The following commentary from The Commercial Appeal was written by Carol Coletta:
Every few months, the U.S. Census Bureau releases data on which regions, cities or suburbs are gaining or losing population. And each time, the so-called “losers” react as if the news were a death sentence.
This is especially true in our nation’s cities, including Memphis, where, according to Census estimates, the population dropped 2 percent between 2000 and 2005. Often, our urban leaders throw their hands up as if helpless to change the course. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
A recent survey commissioned by CEOs for Cities revealed that college-educated young adults (the demographic most likely to move in our country) are giving priority to place.
Place Is Paramount
In fact, two-thirds of this highly coveted demographic now tell us that the place they live is more important than the job they hold, according to the survey conducted this spring by The Segmentation Company, a division of marketing consultancy Yankelovich Inc. It makes no difference if they are male, female, married, unmarried, with children or without, the power of place reigns supreme.
At a time when Memphis is faced with a serious need for talented workers, the new freedom to choose by these young highly educated adults has flung open the doors of opportunity for urban leaders, if we’ll only answer by responding to the desires of this group.
What does Memphis need to do?
The Needed Attributes
The study showed that despite what we all thought, it doesn’t take much to make them happy. First and foremost, they want to live in places that take care of the basics — that are clean, green, attractive and safe. Just like the rest of us.
Also high on the list of attributes they seek are qualities that let them live the lives they want to lead. A city that expects to attract and hold talent, then, must tout opportunities in all forms — personal, professional, educational and social.
Not surprisingly, talented young people also want to live in cities they can be proud of. Where once status was conveyed by where you work, now it is conveyed by where you live.
Downtown As Magnet
And, increasingly, where young people live is in the heart of the city, as shown in our own Downtown, where 29 percent of the residents are in this demographic. By 2000, 25- to 34-year-olds were 30 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods within three miles of the central business district. That percentage increased from 10 percent in 1980 and 12 percent in 1990. (Now we know who accounts for the resurgence of our inner cities.)
And in this latest study, they continue to express that preference, with 42 percent saying they want to live in downtown and 59 percent saying they want to live in a neighborhood near downtown. The vast majority — 70 percent — said they want to live in or near the city. Still, others prefer the suburbs and exurbs.
What To Do
So how, then, can Memphis leaders respond to the desires of this demographic? Five places to start are:
* Make sure Memphis delivers on the attributes college-educated young adults seek.
* Find ways to telegraph that opportunities are available here to young adults.
* Make Memphis obviously “plug and play” — easy for newcomers to plug in to community life and a network of people who can help them get what they want out of life.
* Fill in the blanks about Memphis. Young adults have only the vaguest impressions about various cities, and it’s important to help them get to know our city’s assets beyond the obvious tourist attractions so often featured in ads and on postcards.
* Make it easy for young entrepreneurs to do their thing. Take a look at older neighborhoods that are being revitalized, and you will likely find young entrepreneurs who didn’t know any better and couldn’t be told otherwise driving the action. They put a distinctive stamp on the city, and they should be encouraged.
Building better communities is not a zero-sum game where suburbs win and Memphis loses, or vice-versa.
If the past decade and a half has proven anything, it’s this: A successful Memphis will be a city of choice, with a wide array of housing options, be they Downtown lofts and condos, close-in older neighborhoods or roomy, sprawling suburbs.
And the recent boom in the nation’s central cities and people heading there, according to the Grande Prairie movers clients’ data, – showed us that if given the choice between clean, green and safe inner cities and suburbs, a significant number of people will come.
Suburbs will forever be a part of our country’s landscape. With the right strategies, great cities will, too.
Carol Coletta of Memphis is president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, a national network of urban leaders speeding innovation in cities, and host of the nationally syndicated public radio show, “Smart City.”