By N. David Milder

We Need More Than Pollyannaish or Wishful Thinking for Our Downtowns to Recover and Thrive  

We are in the midst of what many observers have called the deepest crisis this nation has faced in many decades. It has been especially injurious to our downtowns because it has necessitated massive social distancing that makes it impossible for so many downtown entities, — e.g., shops, eateries, offices, movie theaters – to function properly or profitably. In this situation, it is understandable if downtown leaders and stakeholders look for signs that their future will be considerably better. Hope is perhaps the most underestimated, yet essential ingredient of any downtown revitalization or recovery. Still, if our downtowns are to recover, we must face realities and overcome some exceptionally strong challenges, while taking advantage of any new opportunities that this terrible crisis either creates or reveals.

In recent weeks a number of articles have appeared that have been quite pollyannaish about the recovery of our downtowns based on either wishful thinking or sloppy analysis. These puff pieces may be good for instilling hope, and perhaps are even needed. However, they are no substitutes for the kind of critical thinking and contingent planning that we need to start doing now if we are to robustly recover as quickly as possible.

Will Entrepreneurial Gold Dust Really Fall to Spark Our Economic Recovery? 

The Wishful Trend. One retail expert  has recently written:

“When all the dust settles, the post-lockdown era should provide a boost to downtown areas, in part due to newly unemployed but highly skilled restaurant and retail workers opening new businesses in downtowns where rent prices will trend downward.

The pandemic has left millions of highly skilled workers from the retail and food and beverage industries unemployed and eager to work. Many of these people are highly motivated to start their own businesses, creating an unparalleled pool of talent and potential entrepreneurial interest.

In a recent Forbes article, Bernhard Schroeder wrote: ‘27 million working-age Americans, nearly 14 percent, are starting or running new businesses. And Millennials and Gen-Z are driving higher interest in entrepreneurship as 51 percent of the working population now believes that there are actually good opportunities to start companies.’”1

A Reality Check. However, Schroeder was citing data from the “Global Entrepreneurship Monitor United States Report 2017” published by Babson College in 2018.  It must be noted that:

  • The GEM data are from before the swift and powerful economic decline the Covid19 crisis caused. There is no telling yet of precisely how the crisis has diminished the number of nascent firms  or killed off the young firms under 42 months old that the GEM studies look at. A reliable picture of the situation may not be possible until the CARES subventions time out.
  • Although the 2017 Gem study found that the Wholesale/Retail sector accounted  for the highest proportion of the nascent and young firms in the United States, 21% , it had not grown from the previous year and was “dramatically lower than the average of the 23 innovation-driven economies, 31%.” 2 Just a year later the Gem study found that the finance, real estate and business services accounted for 27% of the new and nascent firms, while retail, at 26%, still considerably trailed the other high income economies at 36% (see chart below from the 2018 Gem study.) 3
  • Retail has long been a downtown storefront space use, but in pre-crisis years many downtown leaders were worried about their ability to attract and maintain retail tenants. The Gem study showed that we were not generating as many retail startups as other innovation driven economies. And that was in relatively good economic times.
  • The fastest growing sectors for entrepreneurship were those that involved technology and knowledge – possibly good for generating office demand , but not exactly the types of firms noted for tenanting lots of downtown storefronts. 
  • The Millennials and Gen-Zers are among the two most economically screwed generations in living memory, so while many of them may have had an interest in entrepreneurship in 2017, even then raising  capital for such a venture was probably a frequent barrier to actual entry. Many of them are so strapped for income that they are still living with their parents, and Covid19 has increased their numbers. Raising capital was probably less of a challenge for those with gig or freelance sole proprietorship, but those “firms” also don’t fill many downtown storefronts.
  • Most importantly, and more precisely, we don’t know how startup rates will be impacted in the sectors that are most likely to produce tenant prospects for downtown storefronts – or which sectors they might be. How the continued growth of online retail sales and their integration into omnichannel operations will play out in terms of the amount, kind and location of physical commercial spaces remains to be seen. While most pamper niche operations have low initial capital costs and relatively low operating costs so they can be reconstituted with comparative ease and speed during a recovery, there is a real question about the availability of the types of consumer discretionary spending dollars they depend on.
  • Nor do we know how the Covid crisis’s economic impacts will influence current and future levels of interest and intent in becoming an entrepreneur. Most importantly, we don’t know how interest and intent will be impacted in the sectors that are most likely to produce tenant prospects for downtown storefronts. The blue line in the above chart from the 2018 GEM study shows the level of people aged 18-64 who intended to become an entrepreneur within a few months. The path is upward, though it shows much fluctuation, a Great Recession climb, and a bumpy 2016-2018 ride. The red line shows the percentage of the 18-64 population who are either a nascent entrepreneur or owner-manager of a new business, e.g., between 3 and 42 months old. It dived through the start of the Great Recession and then had a mostly upward path since. Obviously, these firms benefited from a recovering economy. Unfortunately, GEM does not provide a sector breakdown. Given that the constructive destruction in the retail industry and serious problems in several parts of the restaurant industry had already appeared, there is reason to suspect that nascent and young firms in those industries were not doing as well as those in other industries.  
  • Recent losses of retail jobs have been huge, and industry reports indicate  it will continue to grow through this year, as record numbers of retail stores are closed (perhaps over 20,000), and many chains enter bankruptcy. Are more retail workers, past or present, likely to find appealing startup opportunities in this kind of retail industry than in pre-crisis years? Will other entrepreneurs find the opportunities in the retail sector more potentially rewarding and less risky as those to be found in other sectors?
  • The attempt to see unemployed retail workers as an asset that will convert into an above average level of new retail startups as we recover may carry with it the implication that unemployment creates a high level of job need to which heightened entrepreneurship is a response. The 2018 GEM study presents data on the number of nascent and young firms (the total TEA) that were “necessity driven (see blue line in chart below). The necessity driven firms over all the years studied steadily account for a relatively small portion of all TEA firms. While the Great Recession did increase their number for  some years, overall their number did not change all that much, and never reached levels where they might spearhead startup led downtown recoveries.
  • B&M retail stores are taking on new functions and that may mean the skill sets of former retail employees are increasingly outdated and provide no advantage for starting up new types of retail and restaurant operations. For example, a new type of department store is appearing, — e.g., Neighborhood Goods, Showfields, b8ta – that sells curated collections of merchandise created by online birthed merchants.4 Also, the growing number of “ghost kitchens” can reduce the relevance of kitchen skills in the restaurant industry.  
  • Restaurants, another major source of downtown tenants, also have been clobbered.  Prior to the crisis many parts of this sector, e.g. casual dining, were already showing stress. The current need for social distancing and the apparent current danger of indoor dining, makes it very hard for restaurants to make needed profits. Until models for restaurants operating profitably under these conditions emerge, or the crisis significantly abates, will the sector be able to maintain the interest of entrepreneurs and its skilled workforce?
  • Here again the competitiveness of the opportunities the restaurant industry offers in terms of potential rewards and risks is very relevant. Restaurants have long had a very high failure rate compared to other industries – and Covid19 has certainly not done anything to diminish that fact. Also, external financing for restaurants has long been relatively hard to get, and their startup costs, if a full kitchen is involved, can be high. Self-financing during a recession and in its recovery years is also likely to be difficult.
  • Much is being made about the costs of store space. They typically amount to about 10% of the total sales of restaurants and various studies over the years have found that they are between 8% to 12% for most downtown merchants.5 Rents may indeed be important, but these firms have many other costs such as labor, inventory, insurance., etc., to factor in and be concerned about.
  • The Kauffman Foundation’s  2017 State Report on Early-Stage Entrepreneurship found that “the rate of new entrepreneurs ranged from a low of 0.16 percent in Delaware to a high of 0.47 percent in Wyoming, with a median of 0.30 percent. This considerable geographic variation certainly might also characterize the emergence of new entrepreneurs as we recover economically from the Covid crisis. It certainly suggests that entrepreneurship levels are dependent on a set on conditions, not just the cost of space, and will vary geographically with their strengths and weaknesses.

This is not to say that the recovery will not see either new downtown firms appearing or the full reopening of downtown firms that had suspended their operations. The question is how many of these startups and recovering firms can fill downtown storefronts with well activated and magnetic uses? Will they bring downtown vacancies back to acceptable levels? Will they bring customer traffic back to or above prior levels? Or will they just fill a few vacancies with drab uses that attract weak flows of customer traffic? Right now the difficulty of answering those questions is compounded by the fact that we probably won’t know the full extent and dimensions of our downtown vacancy problems until after the CARES subsidies time out, when the downtown operations then have to support themselves from “normal” type operations.

Is There a Real and Strong Startup Trend That Downtowns Can Ride to Recovery? If one goes back to some Kauffman Foundation studies about entrepreneurship in the decade or so prior to Covid19, one sees that there was not any steady trend of growing entrepreneurship. Indeed, there were ups and downs, with some concerns about it stalling or even seriously declining. 6 Covid19 may be sparking a number of startups in industries that help individuals and firms cope with the crisis, but I have not observed, or heard from professional friends,  or seen any published reports that claim it is causing lots of new downtown storefront-filling firms to open. There is no data-proven strong startup trend for downtowns, especially in smaller cities,  to ride to their economic recovery.

In sharp contrast, there are loads of data to show that remote work increased enormously in response to the crisis and lots of surveys that show that significant numbers of both workers and employers now think their remote work arrangements will continue on into the post crisis era. These are signs that remote work is a trend that has a good chance of lasting. There are no comparable data signals for resurgent entrepreneurship in the sectors that might occupy downtown storefronts, such as retail and restaurants.

Do We Just Sit on Our Hands? The settling of the crisis’s dust may or may not occur anytime soon. Whether it happens quickly or slowly can be pivotal. As John Maynard Keyes famously wrote “In the long run we are all dead.” The full impacts of other trend breezes such as remote work, changes in commuting patterns, and e-shopping may well take a decade or more to play out. They in turn may have big impacts on the demand for downtown storefront spaces, space uses, and occupancy rates.

What will happen to our downtowns during those years? Should downtown stakeholders and management organizations then just wait for the dust to settle and hope that new startup merchants will appear? If not, then what should/can they do?

Contingent Planning

Since it is far from certain that entrepreneurial gold dust will fall from heaven as the Covid crisis ebbs, perhaps it is valuable for downtown leaders to do some contingent development planning about what they can and will do to cultivate the types of small businesses that can tenant their district’s storefronts. Here, again, the variation in local conditions will probably mean a corresponding variation in responses. And prudence suggests anticipating a process of trials, errors, learning and adapting.

Community Supported Enterprises. For many years prior to the Covid crisis, in downtowns and Main Streets that were suffering storefront vacancies, severely weakened retail, and even food deserts, some local leaders created successful solution paths to these challenges. In our Covid economic recovery period, many other downtowns of all sizes may find these solution paths worthy of consideration. These solutions were most apt to succeed in situations where profitable operations were possible, but investors considered the rewards of entering these  downtowns or Main Streets lower and riskier than the opportunities they were being offered elsewhere. Some of these solution paths are:

  • Using crowdfunding to help open and/or maintain businesses strongly wanted by the local community
  • Using Community Owned Enterprises to save and operate key commercial operations
  • Using local social assets, such as social clubs, to leverage business development 7
  • Towns buying and operating failing essential retail operations, such as groceries.

Using such business models, and any riffs upon them, may help many downtowns and Main Streets recover their vibrancy over the next few years. They may be essential components of a New Deal program to revive retail. For more information about many of these business models see The Spotlight group of articles in the forthcoming Fall Issue of the American Downtown Revitalization Review at https://theadrr.com/ that will appear in September 2020.

Creating Supportive Small Town Entrepreneurial Environments.8 While much attention has been given to the creation of Innovation Districts, this concept is so large scale and complicated that it is only really applicable to big city downtowns and neighborhoods that are present in about 349 of our cities. Our remaining approximately 19,000 incorporated places also need a supportive startup culture and environment, but one that is simpler, less expensive to create and operate, and appropriately aspirant in its growth objectives. That is especially true at a time when many, if not most,  downtowns will probably be striving to cultivate their own startups to occupy their storefronts.  Such a Small Town Entrepreneurial Environment (STEE) might include: social places for new and small business operators to meet and network; access to viable funding sources; effective technical assistance; joint marketing programs, and affordable spaces in reasonable condition. It basically can take many existing downtown assets, such as libraries, bars, coffeeshops, makers places, community colleges, a downtown organization that invests in businesses and has niche marketing programs, etc., to create an informal district-wide business incubator and accelerator, Libraries in particular, are emerging as critically valuable STEE assets. Unfortunately, most downtown organizations do not yet see being actively engaged in small business development and expansion as a proper role for them to play. Nor do they exhibit any comfort or skills in playing that role when they do. A contingent planning effort could focus on how downtown leaders would foster the emergence of STEEs, should the need for it arise. This will likely entail a reappraisal of the roles the downtown organization should and can play.

Small Merchant Training.  The Covid crisis has reinforced the growth of two important nascent merchant trends:

  • Small and micro firms were weaving increased online activities with the operations of their brick and mortar stores. Customers ordering online and then picking their orders at the curb or at the storefront is one example of this.
  • More small merchants were tapping customers in distant market areas via their online storefronts and attending distant trade shows and fairs.

A contingent planning effort also could focus on how downtown leaders could encourage and train more of our smaller downtown merchants to use an omnichannel marketing operation that would help them to capture more sales dollars from both local and seldom before penetrated distant markets.

However, even prior to the Covid19 crisis, small merchant training has long been a challenge. In my experience, merchant training programs are often advocated, but seldom effectively implemented. The vast majority of them underperform because they ignore basic merchant needs and behavior patterns. Far too often, they want to EDUCATE the small merchants, and make them, for example, marketing savvy or bookkeepers. That can take a lot of merchant time and effort while providing them with more information than they have any need for near-term or even probably well into the future. Instead, what the merchants want is not to be taken to school, but actual solutions to their specific immediate problems. They want action steps that are credibly viable, affordable and easy to do. They don’t really want courses, workshops, or seminars. And they prefer not leaving their places of business. 

Also, in my experience, many small merchants are resistant to any suggestion that they are not doing things as well as they could be done, while others find it hard to ask for help even when they badly need it. Small merchants are often small merchants because of their need for independence and a strong sense of their own efficacy.  

Merchant training programs would probably be more effective if they:

  • Consider small merchants behaviors and attitudes as much as they do the information the program’s experts believe the merchants should learn
  • Give merchants access to training that is closely tied to their immediate needs, and less into making them better, more knowledgeable  entrepreneurs. Blasphemously, feed them fish, don’t try to teach them how to fish. Small merchants play too many roles to be experts in all of them, and they lack the dollars to hire others to take on some of them.
  • When possible, facilitate merchants learning from their peers whom they know, like and respect. In turn, that means it’s very productive to identify in a downtown those merchants who can be models and mentors for other merchants, and then to leverage them.
  • Start off by identifying the low lying fruit that can produce the  quick wins that will enable the training program to swiftly show other nearby merchants what it might do for them.

Perhaps some of national organizations such as IDA, IEDC, and National Main Street can develop such improved small merchant programs that can then be easily tailored to local conditions. Leaving their development solely to organizations such as SCORE or the SBDCs is a massive mistake. A strong need for such programs existed well before the Covid19 crisis, and will very likely far out last it.


1) Robert Gibbs. “After Lockdown, New Opportunities for Downtown Shopping Districts” at https://dirt.asla.org/2020/05/13/the-pandemic-will-lead-to-a-revitalization-of-main-street-retail/   Matthew Wagner wrote an interesting article on the Main Street Blog that also extolled our penchant to be entrepreneurs as a path to recovery, but most of the piece usefully went into the need for various things that I would associate with creating  what I called above a STEE. See: Matthew Wagner,” Main Street America. Main Spotlight: COVID-19 Likely to Result in Increased Entrepreneurship Rates” June 9, 2020. https://www.mainstreet.org/blogs/national-main-street-center/2020/06/09/covid-19-likely-to-result-in-increased-entrepreneu

2) Julian E. Lange, Abdul Ali, Candida G. Brush, Andrew C. Corbett, Donna J. Kelley, Phillip H. Kim, and Mahdi Majbouri. “Global Entrepreneurship Monitor United States Report 2017” published by Babson College in 2018, p. 27.  https://www.gemconsortium.org/economy-profiles/united-states

3) See: Julian E. Lange, Candida G. Brush, Andrew C. Corbett, Donna J. Kelley, Phillip H. Kim, Mahdi Majbouri, and Siddharth Vedula Global Entrepreneurship Monitor United States Report 2018” published by Babson College in 2019 https://www.gemconsortium.org/economy-profiles/united-states

4) I want to thank Mike Berne for bringing these stores to my attention.

5) See for example: Kate Paape and Bill Ryan, University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension Division, and Errin Welty, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. “A Comparison of Rental Rates Charged for Downtown Commercial Space: A Market Snapshot of Wisconsin Communities”.  August 2019 https://economicdevelopment.extension.wisc.edu/files/2019/10/Downtown-Rent-Study-100119.pdf

6) See: “Victor Hwang Testimony Before U.S. House Committee on Small Business, Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Tax and Capital Access,”  February 15, 2017


7) See: Norman Walzer and Jessica Sandoval, “Emergence and Growth of Community Supported Enterprises.” Center for Governmental Studies at NIU. 2016. https://www.cgs.niu.edu/Reports/Emergence-and-Growth-of-Community-Supported-Enterprises.pdf

8) N. David Milder. “Toward an Effective Economic Development Strategy for Smaller Communities (under 35,000).”


Live-Work as a Downtown Population Growth Engine in Independent and Suburban Communities

By William F. Ryan, University of Wisconsin – Madison/Extension and N. David Milder, DANTH, Inc.


Within the downtown revitalization community a broad consensus has formed around the maxim that the greater the number of people who live in our downtowns, the more likely they are to prosper. These residents help to spark the “activation” of the district, providing the visible evidence of people engaging in a variety of activities, and nurturing the perceived sense of vitality among visitors that makes the area a  magnetic place to be. A number of factors can impact this downtown population growth. The real estate market certainly is one. Job growth, especially of creative class employees, is another. One that has gained notice, of late, is the number of people who live and work in their districts, and the live-work environments that emerge to both support them and reflect their attitudes and behaviors.

Most of the attention paid to the live-work engine has focused on our largest cities. After a brief look at those downtowns, this article will look in greater depth at the numbers, behaviors and impacts of live-workers on suburban and independent cities with populations between 25,000 and 75,000 .1  Suburban cities are located in a metro area in which there is a large center city. They usually serve more as bedroom and leisure communities than employment centers. Independent cities are more geographically isolated and may be the cores of a small metropolitan/micropolitan area. They serve as employment and commercial centers as well as bedroom and leisure communities. They are often also government centers (e.g., county seats). They are more multi-functional than the suburban downtowns.  

Live-work Environments as a Growth Engine in Our Largest Employment Nodes.

Job growth alone often has had mixed impacts on a downtown’s vitality and attractiveness in our larger cities. In the 1980s, for example, office development – with its large numbers of white collar workers — was seen as THE downtown redevelopment strategy, but it produced a large number of disappointing projects in dull and perceived unsafe downtowns. Many of them had to be “redone.”2 In office dominated districts, there were too many fortress-like office towers, and they lacked the multifunctionality and pedestrian activity that are critical for downtown vibrancy. Though somewhat active weekdays from about 11:00 a.m. to about 2:00 p.m., the downtowns were deader than doornails at other times. There were too few people around once the offices closed. 

Since the early 2000s, and especially after a major paper by Eugenie Birch in 2005, observers noted that our larger downtowns in the 1990s had been attracting significantly more residents.3  In the years since, housing development has become increasingly seen as the secret revitalization sauce for a large number of downtowns, including those in numerous suburbs, and almost all of our largest cities.  These new residents help activate their downtowns after 5:00 pm on weekdays and over the entire weekend.

However, not all downtowns experience household growth. For example, Birch found that about 27% of the downtowns she studied had declining numbers of households.

Downtown housing growth and district activation is thought to be strongest when downtowns have attracted large numbers of “live-workers.  They are there after 5:00 p.m. and on weekends. They don’t spend much time in vehicles commuting, but often will walk to and from work, or make short trips on public transit. For example, in several zip codes in Manhattan over 50% of the residents who are in the labor force walk to work.  The live-workers  very often are also creatives with high salaries.

In a seminal monograph published in 2017,  Paul Levy and Lauren Gilchrist researched the percentage of live-workers (those who both live and work in a district) in 231 major employment centers located in the nation’s 150 largest cities and within a one-mile radius that surrounds each of these centers. 4  Their work is important because it:

  • Demonstrates how downtowns are intractably inter-related with their immediately surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Showed that a significant number  of the downtowns in the nation had very significant levels of live-workers of 40.7% to 55.9%, especially those in superstar cities. (See the above table). The authors did not overtly make that claim, but, several of the high performing downtowns they listed are what Aaron Renn has termed as  superstar cities: “These “superstar cities”—New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Washington, and Seattle—are among America’s largest, most productive urban regions. They have well-above-average per-capita GDP and incomes and serve as the home bases of high-value sectors like finance (New York) and high tech (San Francisco)”. 5
  • However, the vast majority of our largest employment nodes had considerably lower levels of live-workers: 60% had fewer than 20% of their workforce being live-workers, with 42% in the 10%-19% range. 6

Live-workers in Independent and Suburban Cities.

The authors utilized a data set compiled by William Ryan, of the University of Wisconsin -Madison/Extension , and Prof. Michael Burayidi, of Ball State University, that covers 259 downtowns in cities with populations between 25,000 and 75,000 in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. The dataset contained valuable information about the sizes of these downtown populations and their growth or decline. Using the Census Bureau’s On-the-Map online database, two variables were added to the original dataset: the number of people who both lived and worked in the city (N Live-workers in City) and the percentage of people participating the nation’s workforce and living in the city who also worked there (% Live-workers in City).  The limitation of these added data is that they are characteristics of the whole city and not just the downtown and its immediately surrounding areas. The reasoning for using these data is that the two live-work variables can be seen as indicators of a proclivity to live-work within a city and the analysis can be framed by looking at the impact of that proclivity on the size of these downtown populations and rates of population growth/decline.

A closer look at downtown live-work situations is also presented below. However, because of resource constraints, it is confined to 10  cities in this population range. Five are independents and five are suburban. Several of these downtowns are not in the Ryan-Burayidi dataset.

Downtown Population Growth and Decline.  These downtowns do not appear to be having the impressive level of population growth that is to be found in our larger cities, and this is especially the case for the independent cities that are not part of a large metro area.

The suburbs averaged downtown populations that were about as large, 3,089, as the independents, 3,294, but had a slightly larger maximum and a lower minimum. The suburban downtowns captured only a slightly lower proportion of their city’s population, with a median of 7.6%, than the independents did, with a median of 9.2%. Their highest proportions were close, too, 28.4% among the suburbs and 27.3% among the independents.

However, the suburban downtowns had an average growth rate between 2010 and 2018 estimated at 5% compared to just 0.53% for the independents. Both growth rates were far below the two digit growth rates many of our larger downtowns have been experiencing. Unexpected is the large percentage of these downtowns with negative growth rates, 36%. One might think that we were back in the 1960s or 1970s. In this regard again, the comparative strength of the suburbs stood out: while 31% of the suburban cities were dealing with declines in their downtown’s population, 46% of the independents experienced such decline. The suburbs also showed much more variation in their growth, with a low of -57.2% and a high of 140.2% compared to the -11.6% and 17.9% for the independent cities. 

Many of these downtowns could benefit from a strategy that can increase  their downtown populations.

An important factor in the different downtown population growth rates of the suburban and independent cities is their current economic growth potentials. Recent studies by Brookings and AEI have noted that economic development these days is stronger in communities that are attached, in a metro area, to a large city that has a population above 250,000.7 Many of the suburban cities in the Ryan- Burayidi dataset are attached to such cities (e.g., Chicago, Minneapolis, Columbus). In contrast, the independents, all under 75,000, probably are not, and instead are themselves the core cities of smaller and weaker metro areas.

Levels of Citywide Live-Work. Again, because of their very natures, these two types of cities display quite different levels of live-workers at the city level. In the more geographically and economically isolated independent cities, half of them have over 33% of their residents who also work in the city, with 10%  having between about 54.7% to 67.7% of their residents being live-workers. Those numbers, though at the city level, compare favorably with the percentages of liveworkers in and near our big city downtowns identified by Levy & Gilchrist. In contrast, the suburbs, being integrated into an economic region with lots of jobs, have many fewer live-workers at the city level. Half of the suburban cities have less than about 9.9% of their residents also working in their cities, with the highest percentage being 36%, about half that of the independent cities. 

A Pearson Correlation analysis showed that both live-work variables have very weak relationships with  downtown population size in both independent and suburban communities, with no r exceeding .166 or being statistically significant. These findings support the conclusion that the proclivity for live-working in both types of cities probably has little impact on the downtown’s population size.  People who live close to where they work are not clustered in and near their downtowns in these 259 cities.

However, there was a positive r of .249 significant at the .05 level between the number of live-workers in the independent cities and their downtowns’ rates of growth/decline. This does suggest that the proclivity to live-working can have some positive association with downtown population growth in these communities when they are growing. That may point to the additional availability of new downtown housing units that facilitate live-working.

A Case Study of a Creatives’ Suburb. Looking at the nature of the live-work environment in one of the suburban cities in our dataset, Dublin, OH, provides an interesting case study. Dublin is the nation’s 13th strongest creative class city, according to Richard Florida. 8  For a suburb (of Columbus) , it also has a large number of people who hold jobs in the city, about 42,249 in 2017. (See the above table). Given the propensity for creatives to prefer hip urban areas, one might expect a high number of live-workers in this downtown. However, the number of  live-workers within a half-mile of the downtown’s center point in 2017 is a miniscule five. In 2017 live-workers represented just 0.18% of the downtown’s workforce and 1.2% of its residents who are in the labor force.  They also represented just 0.48% of the downtown’s 1,024 residents (includes those not in the labor force). Those five live-workers accounted for 0.2% of the 3,184 live-workers in the whole city. Live-workers seem, if anything,  to be avoiding the downtown.

The number of people who are in the labor force and live in the 0.5 mile  had dropped slightly, by 19,  from 2007.  Most notably, the absolute numbers of live-workers and their percentages of the relevant area’s workforce and residents increased  with their distance from the downtown. Moreover, the number of live-workers in the city increased by 408, while the increase within the 1-mile ring was just 44, or about 9% of the city’s total increase. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the local residents and workers have little interest in living in urbanized environments, or at least the type offered in downtown Dublin. The downtown might not be seen as hip. It is very small. This should not be surprising in a town that is such a strong exemplar of a successful suburban city.  Here is how Google describes the city:

“Dublin Ohio is a long standing community and is probably best known for being the home of Jack Nicklaus’ Country Club at Muirfield Village”.

“Dublin is in Franklin County and is one of the best places to live in Ohio. Living in Dublin offers residents a sparse suburban feel and most residents own their homes (italics added). In Dublin there are a lot of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and parks. … The public schools in Dublin are highly rated.” 9   

In 2014, a survey by Trulia found that 53% of the 2,008 respondents lived in a suburb and that about 93% of them preferred living in suburban locations. 10 That suggests a high probability that a strong majority of the  residents in towns like Dublin might not be looking to live in a dense downtown location in a multi-unit structure. The situation in Dublin signals that many creatives may be among them.

Dublin recently undertook a massive new project, the Bridge District to strengthen the downtown. It will be interesting in a few years to see how that changes how many people live in its downtown and how many are live-workers. 11

An In-Depth Look At Working Populations, Jobs and Live-Workers in 10 Selected  Downtowns.

The authors selected 10 downtowns they have visited and researched with populations  in the 25,000 to 75,000 range (with the exception of Morristown, NJ) to look at their live-work rates, if these rates grew or declined between 2007 -2017,  the size of their working populations (residents in the labor force), their number of jobs and how they also may have changed between 2007-2017. The data were downloaded from the Census Bureau’s On-the-Map online database using 0.5mile and 1.0 mile radii centered on the key intersection in each district. The assembled data are displayed in the two tables presented below. The analysis of such a small sample has obvious statistical limitations. In the natural sciences, e.g., astronomy, however, analogs are often treated as outliers that bring an existing theory or paradigm into question or suggests a need for their amendment. Our findings are presented as being directional, not conclusive, and sometimes as signaling that attention should be paid to them because they do not fit with the accepted professional wisdom.

For the downtowns in the cities in the 25,000 to 75,000 population range, the 0.5 mile ring will cover most or all of their district. It also represents an area that the average pedestrian can cover in about a 10-minute walk from the downtown’s center. It is also often used to define the boundaries of transit-oriented development districts. The 1 mile ring defines and area that is about 4.13 times larger than that of the .5 mile ring, and the average pedestrian would have to walk for about 20 minutes to go from the downtown’s center to the ring’s boundary. Such a walk is still doable for many, but its difficulty is sufficient to probably make others use some form of transportation or simply not make the trip. The .5 mile to 1 mile donut probably represents the nearby neighborhoods that are so crucial to the success of our downtowns. 

Residents in the Labor Force. As can be seen in the above table,  the number of people who live in the 1-mile ring and are in the labor force (labor force pop), for the most part, is far from negligible. (Note, they do not necessarily work in or near the downtown). The most are in two suburbs, Cranford, 8,817,  and Morristown, 8,728,  both in NJ. However, the average for the 5 independent downtowns’ 1 mile rings, 6,566, is about 10%  higher than that of the five suburban cities, 5,977.

A far larger disparity appears when we look at the data for .5 mile rings: the average number of ring residents who are in the labor force is 1,776 for the five suburban city downtowns, but 307% larger at 5,455 for the independent city downtowns. This probably reflects key differences in their basic characteristics: the independents probably are larger and have traditional, more densely developed downtowns, with more housing units and more jobs, while the suburban downtowns are less densely developed and less multi-functional. However, within the suburban group, Cranford, Morristown and Downers Grove all have many more of these residents than the other two downtowns. Notably all three had completed a number of downtown housing projects in the 2007 to 2017 timeframe. Also, Morristown is both a suburb in the NY-NJ-CT Metropolitan Region, and a county seat and regional commercial center. Notably, it and Garden City have more people working in the city than residents. Starting out as bedroom communities has not stopped them from also becoming office employment centers.

The table also provides ring ratio values that are created by dividing  a variable’s value for the 1 mile ring by its value for the .5 mile ring. This sheds light on where the weight of the geographic distribution is between the two rings. Here we are looking at the ring ratio for residents who are in the labor force. A value of 4.1 would indicate an evenly balanced distribution. Values below 4.1 mean the distribution is weighted to the .5 mile ring, and the lower the ratio’s value, the more heavily the distribution is weighted. Conversely, values above 4.1 indicate the degree the distribution is weighted to the 1 mile ring. While the ring ratio for the suburban cities, 3.4, and the independents, 1.2,  indicate the weight of the distribution is toward the downtown, it is much stronger for the independent downtowns.

Live-Workers.  When it comes to live-workers, the differences between the independent and suburban cities are even more striking. In the .5 mile ring the suburbs range between an unimpressive 5 and 216 live-workers, with an average of 80. On average, live-workers account for just 4.5% of the residents in that ring who are in the labor force. If we look at the suburbs’ 1 mile rings, the numbers rise, but they still are relatively small. Their live-workers range between 169 and 1,146,, with an average of 521. The live- workers in that ring, on average,  represent just 8.7% of its residents who are in the labor force. These findings are consistent with the conclusion that the vast majority of the people who live in and near suburban downtowns do not do so because their jobs are also there, though some may be employed elsewhere in their cities. Other factors are leading these residents to select residences in and near their suburban downtowns. Such factors might include the convenience, transportation assets (e.g., commuter rail), and the attractive central social district functions these downtowns offer.

Live-workers have a stronger presence in the independent cities, especially in the 1-mile ring around their downtown’s central location.  The range from 181 to 328 in the .5 mile ring, with and average of 231 and from 959 to 1,459 in the 1 mile ring, with and average of 1,212.  On average the live workers are 7.7% of the residents in the .5 mile ring who are in the labor force , but 19.9% of those residents in the 1 mile ring. Moreover, Laramie and Rutland have much more impressive levels of live workers, 39.5% and 29.3% respectively. These are levels comparable to large numbers of our largest downtowns. One explanatory hypothesis is that live-working is likely to flourish in the core cities of a metro area, be it large or small, but not in suburban cities.

The ring ratio of suburban cities for the live-workers is 6.5, and for the independents it’s 5,2, indicating their distributions are weighted significantly toward the 1 mile ring, in the .5 mile to 1 mile donuts where residents are likely to find walking to the town’s center not really easy and liable to need/use some transport to get there. This also supports the conclusion that while live-workers may be great for downtown activation and success, downtowns often may not be where people who want to live-work will decide to reside. Being near, but not in the downtown may allow them to enjoy both the assets of the downtown and a suburban home and lifestyle. This may be a reflection of the local cultural where single family residences and traveling by car still are highly valued. While this may be more apparent in suburban cities, these cultural preferences can also be found the independent cities that are so often cities in the midst of a rural area. 

Influence of Jobs. Levy and Gilchrist argue that job growth and density are major reasons why live-work levels get very high in our most successful downtowns.

Looking at suburban cities in the bottom half of the above table, one might note that three of them have relatively large numbers of jobs in their 1 mile rings: Garden City 31,309, Morristown 23,431, and Dublin 16,529. They are in the large NY-NJ and Columbus metro areas. Indeed, the five suburban 1-mile rings average 16,890 jobs In contrast, the average job count in the 1-mile rings of the independent cities is just 6,566, with the highest being Rutland’s 7,659.

However, when we look at the percentage of jobs being held by live-workers in both the .5 and 1 mile rings, the averages for the suburban cities are just 1.5% and 3.1% respectively. Despite their high job numbers, the percentages of Garden City, Morristown and Dublin in the 1 mile ring are just 1.5%, 4.9% and 1.0% respectively. The connection between jobs and the emergence of a large number of live-workers seems to be barely existent in these suburban communities, even in those that are prosperous and have lots of jobs.

Live-workers have a more significant presence in the independent cities, especially in their 1-mile rings. The average percentage of jobs held by live-workers in the .5 mile rings is 12.2% and 19.1% in the one mile rings.

However, many of these cities have been struggling. As noted above, 46% of the 91 midwestern independent cities in the Ryan-Burayidi database had declining downtown populations. Auburn, Laramie and Rutland had job losses in their .5 mile ring of -25.6%, -17.8% and -17.8% respectively between 2007 and 2017 and declines in the number of live-workers of -25.6%, -24.9% and -24.2% respectively (see table below). Still, in all five independent cities there is total agreement in all 10 rings between the directions of job growth/decline and live-work growth/decline. That certainly signals a meaningful association between the two.

The opposite is the case with the suburban cities.  In seven of their 10 rings there is disagreement in the directions of job growth/ decline and live-working.

Also worthy of note is that between 2007 and 1017 the number of live-workers declined in six of the independent city ring areas and in eight of the suburban ring areas. While live-work may have been growing in our larger cities, these 10 cities suggest that it may have been struggling in our medium sized cities.   

The ring ratios for the suburban cities, 3.2, and the independents, 2.7, both indicate the geographic weighting of jobs is toward the downtown. This is again the opposite direction of the live-worker ring ratios. Jobs may be going to the downtown core, but live workers are going to the close-in neighborhoods  surrounding the downtown or at its periphery.   

Conclusions and Implications

Many of These Downtowns Are Struggling.  This is strongly evidenced by the analysis of the 259 cities in the Midwest with populations between 25,000 to 75,000. Many of their downtown populations are declining, not growing. The problem is 48% greater in the independent cities than in the suburban cities that are often attached to fairly large and more prosperous metro areas. That Laramie and Rutland are also having downtown problems suggests that such weakness is not confined to the Midwest, but probably national in scope.

The success of our superstar cities and downtowns should not cloud our awareness of the challenges many of our other downtowns are still facing.

That Said, Their Downtown Populations Are Not Insignificant. The average downtown populations of the 91 independent cities, 3,294, and the 168 suburban cities, 3,089, are similar. Downtown populations of that size can have over $150 million in total annual consumer spending. If they just make one trip daily outside their homes that totals over 6,000 potential in-out pedestrian trips. Those are not negligible numbers.

Live-Working in These Cities Is Struggling, Too. While live-work may have been growing in our larger cities, in the 10 cities given a close look in this study, the numbers of live-workers declined between 2007 and 2017 in all of them. In the suburban downtowns live-work was not significant to begin with. That suggests live-work may have limited potential in many suburban downtowns and that it is struggling in a large number of our medium-sized independent cities nationally.

The Job Growth/Decline – Live-Work Growth/Decline Connection Does Not Work in Suburban Downtowns. Even when they have tens of thousands of jobs, the suburban .5 and 1 mile rings have very low percentages of live-workers.  Conversely, the independent cities, that are often the core cities of small metro areas and have denser and more multi-functional downtowns than the suburban cities, can have significant levels of live-workers. In them, the connection between jobs and live-workers seems to be meaningful.  However, the data on these five independents indicate that this can be a double-edged sword. When jobs grow, so can the live-workers, but, when jobs decline, so will the number of live-workers, and many of these downtowns are in stressed regional economies.  One explanatory hypothesis is that live-working is likely to flourish in the core cities of a metro area, be it large or small, but not in suburban cities.

Is Job Growth Really the Primary Engine of Downtown Population Growth? The average downtown populations of the 91 independent cities and the 168 suburban cities are similar, but they differ in what attracts these residents.  While proximity to jobs might draw a significant number of residents to locate in independent city downtowns, that is not the case with the suburban downtowns. Indeed, even most of the residents in the independent downtowns probably are not drawn there by the proximity to their jobs. If that holds nationally, then the argument for jobs being a primary engine of downtown population growth needs to be amended. Moreover, the reverse commuters in our superstar cities, such as those riding Google buses from their San Francisco homes to their Mountainview jobs, suggest national applicability.

The question then becomes, what other factors can be attracting downtown residents? Since our data did not cover this question, we can only hypothesize based on the accepted conventional wisdom in the downtown revitalization field the following:

  1. The downtown’s multi-functionality, that there are so many diverse needs and wants that can be met in a downtown.
  2. The attraction of the downtown’s central social district assets: its housing, restaurants, bars, public spaces, cultural and entertainment venues, senior and childcare centers, places of worship, pamper niche venues, etc.
  3. The convenience of being able to walk to all of these venues and engage in all of the activities in a compact and visually attractive and humanly scaled area.
  4. In the suburbs, the housing units proximity to a commuter rail or an express bus station.

If this hold water, then these downtowns should pursue revitalization strategies that reflect those points.

The Signals of Important Cultural Preferences. It’s important to keep in mind that the vast majority of the cities analyzed in this study are either suburban or medium-sized cities in rural areas. Very high proportions of the people who live in these areas prefer living in such communities. Their cultural preferences are for single family homes, high car use, and a selective tolerance of dense clusters of people. Living in multi-unit buildings situated in or near a walkable commercial district may only be valued by a limited number of niche market segments, such as empty nesters, commuter rail users, and young adults who need to share residency costs.

Looking at the 10 cities spotlighted in this study: while the weight of the geographic distributions of the labor force population and jobs tilt toward the .5 mile ring, it tilts strongly to the donut area between the two ring boundaries for the live-workers. This suggests that there may be some important differences between the live- workers residing in the donut and those people who live in the core downtown area. One might conjecture that since it is likely that the housing available in the donut will not be as dense as it is in the downtown core, and also more likely to be single-family dwellings, that this signals an important lifestyle preference. This, in turn, may correlate with higher income households who can afford to buy houses going to the donut.  

Moreover, as we noted about Dublin, OH,  even though the town has a ton load of creatives working there, where its residents have chosen to live suggests a high probability that a strong majority of them are not looking to live in a dense downtown location in a multi-unit structure.

Would An Infusion of Creatives Alter These Cultural Preferences and Increase Live-Working?  Creatives are often seen as the strategic solution to many downtown challenges. Would and infusion of them counter a culture’s existing preference for a dispersed lifestyle? Research by David A. McGranahan and Timothy R. Wojan found that in metropolitan counties about 30.9% of the workforce were in creative class occupations, while in rural counties it was just 19.4%. 12 One might reasonably deduce that the cities analyzed in this study have  creatives that probably account for between 20% to 30% of their workforces. Creatives are famous for living where they will find the lifestyles they prefer, so the fact that they live in these suburban and rural cities can be taken as a fairly strong sign that they like living in these kinds of communities.  That, in turn, suggest that they may have adopted many of the cultural values of their larger community.  Moreover, whatever impact they might have already is reflected in the current situation in these cities and their downtowns. Also, given their education, income and employment, creatives also can be expected to have had an above average level of influence in the community.

One possible influence for change might be creatives who move into these communities. Will they bring in a more cosmopolitan worldview?  There has been some research on the people who are moving back to small towns and rural areas that shows many are in creative occupations and that they move back to be closer to their families, to enjoy a slower pace of life, and to live in a place where social ties and engagement are more important. 13 They maybe bringing their creative and entrepreneurial  talents into their suburban and rural cities, but they are not there to create a mini Midtown Manhattan or a mini downtown San Francisco.

On the other hand, if the incoming creatives are largely young, not nested adults, then there might well be a demand for apartment units. However, brain gain when it emerges in these cities, to date, has brought in more families than singles.


1) These cities were selected based on data from: U.S. Census Bureau, Governments Division, Government Organization, Table 7: Subcounty General-Purpose Governments by Population-Size Group and State. Census of Governments (2007).  

2) Two of the most successful “redos” are Uptown Charlotte  and the Lower Manhattan CBD.

3) Eugenie Birch, “Who lives downtown”, Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program, November 2005, pp 20.

4) Paul R. Levy and Lauren M. Gilchrist, “Downtown Rebirth: Documenting the Live-Work Dynamic in 21st Century U.S. Cities.” Prepared for the International Downtown Association By the Philadelphia Center City District, pp.57

5) Aaron Renn, “SCALING UP: How Superstar Cities Can Grow to New Heights”, Manhattan Institute, Report January 2020, pp. 16, p.1

6) See Levy and Gilchrest in endnote 4 above.

7) See: Nathan Arnosti and Amy Liu.  “Report: Why rural America needs cities.” Brookings Institution. November 30, 2018 . https://www.brookings.edu/research/why-rural-america-needs-cities/#cancel ; and  Mark Muro and Robert Atkinson, “Countering America’s Regional Economic Disparities Is Going to Take More Than Hope, AEI,  2020.  https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Countering-America%E2%80%99s-Regional-Economic-Disparities-Is-Going-to-Take-More-Than-Hope.pdf

8) See: Richard Florida, “America’s Leading Creative Class Cities in 2015.” City Lab.  April 20, 2015  https://www.citylab.com/life/2015/04/americas-leading-creative-class-cities-in-2015/390852/

9) See: http://tinyurl.com/tmxmjvj

10) Trulia survey of 2008 Americans, November 2014, see: https://www.trulia.com/research/cities-vs-suburbs-jan-2015/

11) Thanks to Aaron Renn for bringing this to our attention.

12) David A. McGranahan and Timothy R. Wojan, “Recasting the Creative Class to Examine Growth Processes in Rural and Urban Counties”. USDA. https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/41989/PDF 

13) See the discussion in N David Milder, “Quality of Life (QofL) Retail Recruitment Update ”, The Downtown Curmudgeon Blog, July 2019  https://www.ndavidmilder.com/2019/07/quality-of-life-qofl-retail-recruitment-update