Living for the city: Vibrant urban cores lure young talent

Detroit and Milwaukee have a shared history as blue-collar, manufacturing, shot-and-a-beer kinds of towns.

In recent decades, the two Midwest cities also have shed population, factories and much of their beer-making capacity.

But while Detroit’s population continues to plunge, Milwaukee’s population is rising as the city is becoming a magnet for recent college graduates looking for a cool place to live.

Milwaukee features a diverse economy, a Lake Michigan setting, a renowned art museum and plenty of bars and restaurants.

Sixteen percent of Milwaukee’s population is made up people age 25 to 34. Just 12 percent of Detroit’s population is in that age group.

“There’s always a renaissance going on and if you don’t have young people who are engaged in helping a city grow, the city starts getting stagnant,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said recently.

Major corporations and entrepreneurs have been moving to the greater downtown area of Detroit in recent years and have added more than 10,000 jobs since 2010, according to a study by the Hudson-Webber Foundation.

But the city continues to lose population – more than 10,000 people between 2011 and 2012, according to new census estimates released last week. And job growth in the city as a whole has been tepid.

Detroit and Cleveland were the only two of the 20 largest cities in the country to lose population since 2010, according to the census estimate taken on July 1, 2012. The city had 701,475 people on that date.

Milwaukee, by contrast, has gained about 3,750 residents since 2010, boosting its population last year to 598,916, according to census estimates.

Experts say major cities are growing primarily because young people are moving into them to take advantage of urban amenities, including bars, public transportation, and sporting, entertainment and cultural events.

Some say the trend will likely accelerate as the economy improves, allowing recent college graduates to move out of their parents’ basements in the suburbs.

“That’s the connection that people still don’t understand,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., an Ann Arbor-based think tank. “A large city with lots of young professionals is a component of a strong state economy.”

A USA Today study earlier this month found that nearly 25 percent of all U.S. jobs landed by recent college graduates between 2006 and 2011 were in just four metro areas – New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles.

Milwaukee recorded the second fastest-increase in the nation in job growth for 20- to 30-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees, growing 45.3 percent.

San Antonio topped the list with a job growth rate of 48.5 percent between 2006 and 2011.

The USA Today study used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of Minnesota Population Studies Center to determine job growth in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas.

Metro Chicago saw a 27 percent increase in jobs for recent college graduates between 2006 and 2011. Metro Pittsburgh posted a 24.7 percent increase. Jobs for recent college graduates in Minneapolis-St. Paul grew by 22.6 percent.

Grand Rapids boosted jobs for college grads by 30.6 percent, but other large Michigan metro areas lagged far behind in the USA Today study.

Lansing jobs grew by 5 percent while Ann Arbor employment rose 2 percent. Detroit jobs for recent college grads fell 0.6 percent between 2006 and 2011.

It’s important for Detroit to boost the number of young people – especially college graduates – some say because a strong city correlates to a strong metro area and state.

Research by Michigan Future has found that the most prosperous states mostly have large metro areas, anchored by vibrant cities, and a highly educated population.

David Egner, president of the Hudson-Webber Foundation and executive director of the of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, said the suburbs will benefit from a more vibrant Detroit, if the city can attract more young college grads.

Many young people living in the city will move to the suburbs as they age and start families, he said. That could create a virtuous economic circle if those leaving for the suburbs are replaced by more young people moving in to the city.

“If we don’t have a strong urban core, we won’t have the young talent that will move to the suburbs when they have children, and the financial distress will continue,” Egner said.

“We’ve been fighting the wrong battle,” he said. “It’s not about Detroit versus the suburbs. It’s about Detroit versus Chicago.”

Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Tue, 05/28/2013 - 9:17am
Experts say major cities are growing primarily because young people are moving into them to take advantage of urban amenities, including bars, public transportation, and sporting, entertainment and cultural events.. I'm sure this is true, but there are other reasons, probably more important reasons for a kid to choose a place to live: a job that pays a living wage; affordable housing; affordable vehicle insurance; affordable utilities; safe streets; and good schools for the kids they'll eventually have. Detroit fails miserably on several of these criteria. The starting point for Detroit is the same starting point NYC had: safe streets. Solve that problem (as New York did) and everything else eventually falls into place. If our governor really wanted to help Detroit, he'd put every state cop in the state there for a year or two, and develop criminal sanctions that don't cost $35,000 a year and actually benefit society: e.g. local work camps and day reporting systems.
Fri, 06/07/2013 - 2:31pm
I agree with much of your post. However, the cost of housing and car insurance will be considerably more in the leading cities noted in the article (New York, D.C. Chicago, and L.A.) than in most other places in the U.S. Although important, young, well -educated individuals aren't just looking for good-paying jobs, good schools and affordable housing, if that were the case South Dakota would be overrun with young college graduates. The data shows that well-educated people and others are willing to pay a premium for housing (see the housing prices in the four metros mentioned) to live in large, vibrant, urban centers where you don't need a car to go everywhere (LA being the exception in regards to good public transportation). The other unmentioned in this article is that each of the leading metros are highly diverse and progressive. Young well-educated people want a stimulating life outside of work. That’s why places like South Dakota and Wyoming have good paying jobs, but very few young college graduates desire those places. The sooner we Midwesterners grasp the importance of the tangibles along with the intangibles, the better we'll understand the success of Chicago and how we can reinvigorate our other urban centers like Detroit and Cleveland, while accelerating the success of places like Columbus (Ohio), Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
John Q. Public
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 11:38pm
How many more times is this story going to be recycled? This is at least the 5th time it's been here.
Wed, 05/29/2013 - 10:53am
MR is missing one important factor: healthy natural resources and recreation nearby. Lake Michigan is huge for Milwaukee.
Lewis Mumford
Wed, 05/29/2013 - 5:33pm
While it's fantastic that major corporations are investing in certain spaces in Detroit, I wonder about the potential of the subsequently-developed urban space(s) in Detroit: will they function similarly as planned company towns of the late 19th and early 20th century in the sense that amenities and institutions will be dictated to meet corporate needs rather than workers' lives? That kind of top-down planning suggests that the health of the urban space will be tied to the health of the corporation/company, and is not necessarily sustainable. That is why it's crucial for the city to reinvest in public services (not just police forces and fire departments but also public libraries, schools, and transit) : to make Detroit a place for everyone, not just those who are close to the corporation. To be clear, I'm pro-private investment. I simply believe that it needs to be balanced by public and non-profit investment in order to cultivate "vibrancy" - i.e., a diversity of options, agendas, and visions. Additionally, what is not mentioned in the article is that Milwaukee's 'renaissance' of the past decade or so has paralleled the increased profile of the Milwaukee Art Museum. MAM's Calatrava addition and the increased profile of the Milwaukee Art Museum's collection and curators are important aspects to Milwaukee's urban revitalization. The Calatrava addition functioned as a signifier, as a new moment for the museum, and the visually-stunning look of the white wings against the water and the city has been essential to Milwaukee's rebranding. Secondly, the curators at MAM are top-notch and have been very ambitious in forming partnerships w/ other museums and innovative programs. Last week's news re: DIA's collection being deaccessioned is such a damaging idea, not just from a museum or local standpoint but in terms of urban planning. Yes, I've heard and read that it's unlikely to happen but it sends the wrong message to the world that Detroit's is only looking for band-aids as opposed to long-term solutions. Cultural institutions like museums, orchestras, symphonies, etc. tend to be regarded by Michiganders (not just Detroiters) as things that are reserved for a select group of people rather than understanding that, to the world, healthy institutions suggest a) that the community supports the arts and b) that the community is healthy enough to sustain them.