We’re six!

On October 17, 2014, we launched City Observatory, with the aim of providing solid, data-driven research on cities, and offering a timely and informed voice on urban policy issues. Six years—and more than a thousand posts later—we want to reflect on the journey we’ve taken and those who’ve helped, and spend a few minutes highlighting the key issues that we think will occupy us in the days ahead.


The importance of cities, even in the age of Covid

We’ve always viewed successful cities as the key to solving many of our most challenging national problems, from housing affordability, to traffic congestion, to poverty, and to staving off climate change.  Our thesis is that the nation is experiencing a shortage of cities–we have a huge demand for great urban living that is only partly being met. For example, what manifests as shortage of housing is fundamentally the imbalance between the kinds of places people want to live and where housing has been built.

The economic evidence for this thesis is strong.  Our “Dow of Cities” measurement emphasizes  there’s been an increasing demand for central urban locations, and a relative decline for peripheral suburban ones. Home prices in central, and especially in walkable urban neighborhoods has gone up because these places are highly valued, and because, in many cases, a combination of density limits, apartment bans, parking requirements and arbitrary, NIMBY-dominated approval processes have essentially made it illegal to build more of these kinds of neighborhoods.

The Covid-19 pandemic has us to question many of the thinks that we took for granted just a few months ago, and one of them is the continued attractiveness of cities. In the early days of the pandemic, when the outbreak was most severe in New York City, and a handful of other large metropolises, the popular press was full of claims that people were fleeing cities to escape the virus. We tapped current market data on home and apartment searches to show that wasn’t true, and that cities had actually gained market share relative to their suburbs in the wake of the pandemic. Now, months later, the pandemic is demonstrably worst in the nation’s rural areas and small metros; claims that the pandemic was a uniquely or primarily urban problem are completely discredited.

Our 2020 report “Youth Movement” demonstrated the power and prevalence of the movement of young adults to the close-in neighborhoods the of the nation’s large metro areas.  All of the nation’s 52 largest metro areas recorded gains in 25- to 34-year-old adults with a four-year degree in their close in urban neighborhoods, and that trend is accelerating in four-fiths of these metro areas. And contrary to claims that people are leaving cities, we’ve tapped The harbinger of this urban shift has been the locational preferences of young adults. We’ve shown that the “young and restless“–25 to 34 year olds with a four-year degree, are increasingly choosing to live in the close-in urban neighborhoods of the nation’s largest cities.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and a growing national movement against police violence and in favor of greater racial equity, there have been demonstrations in cities across the nation. While media reports focusing on cities, and especially violence, including police repression of protests creates the impression that this is somehow an urban problem.  But again, city’s aren’t the cause of violence or unrest, they’re really the crucible for generating the awareness and support for a new ranges of solutions.

Cities as the solution

Much of what’s written about cities is pigeon-holed into narrow policy categories:  transportation, housing, economic development, equity, sustainability. But to us all of these seemingly unrelated issues are facets of a single underlying urban challenge. How do we build great cities for all?

These past six years have been an exciting time for America’s cities. Some see the events of the past year as a challenge to cities. But we see the  pandemic and the growing awareness of the need for racial reconciliation  not as “urban problems” but as challenges that can best be met by building better, stronger cities.

As we’ve said, our national challenge in the years ahead is to capitalize on the growing demand for urban living to create greater opportunity for all. For decades, economic opportunity and wealth were decentralizing, moving from the center to the suburbs, and leaving the poor and people of color cut off from upward mobility.  The movement back to the center creates a situation in which we can use new investment and added economic activity to revitalize urban neighborhoods, improve public services and increase opportunities for those who’ve often been left behind. In the past, cities have been the place where we’ve pioneered both better public health (in the face of past diseases) and stronger social justice.  We believe cities can be the places that develop the solutions to these challenges.

Thanks to all our friends, sponsors and partners

Many thanks to all those who’ve made this endeavor possible over these past six years. This project simply wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of our contributors and co-authors–including Daniel Kay Hertz, Dillon Mahmoudi, Michael Andersen, and Alex Baca.

We’re grateful to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for its founding support for City Observatory.  Along the way we also got a helping hand from the the Quicken Loans Community Fund.

None of this would have been possible without the support and encouragement of Carol Coletta.  City Observatory was her brain-child, and she’s continued to give us unerringly good advice.

It’s been an exciting time to be in the thick of national discussions about cities. If you’re a regular follower of City Observatory, you’ll be familiar with many of the key themes and lessons we’ve been emphasizing.