The revival of big city downtowns not about recreating economic hubs?

Joel Kotkin suggests revived downtowns of big American cities aren’t exactly bringing back the old days where they served as economic hubs:

Instead what’s emerging is a very different conceptualization of downtown, as a residential alternative that appeals to the young and childless couples, and that is not so much a dominant economic hub, but one of numerous poles in the metropolitan archipelago, usually with an outsized presence of financial institutions, government offices and business service firms…

The better numbers reflect then not a mass “back to the city” movement but an uptick in the market appeal of city centers. And it’s unlikely that the old urban cores will ever come close to recovering the economic preeminence they once enjoyed. In American Community Survey data from 2006-08, the central business district of the New York metro area was the only one across the country that accounted for over 20% of regional employment; downtown’s share topped 10% in just six other metro areas: Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., Richmond, Chicago and Hartford. This contrasts with the kind of employment dominance seen in the 1950s when Manhattan’s commercial core accounted for more than 35% of employment in the New York area. Of course, the decline is a natural outgrowth of the massive physical expansion of the New York area during the past half century, a pattern seen in other major regions.

From 2000 to 2010, the share of jobs dropped somewhat in the nation’s biggest urban cores, but employment declined far more in the inner ring suburbs, according to an analysis by demographer Wendell Cox. In contrast the fastest job growth was in suburban and exurban areas, paralleling their gains in population. This has become clearer since the recession ended; the consultancy Costar notes between 2012 and 2013 office absorption grew quicker in the suburbs than the core, accounting for 87% of new office demand. Overall suburbs account for nearly 75% of all office space in our metropolitan areas…

This resurgence in L.A., and elsewhere, is no mean accomplishment, but it also does not constitute sea-change in fundamental economic geography. Downtowns are back, but more as a lifestyle option than as a dominant feature of the metropolitan landscape.

Could big city downtowns be more urban lifestyle centers? Compared to suburbs, these downtowns offer more cultural options: museums, large urban parks, restaurants, theaters, non big box shopping. Suburbs have more cultural options than they did in the past – and the stereotypes that all suburbs were bedroom suburbs with no other activities was never true – but cities offer a higher concentration. And could city condos be a clear status symbol of today’s upper-middle or upper class?

Another piece of data that might help here are reverse commuting patterns. Looking at these downtown census tracts and blocks, how many residents work nearby or in the city compared to past decades?

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