A New York Times piece titled “Where Young College Graduates Are Choosing to Live" is getting a lot of attention in Atlanta this week. It covers a new report that shows Metro Atlanta to be losing major ground in its ability to attract the young and educated — specifically, college-educated people age 25 to 34.
In the graph below of “percent change in the number of college graduates aged 25 to 34, from 2000 to 2012,” you can see Atlanta near the bottom, alongside Cleveland, Detroit and Providence.
The reason this is so surprising is that, in the 1990s, Atlanta was near the top of this chart. This is a distinct turnaround for the region. A quote from the NYT:
"Atlanta, one of the biggest net gainers of young graduates in the 1990s, has taken a sharp turn. Its young, educated population has increased just 2.8 percent since 2000, significantly less than its overall population. It is suffering the consequences of overenthusiasm for new houses and new jobs before the crash, economists say."
Atlanta boomed in the 1990s, big time. According to this NYT article from 2006, it was a leader in young-population growth due to a rise in both jobs and affordable housing throughout the metro.
But the bigger they come, the harder they fall — and the fallout from the bursting of the housing bubble and the economic recession was harsh. Along with the hundreds of thousands of jobs that were lost in the region, a mortgage crisis made Atlanta a poster child for sprawling growth gone bad. The attraction for young, educated people proved to be unsustainable.
This all sounds fairly grim, but there’s a silver lining in the numbers, I promise.
The 3-mile radius story: a loss for the metro, but a gain intown
The raw data from the report that the NYT piece is writing about shows something very interesting: the loss in ground in the region was offset by a significant 39% rise in the young-and-educated population in what the report calls “close-in neighborhoods” — places that are within a 3-mile radius of downtown Atlanta.
In a post on ajc.com, Jay Bookman points out these nuances to the story:
Those familiar with the housing growth and changing demographics of intown Atlanta — an explosion of bars and apartments and restaurants and condos, with young professionals driving the change — may find those Census-derived numbers hard to believe.
…Almost all of metro Atlanta’s increase in young, college-educated professionals has been concentrated within a three-mile radius of downtown. Outside of that inner core, there was no growth whatsoever in the number of college-educated young people, even as the overall population grew substantially.
And while some might be tempted to read this as failure (“look at what a small portion of the region this is that’s attracting educated young people”), I’ll optimistically say that there’s a great opportunity for change in the region by adopting the growth practices that have been successful intown.
Atlanta Beltline: a new pattern for success
The Atlanta Beltline has been a powerful tool for changing the way people think about developing land and living intown. The BeltLine’s series of paths and parks stitch together (or at least will someday when fully completed) 45 close-in neighborhoods, all within a two- to four-mile radius of Downtown.
See how nicely that fits in with the growth in the young-and-educated we’re seeing within that 3-mile radius of Downtown?
Look at the birds-eye rendering above of the Beltline. This pattern for growth hits all the right notes, and the educated young people of today know it. It has pedestrian/cycling infrastructure, transit access, walkable density and all the amenities needed for urban life.
For good urbanism, it’s important to make sure that amenities like parks, restaurants, grocery stores and more are all reachable by multiple transportation modes. But it’s also important for attracting young people; as you’ve probably seen in the many news reports on the issue, Millennials are particularly keen on transit access and are, in general, not embracing the car-centric culture and environments of the past.
A movement toward good urbanism and alternative transportation in the core of the City of Atlanta has coincided with and encouraged a rise in the population of educated young people. The rest of the region can take cues from this success by viewing car-centric sprawl as a thing of the past and moving toward a better future.