If reports in the media are accurate, suburbs are losing their appeal for a key demographic, at least in some parts of the country. A lot of well-educated young adults are growing disenchanted with the uniformity and separateness of the suburbs. They prefer the denseness, activity, and convenience that cities offer.
If that's truly a national trend, the City of Rochester has enormous potential. Whether it can overcome a major obstacle, however, is a big question.
The report, titled "The Young and Restless and the Nation's Cities," was prepared by a think tank called City Observatory, which, its website says, focuses on "cities and the policies that shape them."
One of the important findings in "The Young and Restless": For years, young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with at least a four-year college education were happy living in the suburbs. But that has changed.
When City Observatory researchers analyzed data on where college-educated young adults live, they found that they are "increasingly choosing to locate in the close-in neighborhoods of the nation's urban areas."
"Two-thirds of the nation's 25-34 year olds with a BA degree live in the nation's 51 largest metropolitan areas, those with a million or more population," the researchers found. Since Greater Rochester is one of the nation's 51 largest metro areas, it's included in the study.
City Observatory researchers looked at census data on young adults over the past several decades and compared it to data about the overall population of their metro area. What they found was that in 2000, college-educated young adults were 77 percent more likely than the general population to live in "close-in urban neighborhoods." In 2010, that preference had grown to 126 percent.
And City Observatory researchers found another significant change: college-educated young adults attract businesses. "In the past two decades," says the report, "we've witnessed an inversion of the classic recipe for economic development: it used to be that people moved to where the businesses were. Now, increasingly, it is businesses that look to expand in locations where there is an abundance of talent, especially young, well-educated workers."
There's a neat, symbiotic relationship: cities provide benefits for well-educated young adults, and those young adults benefit cities – and not just by living there and spending money.
City Observatory cites studies by several other researchers showing "that cities succeed by concentrating talent in place, and that college-educated people drive innovation and productivity."
"Young, well-educated adults are the most mobile Americans," says City Observatory; 1 million of them move from one state to another every year. "Because mobility declines rapidly with age," the study says, the location decisions they make in their 20's and early 30's play a key role in shaping metropolitan economic success."
Not all cities are experiencing the educated-young-adult migration equally, though. The City Observatory report doesn't provide information about that migration city by city, but it does have some statistics about changes in that population in the 51 largest metro areas. And if the number of college-educated young adults in a metro area is growing, the City Observatory research suggests that many of them are living in the largest city there.
In the Houston metro area, the educated-young-adult population grew by 49.8 percent from 2000 to 2012. In metro Denver, by 46.6. In metro Cleveland, by only .9 percent. Metro Detroit lost 10.5 percent of its college-educated young adults.
In the Rochester metro area, the growth was 9.1 percent. In Buffalo, 33.5 percent.
If some metropolitan areas are doing better than others, what makes the difference? What would Greater Rochester, for instance, need to do to move up from that 9.1 percent? And what would the City of Rochester need to do to be a magnet for college-educated young adults?
Two things, City Observatory says. One is to become "a more attractive place for those well-educated people who are on the move." In interviews, well-educated young adults told City Observatory that they were seeking places that are "interesting, diverse, dense, walkable, bikeable, and well-served by transit."
The City of Rochester has a good bit of that. But the second requirement is to excel in educating our own young people. And there, despite years of great intentions and effort, we continue to do poorly.
That will hinder Rochester's ability to attract new talent and new industry. And it will make it hard to keep the talent we do attract, when those well-educated 25 to 34-year-olds have children reaching school age.
In another, smaller report, City Observatory researchers discuss that issue. Census data indicate that of families whose youngest child is less than a year old, 42 percent live in cities, says that report. But when the youngest is 10 or older, that drops to 28 or 29 percent.
Since well-educated 25-34-year-olds have been moving to the city because they like what cities offer, will those attractions be strong enough to keep them when they have children of school age?
The City Observatory report cites a study by the Illinois Institute of Design that found, not surprisingly, that families who live in cities said that most important to them are schools, space, and safety. And the families liked the ability to use city-based cultural institutions and parks.
Another study of families suggested that affordable houses, with enough space for the special needs of families, is crucial. And there, Rochester, with its abundance of late 19th and early 20th-century houses, seems to have a big advantage.
Rochester seems to be a city in which advantages and disadvantages are competing with one another. Drive downtown at 11 at night, and you see an East End full of young adults. I walk through my neighborhood in the morning and on weekends and see families with small children.
The issue of schools, though, will continue to hold Rochester back. It may not deter young adults and adults whose children are grown, but holding onto college-educated adults with school-age children will be a struggle.
More on that in a few weeks.