In October of 2023, a new report from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania‘s Center City District, titled Downtowns Rebound:The Data-Driven Path To Recovery, analyzed the economic revitalization trajectories of 26 downtowns across the United States.
Can downtowns in the United States rebound and prosper?
This fundamental question lingers more than three years after the global pandemic, after public mandates to work from home and following civil unrest and crime increases that occurred in many U.S. cities in 2020.
From the early 1980s, American city centers steadily recovered from de-industrialization, suburbanization and the disinvestment that had left many as declining 9-to workplaces with limited residents, diminished retail and minimal nightlife.
By 2019, downtowns in nearly all major U.S. cities were thriving as mixed-use places for professional and financial services, information technology, education, research and health care, entertainment and culture, tourism, shopping, dining and as preferred places to live.
Suddenly in 2020 and 2021, those old enough to remember experienced flashbacks to the 1970s as a barrage of news stories predicted “the death of downtowns” and a burgeoning, academic industry foretold a new, immiserating cycle of “urban doom loops.”
For decades, mobile phones, email and texting had been untethering workers from fixed locations. The mandated shutdown in early 2020 was an unprecedented event.
But widespread availability of new, web-based video-conferencing platforms for group meetings made the transition to remote work almost seamless. As a result, there was a dramatic drop in office occupancy, transit ridership, sidewalk vitality and retail sales.
At the same time, international tourism was suspended and domestic travel dropped precipitously. The arts and culture sector shifted to virtual performances and
exhibits, enabling the public to access cultural offerings remotely. Evening vitality and restaurant table service evaporated, along with the sense of safety in numbers on sidewalks.
Students left university and college campuses. Middle-class residents with second homes decamped from cities to beaches, mountains and rural areas. In Center City Philadelphia, there was a 74% drop from February to April 2020 in the volume of people present downtown.