Youth movement: A generational shift in preference for urbanism

City Observatory

By Joe Cortright  15.6.2020

Well-educated young adults are increasingly moving to city centers

Real estate search activity shows no decline in interest in city living due to the pandemic

Our new report—Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance—confirms a powerful and still growing generational shift toward urban living. Increasing numbers of well-educated young adults are living in close-in urban neighborhoods in and near the downtowns of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Since 2010, the number of college-educated young adults living in dense, urban neighborhoods has increased by nearly one-third.

That trend is both pervasive and accelerating.  The number of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds living within three miles of the center of the central business district increased in every one of the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas since 2010.  And the rate of growth of this demographic in these dense, central neighborhoods was faster since 2010 than in the previous decade in four out of five metropolitan areas.

The increased number of these well-educated young adults living in these neighborhoods is the principal reason for the increase in population in these areas in the past decade.  The increase in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a four-year degree accounts for a majority of the increase in population in these neighborhoods since 2010.

Our CityReport details our methodology and findings.  In addition, you can look up data for your city’s performance on our dashboard.

Fleeing the city?  Your internet search history says otherwise

The popular press, and even some urbanist media, is awash at the moment with tales that everyone will abandon cities to avoid Covid-19. It’s easy to make the claim that the Coronavirus changes everything, as in any time of crisis people chuck data out the window and trade heavily on fear and anecdotes. An urban exodus makes a great eye-catching, click-grabbing headline, combining a pandemic prediction with a long American tradition of anti-urbanism, the “teeming tenements” view of cities as overcrowded and unhealthy.  Never mind that study after careful study has shown no connection between urban density and Coronvirus infection rates (indeed some of the densest cities—Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, Vancouver and San Francisco, have had among the lowest rates of reported cases), “fleeing the city,” is a journalistic favorite right now.

Generally these stories are based on anecdotes some individual or couple saying they’re planning to leave a big city for its suburbs, with the decision prompted by virus fears. Because people are always moving into and away from cities, individual anecdotes tell us nothing. A far better and more broadly grounded source of information comes from real estate searches. In the past decade, real estate has moved increasingly on-line, and searching for new apartments and houses leaves a data trail that tells us just where people are looking.

Data gathered at the height of the pandemic shows—contrary to the popular stories—that interest in city housing not only hasn’t waned, if anything it has accelerated.  Zillow reports that the market share of real estate searches in cities increased in 29 of 35 markets in April 2020, compared with pre-pandemic conditions. Similarly, found no decline in search activity for New York City, headlining its analysis, “The pandemic is not scaring renters away from New York.”  Zillow economist Skylar Olsen concluded:

While many have predicted “urban flight” we see no such evidence in search activity on Zillow, where the suburbs are actually experiencing a falling share of national search traffic even on homes for rent. Our past research and that of other economists on natural disasters and other traumatic events, really don’t support the idea that our preferences change that fast or that we hold onto the anxiety after the risk has passed.

A panicked prediction that the pandemic will produce urban flight makes for great headlines, but it doesn’t square with the data on what people are actually doing.  If our collective interest in city housing hasn’t diminished at all, even in the worst days of the pandemic, there’s every reason to believe that the accelerating trend of movement to cities by well-educated young adults is still very much in place.

Still:  A shortage of cities

In some cities, the rate of growth in the young adult population has slowed in the past decade. That’s led some observers to conclude—erroneously in our view—that this signals disenchantment with cities. The cities that have experienced slower growth—such as New York and San Diego—are the ones that have done the least to build new housing, and which consequently have experienced rising rents. When someone claims that a migration of people away from cities because of high rents signals a disenchantment with urban living, they’re getting the story backwards.  As Governing’s Alan Ehrenhalt (author of The Great Inversion) writes:

Cities become expensive because people do want to live there. They get even more expensive when there’s not enough good living space to meet the demand. That’s pretty much the whole story. Virtually every attempt to make it more complicated is, well, an unnecessary complication. Why the demand exists, especially among millennials, is a legitimate question. But it doesn’t change the fundamentals.

The fact that young adults are moving to cities even in the face of housing shortages and rising rents is both a signal of the underlying strength of this trend and a reminder that we need to do much more to expand housing in these high demand locations. If we want cities to be equitable and inclusive, expanding housing supply well help keep housing affordable and minimize displacement.

Optimism for the future of cities

Asking people to imagine the future of cities in the midst of a pandemic is like asking people their opinions of swimming in the ocean as they’re exiting the premiere of Jaws. In times of crisis and with overwhelmed by a traumatic event, we tend to deeply discount well understood facts and long-established trends.

It’s worth noting that cities have, throughout history, encountered and overcome challenges like the Coronavirus. The decade of the 1920s, which immediately followed the nation’s last pandemic (the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, was one of the greatest eras for American urban expansion. In the 19th century, clean water, improved sanitation and urban parks, all made cities healthier places to live.

More recently, cities have flourished in the face of trends that soothsayers said would lead to their demise. We were told in the 1990s that the advent of the Internet meant the “Death of Distance” and that everyone would decamp to cheaper bucolic locations, and that after 9/11, no one would want to live in dense cities like New York for fear of terrorist attacks.  Instead, the decades since 2000 have witnessed a burgeoning and increasingly widespread move back to the city, led by well-educated young adults.  We have every reason to believe that this trend will continue in the years ahead.

Far from being the places we run from, in times of pandemic and in soul-searching over how we treat Blacks and people of color, cities are the places where we will craft the solutions to these and other challenges. As Carol Coletta notes:

“What feels remarkable to those of us who lived through the devastating effects civil unrest had on cities in the Sixties, recent protests seem only to have solidified the feelings of community and the embrace of diversity that come so much more naturally from city living.  Clearly, many Americans want to be part of that.  It points to a desire to lean in to city living rather than turn away from it.”

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Portland awards itself a participation trophy for climate

Portland is utterly failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, but not to worry, its ticking lots of boxes in its bureaucratic check-list.
The city walks away from its 2015 Climate Action Plan after an increase in greenhouse gases, but promises to do better (and more equitably) in the future.
Portland’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 440,000 tons per year, instead of decreasing as called for in its 2015 plan.
Increased driving due to cheap gas has wiped out all the city’s climate progress in other sectors in the past five years.
We’re frequently told that when it comes to dealing with climate change, if our national government doesn’t step up (and it hasn’t under the current administration), not to worry, because the nation’s cities, and the mayors who lead them are as green as can be.
To be sure, mayors have loudly proclaimed their commitments to (future) greenhouse gas reductions, and fealty to the Paris Climate Accords, but rhetoric and pledges are one thing, and lower rates of carbon emissions are another. While plans are nice, we really need to be focusing on the results that the plans are producing.
When it comes to Portland, one of the self-proclaimed leaders of North American climate change cities, the results are disappointing, and the explanations are, at best, disingenuous.
Portland was one of the first cities in the US, to adopt and explicit grenehouse gas reduction goal in 1993.  The city’s website boasts:

Portland is tackling climate change head on. We were the first US city to adopt a carbon reduction strategy in 1993, and our cutting-edge Climate Action Plan put us on a path to reducing emissions by 80% in 2050.

Noble and far sighted, to be sure, but a quarter of a century later, how is the city doing in actually, you know, reducing greenhouse gases?
The answer to that question is supposed to be spelled out in a progress report on the the city’s adopted 2015 Climate Action Plan. The city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability last month published “final” report card on the city’s efforts. But rather than being an honest report card, the document amounts to the bureaucratic equivalent of a third-grade participation trophy. The city congratulates itself for its efforts, but the true test of progress, a reduction measured in tons of carbon emissions, shows the plan has been a failure.

The  city’s “Final Progress Report” almost completely glosses over the failure to cut emissions modestly in the past five years, and now the City has quickly moved on to a much more ambitious interim goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels (up from 40 percent), in its new Climate Emergency Declaration.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter:  The key element on the plan is reducing emissions.  Here’s the report’s summary of our progress:

The 2018 data also shows that carbon reductions have started to plateau and that current emissions trends are not sufficient to meet the needed reduction targets that need to be achieved. To achieve the goal of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 as identified by climate science, local emissions must be reduced by an additional 31% in the next 10 years. This is a daunting task.

Actually, the report doesn’t present the actual emissions data; instead, it links to another report (the September 2019 report we wrote about here) that has the  data, and that report includes data only through 2017.
A checklist isn’t a climate strategy
The bulk of the city’s self-congratulatory report card consists of describing a laundry list of 247 actions that were mentioned in the previous climate action plan, and briefly rating each as either complete, on track or “facing obstacles.  The actions include sweeping and important policies that would make a big difference (like Item 1H: carbon pricing, which is “facing obstacles), and administrivia, like planning for actions with minimal benefits (“Item 6B: explore options intelligent transportation system, complete).  Nothing in the report calculates or categorizes the impact of any of these individual actions on the region’s greenhouse gas reduction progress (or lack thereof).
Wow! 77% of 247 Actions are on track: But the one indicator that matters—carbon emissions—is going in the wrong direction. (Portland Climate Action Plan Report, 2020).
Put another way:  If you successfully implemented all or most of your checklist actions, and you’re not making progress on reducing GHG, then something is fundamentally wrong with your plan.
Plans have to be accountable, not just for endless checklists of busy-work tasks, but actually achieving measurable results. Ironically, the plan itself calls for more measurability, but as noted above, it simply failed to report the annual data showing that by the CAP’s own metrics, that its failing.
It’s the equivalent of a grade-school participation trophy:  The City and County laud themselves for implementing about three-quarters of their 250 checklist items, but gloss over the fact that greenhouse gases, particularly from transportation are rising.
In 2013, the base year for statistics used in preparing the 2015 Climate Action Plan, Multnomah County’s total emissions were estimated at 7,260,000 tons.  According to the latest climate inventory (linked to, but not actually quoted in the progress report), the level of emissions in 2017 (the latest year for which data is available), were 7,702,000 tons. (We dig into the detail of these estimates below). Thus, Portland’s  total GHG are higher in 2017 than in 2013 according to the city’s own numbers, i.e. since Portland adopted the 2015 plan we’ve made zero (actually negative) progress.  The report spins this as “plateauing” but we all know that unless we make steady progress in reducing GHG, the task becomes exponentially more difficult in the years ahead.  Nobody would call having your 8th grader still reading at the 3rd grade level five years later as “plateauing.”
Mission unaccomplished
Its clear from the tone of the report card, that the City is simply walking away from its 2015 plan–even though its substantive goals haven’t been accomplished.  The title of the report is “Final Progress Report.”  All of the references to the plan are in the past tense, for example:

The Climate Action Plan was an important roadmap over the last five years to help ensure the City and County continued their progress toward carbon reduction goals. The 2015 Climate Action Plan broke important new ground by including several important elements:
(Report, page 65).

City officials promise accountability, but if they simply walk away from plans after five years, without seriously acknowledging their failure, and analyzing the reasons for that failure, and begin by writing a new plan, de novo, as the city now proposes, there is no accountability. Moreover, the city’s “final report” disappears the few bits of serious number-crunching that were done in the 2015 plan, showing that we’d need to dramatically reduce vehicle miles of car travel in order to achieve our carbon goals.
The 2015 plan was explicit about what would be needed.  It laid out a carbon budget that did the math on what we would have to do to reach our goals. Specifically:

For example, by 2030 emissions from the building energy and transportation sector must be approximately 40 percent below 1990 levels (see Table 1). In 2050, residents must be able to meet all of their needs while using 62 percent less electricity and driving 64 percent fewer miles than they do today (see Table 2). (This also assumes a shift to cleaner electricity sources and more efficient vehicles.)
Climate Action Plan, 2015, page 19

In place of tangible, measurable indicators of progress toward our stated goal, the City’s climate emergency declaration offers  vague exhortations about future process.
As they walk away from the 2015 plan, there’s as yet  no plan to take its place.  There are vague statements about process going forward, descriptions of how the city might do something else, but few if any actual policies.  The City’s Climate Emergency Resolution directs BPS, by the fall of this year to “co-convene a process” to “identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared solution.”

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that no later than Fall 2020, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is directed to work closely with other City bureaus, Multnomah County, frontline communities, and youth-led organizations to establish and co-convene a new and ongoing climate justice initiative that will provide a framework for government and community to work together as equal partners to identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared vision for climate justice and action;

But this new process and the plan it produces, and its specifics are in the future.  For now the city has simply closed the book on the 2015 plan, and awarded itself a participation trophy for having done so.
Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan has been an abject failure
Its important to look in detail at the data on carbon emissions in Portland for the past decade. They show that the city’s climate change efforts, so far, have failed.  In the three years prior to the adoption of the Climate Action Plan (2010 through 2013), the city managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 250,000 tons per year; In the four years between the plan’s baseline and the latest available data, emissions have increased by 110,000 tons per year. In 2013, Portland GHG’s were 7.26 million tons; in 2017, they were 7.7 million tons, an annual increase of 1.5 percent per year, at a time the Climate Action Plan called for an annual reduction of 1.4 percent per year.
In the most basic sense, more greenhouse gas emissions mean your plan isn’t working. The plan characterizes this whopping failure as a “plateauing.”
It also conceals the failure by constantly referring to a 1990 baseline, rather than looking a recent trends (i.e. the past two, five or ten years).  In essence, the plan takes credit for emission reductions that happened in the two decades years before the 2015 plan was adopted (i.e. 1990 to 2010), and simply ignores the fact that Portland’s GHG are now going in the wrong direction.
Plateauing is a tacit admission of failure for a plan that depends on large and consistent reductions in emissions.  But, to be clear, emissions haven’t plateaued:  Portland’s total greenhouse gas emissions as calculated by the city, have risen by 440,000 tons between the CAP baseline year (2013) and the latest year for which data are available (2017).
It’s telling that the report includes no chart showing the needed path of emission reductions between now and 2030 or 2050.  Such charts are a staple of climate plans, including the 2015 CAP, which laid out this roadmap for GHG reductions:
The path laid out in Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan
If they’d replicated this chart, with data showing actual progress from 2013 to 2017, and showing their new, much more aggressive goal, it would look like this.
The 2015 Climate Action Plan, the 2020 Climate Emergency Declaration, and Reality
On this chart, the blue line shows actual emissions (as reported by the city), the 2015 plan (the orange line) and the 2020 Climate Emergency Goal (green line).  By 2017, in order to be on a path to achieving its 2030 goal, the City needed to reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent below their 1990 levels; instead, as we’ve noted greenhouse gases rose, and were at 15 percent below 1990 levels.  The fact that the blue line is above the orange line shows the city isn’t meeting its previous goal.
And its worth noting just how much more ambitious the new goal of cutting emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 (and to zero net emissions by 2050) is.  The much steeper slope of the green line (the new climate emergency goal) implies a vastly bigger lift than the previous (2015) plan, the orange line. Meeting the 2030 goal will require more than twice as much annual reduction (110,000 tons vs 220,000 tons), each year, from now through 2030. The 2015 plan required that the City reduce its emissions by about 1.7 percent per year over 17 years to reach its goal of a 40 percent reduction; its new climate emergency declaration requires a 4.1 percent annual emissions reduction over the next decade to reach its higher 50 percent objective.
The city has raised the bar at exactly the time that its shown that its current efforts simply aren’t working. And unlike the 2015 plan, there’s no detailed calculation of how we’ll achieve this vastly greater level of emissions reductions. Recall that the 2015 plan said we’d need to cut driving in half to achieve a more modest goal over a longer period of time. If the city is serious about achieving this goal, as opposed to just posturing, its essential that they show how the goal can be reached. They haven’t.
What’s needed:  A laser like focus on reducing GHG from driving
The startling omission from the report is the fact that it’s been the increase in driving over the past five years that’s undercut our progress toward our stated climate change goals. The report neatly glosses over the fact that emissions, especially from transportation, are rising.  It presents one chart showing GHG in 2000 and in 2018 (the year of the latest GHG inventory) and omits data for individual years.

The City’s report  card makes it look as if very little has happened—the transportation emissions have gone up, and just a little  Leaving out the annual data conceals a much bleaker reality:  In the past five years, Portland has recorded huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions.  Here are the annual data from the independent, nationally-normed estimates prepared as part of the DARTE GHG inventory, showing the  Portland area’s greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. (These data are for the entire metropolitan area).

As we’ve noted before at City Observatory, the Portland made good progress until 2013, when increased driving due to cheaper fuel costs produced a surge in vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions. Portland’s carbon emissions increased by 1,000 pounds per person annually between 2013 and 2018, more than wiping out all the other progress made in reducing greenhouse gases in other sectors.
Portland’s won’t make progress in reducing greenhouse gases until it finds a way to reduce vehicle miles traveled.  And it will need to reduce them substantially. As noted above, when it wrote the 2015 plan, the city did the math to figure out how big a reduction in driving would be needed.  Then, when transportation emissions were lower (and the city’s climate goals less aggressive) the city’s calculations showed we’d need a 62 percent decline in VMT. Our backsliding combined with a tougher goal means we’ll need to reduce driving even more to achieve the objective laid out in the Climate Emergency Declaration.
Dealing with climate change is a serious existential threat to humanity. Its good that the city is willing to acknowledge this, and that it has an important role to play in reducing greenhouse gases. This will be a challenging task, and it is not made easier by presenting reports that conceal fundamental failures to move forward, that hide key data and analysis that tell us where we really are, and which avoid accountability for failing to make meaningful progress toward our stated goals.


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