City centers gain jobs share as suburbs lose them

Bloomberg NewsApril 18, 2013 

— The deepest downturn since the Great Depression has interrupted a decades-long trend of jobs steadily moving to the suburbs and hollowing out urban business districts across the United States, a study finds.

City centers gained a greater share of employment than their outer rings between 2007 and 2010, according to a report Thursday from the Brookings Institution. It’s not all good news — big suburban job losses, not large downtown gains — drove the shift and metropolitan economies are more decentralized than they were in 2000.

What’s heartening is that the shift slowed during the downturn, said Elizabeth Kneebone, author of the report and a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington. The report follows up on a 2009 study that found a continuous migration of jobs from downtown to the suburbs between 1998 and 2006.

“The recession stalled the trend but didn’t reverse it,” Kneebone said. “Absent policy changes as the economy starts to gain steam and regions are growing again, there’s every reason to believe that trend will continue.”

Urban revitalization and the notion of smart growth, which seeks to cluster housing and jobs near transit and entertainment, has had only limited success restoring downtowns.

Now, faced with tight budgets wrought by the housing collapse, some metropolitan leaders say they’re redoubling efforts to nudge employers and workers toward locations that maximize the use of transit and existing infrastructure, cut pollution and improve quality of life.

It’s not just where to put the jobs, it’s where to put the workers. A coalition of San Francisco Bay-area governments wants to add transit and housing to Silicon Valley’s sprawling office parks to create mini urban centers. Washington, D.C., once a void of boxy office buildings that emptied out at night to surrounding suburbs, is experiencing a revival, adding 1,100 new residents a month, according to Harriet Tregoning, director of the city’s office of planning.

In Columbia, office buildings on Main Street are filling up with bank headquarters and other professional offices as new condos and apartments opened in the past couple of years have filled fast and new retail ventures continue to open.

Construction, manufacturing and retail were among industries hardest hit by the housing downturn and subsequent recession and helped stall the jobs sprawl. The industries accounted for almost 60 percent of job losses between 2007 and 2010, Kneebone said. Half those losses occurred 10 miles or more from a downtown.

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