Small cities and towns are urban places, too

The Washington Post recently told the story of Drew Murphy—an educated young man living the walkable urban life like many in his generation, with a twist. He doesn’t live in the city.

“Murphy, 31, lives the quintessential life of a young, successful professional in the District–except that he lives nowhere near the District. His walkable world is in downtown Frederick, Md., a thriving city 45 miles from the nation’s capital with one-tenth of the population.”


The Post reports on what it calls the “mini-DC” phenomenon: People living in small cities in the region, like Frederick, Alexandria, Anapolis, and Leesburg–some way outside the central city.

A similar trend is occurring across the nation in smaller cities like Pasadena CA, West Palm Beach FL, and Evanston IL, the Post reports.

This is not a new trend—all of these municipalities have been reviving for many years. But this has received less attention than big-city revival in DC, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and other major metros. The media usually frames this as city versus suburb—and revival in outlying cities and towns appears to run counter to the storyline.

Yet urbanists have long recognized that downtowns and urban centers in the suburbs are urban places in the same way that, say, Greenwich Village is an urban place. The Manhattan neighborhood that launched the Village Voice is more intensely urban, sure, but small urban centers are mixed-use and walkable just the same. Even a small town will have an urban center and neighborhoods that follow the pattern of the urban-rural Transect. Such towns are not really rural. They are urban places surrounded by rural. That’s an appealing juxtaposition for many people.

Likewise, urban centers surrouded by suburbs are appealing to many—for reasons of schools, safety (real or perceived), or proximity to a job.

Why is this important? The same demographic and market trends that are driving a return to big cities can also boost the prospects of smaller cities and towns surrounded by suburbs and countryside.

A recent national survey by TransitCenter found a big, unmet desire for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. TransitCenter is interested, they report, because that the kind of neighborhood a person lives in is the primary factor in who takes transit.

But mixed-use doesn’t necessarily mean cities. About 18 million people–or six percent of the nation–would like to live in mixed-use suburban neighborhoods, but currently don’t. About 10 percent of Americans would like to live in mixed-use small towns, but don’t. That gap will create a flow of people moving to fulfill their unmet desires. Where do we find people most likely to make such a move? Probably from more than 40 million people—14 percent of the nation—that currently lives, but would rather not be living, in suburban neighborhoods with only housing.


A city like DC or San Francisco is too big, too intense, for many people’s tastes. But tens of millions of households who don’t want city life still want the walkable urban life.

Put all of this together and we are like to see a huge migration from single-family, isolated, suburban subdivisions toward smaller mixed-use urban centers. The media may be surprised at this trend. Want a walkable urban place? Depending on your preference, you can find it in Manhattan or Philadelphia. Or you can find it in the suburbs. Or you can also find it in the Adirondack Mountains or the middle of Iowa if you look.

The mixed-use small town environment that many are seeking can be found in hundreds of small cities across the US—like Ithaca, New York, where I live, for example. With a population of 30,000, Ithaca is not a small town—but it feels like one. Ithaca has walkable neighborhoods and many amenities associated with cities, like good restaurants, a music and arts scene, and lots of events. Yet it also has the intimacy of a small town where you constantly bump into people from all aspects of your life in unexpected places. Two miles out of town the night stars shine brightly. Building is booming in downtown Ithaca.

This other walkable urban trend—apart from the revival of central cities—will be as powerful as any shaping real estate and geography in the coming decades.

This column was originally published here.

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