How to break the “urban doom loop”: The revitalized future of America’s downtowns is going to be based on shared prosperity

n 2019, the skylines of many American downtowns were sparkling with new construction. Hudson Yards in New York, the Frost Tower in San Antonio, San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower, the futuristic Amazon Spheres and surrounding towers in Seattle, and thousands of other buildings were all part of the more than 100 million square feet of new office space built in the United States just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.[1] Demand for cities seemed stronger than ever.

Flash forward four years. By now, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of over 1 million Americans and raised new questions about another potential casualty: Is the pandemic, particularly its impact on the nature of work, taking down the American city? Nowhere is this fear more pronounced than in the nation’s “superstar” cities and their shiny downtowns.

This specter of an office real estate apocalypse, “urban doom loop,” transit death spiral, or “ghost towns” is filling some urban observers with existential dread. So too are reports of rising crime and unsheltered homelessness in downtowns. However, this fear is not new, nor is it destiny.

But this dread should prompt public and private sector leaders to reassess. In fact, they have an opportunity to seize this moment to chart a new future for American cities—one that reimagines downtowns as prosperous and inclusive places that advance shared prosperity across all neighborhoods.

A group of public and private sector leaders in some of the nation’s largest cities—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Seattle—have come together at Brookings Metro to do just this. These leaders were at the forefront of inclusive growth before the pandemic, and are now working with Brookings Metro and each other to identify policy, practice, and governance solutions that can be the seeds for the next generation of shared prosperity in downtowns, cities, and regions.

Only a generation ago, white flight and suburban sprawl left many cities as partial ghost towns. Anti-city rhetoric around “blight” and “inner-city crime” was used to justify the most negative aspects of urban renewal and, later, the war on drugs, which had significant consequences for the economic and social fabric of American cities. Suburbanization spread the fruits of growth out over more land area and jurisdictions, while public and private sector abandonment of center cities both concentrated poverty and increased the overall cost of services—weakening city and regional economies and exacerbating racial and economic segregation.

The villainization of American city centers began to reverse in the early 2000s, as highly educated young workers and some employers returned, lured by proximity to jobs, amenities, walkability, and a sense of place that downtowns offered.

For instance, in 35 of the top 45 U.S. downtowns by job count, the share of the regional population living in the commercial core grew between 2000 and 2020. And in a select few downtowns, regional job market share grew between 2011 and 2019, with Boston leading the pack.

The urban “downtown resurgence” of the 21st century provided a new boost for urban cores that had been in decline, but it also created economic cleavages within cities and regions.

In cities across geographic and economic spectrums—from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Detroit—subsidized redevelopment downtown ushered in newcomers while other (often predominantly Black and Latino or Hispanic) neighborhoods continued to lack basic amenities like grocery stores. At the same time, suburban poverty rates climbed.

Photo of Chattanooga by Garrett Hill from Pixabay

Read the entire article on the Brookings Institution website (free).

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