Is New York City losing its edge? In the past year, several financial firms have moved jobs to distant cities like Nashville. Population growth has slowed, with Brooklyn actually losing more people than it gained last year.
The news is likely to stir more debate over what makes for a successful city. Conventional wisdom holds that cities must attract the so-called creative class — the well-paid professionals who value culture, coffee bars, tasting menus, bike lanes and other amenities.
Perhaps. But genuinely successful cities need to do more than attract people; they need to keep them as they start to raise families. Simply put, the successful cities of tomorrow must be homes to children today. Adults, after all, have a habit of dying off. Someone has to replace them.
The virtue of judging the success of cities by this measure is that it moves our attention away from superficial and often fleeting markers of success — a thriving restaurant scene, for example — and refocuses it on the demographic trends that likely count more in the long run.
Look at the cities that have seen the most dramatic decreases in the population of children under the age of 18. From 2010 to 2014, the following cities posted the largest declines: Cleveland (5.5 percent); Hartford, Connecticut (5.2 percent); Rochester (5.2 percent); Detroit (5.2 percent); and Chicago (4.2 percent). A separate study for the years from 2000 to 2010 suggests this is a continuation of long-standing trends.
With the possible exception of Chicago, these are all cities that have struggled with a declining tax base and population loss for decades. But these population indicators suggest that something more pernicious is taking place. As the urbanist Aaron Renn has noted, these cities are “failing at creating the next generation of residents.”
By contrast, the cities that saw the biggest gains in the percentage of the population under 18 tended to be in the Sunbelt. Austin, Texas, came in at No. 1 (7.9 percent); followed by Oklahoma City (5.8 percent); Houston (5.5 percent), Raleigh, North Carolina (4.9 percent); and San Antonio (4.3 percent).
These are the extremes. What about a city like Boston, which has remade itself into a hub for the creative class? Here the story is more mixed. In 1970, the share of the population under the age of 19 was 33 percent. Then it began a steady decline, reaching 21 percent in 2013, with further declines likely in the succeeding years.
A similar dynamic can be glimpsed in other cities often held up as success stories. In San Francisco, for example, population data shows that in 1950, a little over 20 percent of the city’s residents consisted of children. That ticked upward to just over 25 percent in 1970, and then came a slow, steady decline: 20 percent in 1980; 16 percent in 1990; and by 2010 just over 13 percent. San Francisco may be thriving, but its demographic profile is worrisome.
In fact, the scarcity of children puts these otherwise healthy cities in some strange company. Though this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, a recent analysis of metropolitan areas with the fewest number of children included Boston, San Francisco and Seattle and ailing cities such as Buffalo, Rochester and Hartford.
The data suggests that while it’s certainly possible to have a successful city that is short on children, this may not be a prescription for long-term success. It would be far better, perhaps, for a city to function as both a magnet for the creative class and be hospitable to children, as Austin is. Such cities will be less dependent in the future on newcomers to renew the population.
Given this, how does New York City stack up? The percentage of school-age children (a narrower, but arguably more significant measure than all children) went from 16 percent in 1950 to a peak of 20.5 percent in 1970, before tumbling down to 15 percent in 2010. Recent data suggests it’s likely to remain around that level until 2020 — and perhaps into the foreseeable future.
But New York City’s population of children under 5 years old actually grew 2.8 percent from 2010 to 2014. The gains in this age group were especially notable in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, while Staten Island — a borough popular with families — posted declines. Several New York City suburbs recorded a drop in this age group as well.
If New York City wants to compete with the booming, family-friendly cities of the Sunbelt, it should do more to capitalize on these very modest, but significant, gains. That means amenities like parks, playgrounds — and, most important, better schools.
Cities that tie their fates to a childless future may end up thriving. But over the long run, these urban areas are extraordinarily dependent on new arrivals that may or may not show up. A city that can replenish its ranks from within, by contrast, possesses a significant long-term advantage.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.