Having an Impact: The Appeal of Mid-sized Cities to Millennials

“There is a vibrant bar and restaurant scene, social sports leagues through which hundreds of young people get together to play kickball and other games, even a monthly bike ride – sponsored by a group working to make [the city] less car dependent – in which participants dress up in costume and ride through the city.”

I thought I was reading about St. Louis and wanted to look up this monthly cycling event that sounded like the Naked Bike Ride but more frequent. The city in question is not Portland, either, but rather Baltimore. In a profile of “The New ‘Cool’ Cities for Millennials,” The Christian Science Monitor uses Baltimore as the example of a series of infamously rundown, increasingly vibrant and even hip urban centers that increasingly draw the urban Millennial generation. Cleveland. Detroit. Nashville. St. Louis. Mid-sized cities with cheap rent, storied histories, and surprising economic opportunities for a generation pummeled by the Great Recession but still searching for places to make their mark.

And although New York, San Francisco, and other metropolises draw the lion’s share of young, educated adults, these other, often overlooked cities are beginning to see rapid increases in these populations. Even as St. Louis has continued a six-decade population death spiral, the number of 25-to-34-year-olds with a college degree near the urban core has more than doubled, rising 138% from 2000 to 2010, the largest such surge in the country. Although this relative increase obscures absolute changes, St. Louis attracted more than half the demographic increase Seattle did over this same period (4,227 versus 8,209). St. Louis and other struggling cities have far to go, but they are going, and changing faster than many would have anticipated just a few years ago.

In St. Louis, Downtown, Midtown and other central corridor neighborhoods were the only ones to gain residents from 2000 to 2010, when the city overall saw an 8% drop in population, perhaps a bellwether of a turning tide in the exodus from the city center. These neighborhoods include startup incubators like T-REX and Cortex, revitalized loft apartments, and convenient public transit.

And St. Louis is the fastest-growing city for new technology jobs. ArchGrants, founded in 2011, provides non-equity funding to tech startups—as long as they remain in or move to St. Louis. LaunchCode, which rapidly trains new programmers and places them at area businesses, was recently lauded by President Obama for its successes and is expanding nationally. Tech may not be sufficient to power the city’s economy, but St. Louis’ low cost of living and access to capital make it a top place for starting other businesses as well. 

Although demographers cannot untangle the economic causes from the cultural behind the Millennial move toward cities, The Christian Science Monitor and other sources have identified a self-reported interest in dense, walkable, community-oriented neighborhoods over suburban sprawl among the young. The people profiled in the CSM piece—employees at tech startups and nonprofits—claimed Baltimore as a city where they could have an impact, where a vibrant urban lifestyle coincided with a small enough community to feel absorbed, not “carried along”.

St. Louis offers the same opportunities to contribute to a quirky, very much in progress revitalization of the city. Upstart politicians can win by a mere 90 votes against an entrenched incumbent; individuals can ensure that local representatives listen to their constituents about critical bike infrastructure projects; shuttered corner businesses can be reopened to create a new community space; a brand new brewery can be self-funded.

As a full-time graduate student, I can still find a way to contribute to outreach to the community gardening scene in St. Louis where other cities, San Francisco for example, might have those kinds of niches saturated by individuals who can commit more fully to single projects. In many areas of this city, there is both a need and room for interested individuals and small groups to get their hands dirty in making their communities better—the results are obvious, the actions of individuals visible.

Demographers quibble over whether the Millennial move toward cities is stable, or whether family life, schools, and age will push us back out to the suburbs in the next decade or two. Time will tell. But it may be that the economic forces that favor urban centers only reinforce an intentional return to lively, dense cities. And that St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland or Detroit offer the more civic-minded—and more financially constrained—of our generation an opportunity to help forge the cities we will inhabit for decades to come.