Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What is "Downtown?"

Manhattan, New York
Hello Everyone:

Over the past several months we've intermittently talk about downtowns but we've never really defined them. What makes up a downtown?  Is it the number of people who live and/or work there?  The concentration of businesses?  In the article "The Problem With Defining 'Downtown,'" posted on The Atlantic Cities, writer Emily Badger attempts to come up with a definition of what a downtown is based on census data.  Ms. Badger also looks at the concentration of jobs and the number of residents living and commuting in and out of the presumed center of a city.  It's a good attempt to define what a downtown is and the concepts put forth are applicable to major cities around the United States and the rest of the globe.

Downtown Baltimore, MD from Federal Hill
In 2012, the United States Census Bureau ( released a report on American population trends in downtowns.  This was a useful step toward establishing claims made by many cities that residents and jobs are moving into downtowns by the drove.  The Census Bureau's report showed that between 2000 and 2010, metropolitan areas with populations of 5 million or more people experienced double-digit demographic increases in their downtown areas (i.e within a two-mile radius of city hall) at more than double the rate.  Ms. Badger points out that this produced complaints of over- and and under-counts of local populations.  For example, cities such as Baltimore, Maryland and New York City, New York are surrounded by water and, in Baltimore's case, neglected neighborhoods.  So, that two-mile radius limitation doesn't hold.  New Yorkers will tell you that their definition of "downtown" also includes a piece of New Jersey.  Don't tell Governor Chris Christie.

Downtown Philadelphia. PA
 Emily Badger states, "It's a little hard to blame the Census.  There is actually no single definition of what 'downtown' means across the country."  Also, the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't actually keep count on the number of jobs in America.  Does that mean actual jobs where people are on a payroll or do they include jobs where employees get paid in cash?  Naturally this complicates the efforts of business improvement districts and city officials to support what's supposed to be one of the great urban success story of the millennium and the main topic at The Atlantic City Lab summit on urban innovation, held October 6-8, 2013.  The big story is the migration of employers and residents back downtown, remaking it from a dead zone to a full-service 24/7 neighborhood.  With this problem in mind, the Center City Philadelphia Business Improvement District released a report on October 7, 2013, prepare for the International Downtown Association which measures where the people  who hold those jobs actually live and enabling comparisons.

Downtown Seattle, Washington
The report's authors, Paul R. Levy and Lauren M. Gilchrist, relied on fairly mew Local Employment Dynamics dataset produced by the Census Bureau and state labor market information agencies.  This tool made it possible to crate heat maps of job density and outline irregularly shaped districts around them.  The data included information on home and work location of employees, making it possible to establish which downtowns actually have a nighttime population.  The heat maps revealed that many cities don't have a downtown, per se, with a single downtown employment center.  Seattle, Washington is an example of a city that, by and large, does have a single downtown employer. The city of Cleveland, Ohio had a downtown and
Cleveland, Ohio
separate node around an "anchor institution," the Cleveland Clinic.  Atlanta, Georgia has multiple equal job centers, while Jacksonville, Florida is decentralized with no single job center.

 This brings us back to Baltimore.  If we take the data one step further and apply it to "Charm City," we get a "downtown" employment within a one-mile radius of city hall.  Baltimore is a very compact city so, truthfully, this not all that surprising.  Using this methodology, Mr. Levy and Ms. Gilchrist counted 231 major employment centers in America's 150 major cities that, collectively, contain 14.4 percent of all the country's jobs.  It's now possible to compare them, using various measures, 28 of the job centers have more than 100 per acre-national average is 0.05 jobs per acre.

Downtown Chicago from Lake Michigan

Chicago, Illinois has an impressive 52.3 percent of workers who live near the "Windy City's" downtown, actually work there.  For comparison sake, Midtown Manhattan has 48.2 percent of workers who live near the downtown area where they work.  The database also counts workers living within a half mile of these jobs.  If you'd like more information please go to  This is a work in progress.  The definition of what is a downtown is relative to demographics and employment.  For now, we have to rely on establishing a boundary for downtown based on short radius from city hall.

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