we get the same results: 48 cities have a growing employment base in this zone and 47 cities are losing jobs in their urban core.

Good News and More Good News

At first glance, this post may appear to deliver equal amounts of good news and bad news.  The obvious good news is the widespread population growth in the vast majority of America’s downtowns.  And the apparent bad news is that job growth is nonexistent in roughly half of the downtowns.  However, there is actually more good news if you read between the lines.  In the quest to create more vibrant downtown districts, the biggest deficiency in most downtowns is not jobs, but residents.

For example, if a typical downtown gains another corporate headquarters or another large government office building, not much has been accomplished in the way of creating a lively 24/7 district.  Sure, there may be a few more sandwich shops, a new drycleaner facility, and a couple more parking garages that pop up as a result, but ultimately, the downtown has not been transformed.  Not even by adding thousands of new jobs.

On the other hand, let’s assume that the same downtown instead gains a handful of new apartment buildings, bringing thousands of new residents along with them.  Now this starts to really change some things.  The sidewalks are now occupied with people in the evenings and weekends, not just during the Monday-Friday business hours.  All of a sudden, this influx of new residents creates market demand for new types of businesses: some new restaurants, new service businesses, new retailers, perhaps a small grocery store….you get the picture.

So, even the downtowns that have lost a small portion of their employment base are actually better off now if they have been able to make up for this by adding new housing.  Just about every downtown would benefit from new residents, but not every downtown needs to increase its employment base.  The most successful downtowns are not necessarily the ones with the most jobs (or hotels, bars, entertainment venues, or any single thing).  A vibrant downtown district usually has multiple primary functions that all work together to create an environment that attracts people from all walks of life.

This does not contradict the universal truth stated above that vibrant cities have growing downtowns.  Cities that are experiencing declines in all six of the variables measured here certainly have their work cut out for them.  Likewise, cities that are experiencing growth in all six variables (or five of the six) can probably count their downtown as the most important asset in their quest to become a more vibrant community.  The final takeaway is that successful downtowns are all about growth AND diversity, not just growth.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which look at downtown growth measured in absolute numbers.

Downtown Growth Rates in 100 Largest Cities*

Downtown Growth Rates


*This blog post is focused on 95 of the 100 largest U.S. cities because, as mentioned above,  5 of the 100 largest cities (Virginia Beach, VA; Aurora, CO; Irvine, CA; Chesapeake, VA; and North Las Vegas, NV) do not have recognized downtown districts.

John Karras (27 Posts)

John Karras believes that all communities have the potential to become more vibrant. John’s professional passions are aligned at the three-way intersection of urban planning, economic development and transportation policy. John founded to empower urban planning and economic development professionals with the knowledge and tools needed to make their communities more vibrant. John is also the creator of the urbanSCALE Rating System, the first comprehensive measure of how urban a city is on a scale of 1 to 10.

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  1. elizabeth karras says

    Although there may be no necessary correlation between percentage of population growth in CBD and the other five growth factors, twenty cities listed experienced green-growth across the board and may share certain policies/practices in common that help promote their communities’ prosperity. What might these be?
    North Carolina is impressive among all states listed in the overall growth patterns shown. What factors contribute to their success story?
    Over a dozen cities listed experienced massive CBD population growth, close to or exceeding one hundred per cent. Are these cities finding the growth to be too much too fast?
    Very interesting, valuable data source!

    • John Karras says

      Thanks for the comment! Regarding the types of policies/practices that are common among cities with high-growth downtowns…some of the growth is no doubt correlated to the overall growth of each cities broader metro area. Metro areas that are rapidly growing will tend to have downtowns that are also growing compared to metro areas that are stagnating. But aside from that, I’ll go out on a limb to say that many of the cities with the highest population growth rates in and around their downtown are also cities that have developed new rail transit systems (or expanded existing systems) that connect their downtowns to nearby urban neighborhoods. Cities like Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Norfolk, Portland, and St. Louis among others fit this theory very well.

      I can’t speak for each city, but my guess is that the places with rapid (100%+) population growth in their downtown are pretty excited about it. Every city has some residents that are pro-growth and some that are anti-growth. And this is understandable because as humans, we are inclined to be fearful of change. But in my book, a city is either growing or dying. And rapid population growth in and around a city’s downtown is the best type of growth I can think of, even when it does bring about some challenges.

  2. James Shanley says

    Great post. Even though the information deals with mainly larger urban areas, much holds true for smaller communities, too.

    • John Karras says

      Thanks, James. Right, many of the factors that determine success in large cities also translate to smaller communities. A city with a truly vibrant downtown is in good shape to succeed in economic development, no matter the size.


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